What You Need to Know about Gustav Klimt
Gustav Klimt as an attendant of an party in the Primavesi-house, with a house-coat designed by Carl Otto Czeschka. Photo by Imagno/Getty Images.
Most of us know Gustav Klimt as the artist who painted The Kiss, that 1907 masterpiece in which two figures melt into each other in a hungry embrace. He binds their bodies together in the same cloth: a shimmering gold tapestry whose pattern references both intimacy and anatomy. The side covering the man is decorated with erect rectangles, while the woman’s is swathed with concentric circles.
Klimt, the leader of the Vienna Secession movement, was a master of symbolism. He embedded allusions to sexuality and the human psyche in the rich, lavishly decorated figures and patterns that populated his canvases, murals, and mosaics. Often, their messages—of pleasure, sexual liberation, and human suffering—were only thinly veiled. His more risqué pieces, depicting voluptuous nudes and piles of entwined bodies, scandalized the Viennese establishment.
Even so, the city’s elite adored his work and frequently commissioned him to paint their portraits. His artist peers were similarly enthralled with his style, recognizing Klimt’s groundbreaking injection of sexuality, atmosphere, and expression into figurative painting. When Auguste Rodin visited Klimt’s famed Beethoven Frieze (1902), part of the Viennese Secession’s 14th exhibition, he lauded the piece as “so tragic and so divine.” A younger generation of European Expressionists, including Egon Schiele, lionized Klimt and latched onto him as their hero.
Today, Klimt’s work still captivates us. Museums sell more color reproductions of Klimt’s paintings than those of any other artist. But there’s far more to the painter’s life and oeuvre than The Kiss.
Who was Gustav Klimt?
Klimt didn’t like to talk about his personal life or work. “I am convinced that I am not particularly interesting as a person. There is nothing special about me,” he once said. “I am a painter who paints day after day from morning until night.” But the details he did leave behind tell a different story. Klimt was an artist who passionately studied his craft and boldly rebelled against the establishment; who was shy but enchanting; who wore caftans when he painted; and who adored his pet cat, and—perhaps most of all—women. (Although Klimt never married, he fathered 14 children and was rumored to have numerous lovers.)
He was born in 1862 in Baumgarten, Austria, not far from Vienna. His father was a gold and silver engraver; like several of his seven siblings, Klimt followed in his father’s footsteps. By age 14, he had enrolled in Vienna’s School of Applied Arts where he studied a range of subjects, including fresco painting and mosaic.
He was a devoted student and spent hours in Vienna’s museums poring over antique vases and other treasures, and copying prize paintings like Titian’s Isabella d’Este (1534–36). He and his brother, Ernst, also showed early entrepreneurial instincts. They sold portraits painted from photographs and made technical drawings for an ear specialist. These projects contributed to Klimt’s early mastery of the human form.
Simultaneously, Klimt began to take on decorative commissions, such as elaborate murals and ceiling paintings for theaters and other public buildings. In the late 1880s, he populated them with classical themes and mythological figures executed so deftly that they caught the eye of Emperor Franz Josef, who awarded Klimt the Golden Order of Merit for his frescoes at the city’s Burgtheater.
Over time, a steady stream of decorative and portrait commissions—and his resulting financial independence and recognition—emboldened Klimt to take more creative risks. His erotic drawings of women from the early 1900s reveal a career-long interest in the human form and desire (more recently, these works have also been described at misogynistic, a reading bolstered by Klimt’s reputation as a Casanova). But on canvas, he had to be careful.
In some ways, Vienna was an intensely bohemian city during Klimt’s lifetime, filled with decadence and artistic experimentation. But the city’s government and traditional art establishment railed against this avant-garde cultural movement, which was propelled by young artists and intellectuals including Klimt, architect Otto Wagner, composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schönberg, and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.
It was in this paradoxical environment, which pitted Victorian repression against freedom of expression, that Klimt came of age. Soon, he began to channel his reflections on desire, dreams, and mortality through lush, symbol-laden paintings. “Whoever wants to know something about me,” Klimt once said, “ought to look carefully at my pictures and try to see in them what I am and what I want to do.”
What inspired him?
Early in his career, Klimt was enthralled with his predecessor Hans Makart’s elaborate history paintings. Klimt found that he could safely explore his interest in the human form through classical themes, like the trials and tribulations of Greek gods and mythological figures. In the Burgtheater mural, for instance, his nimble, dancing nudes in Theater in Taormina (1886–87) were palatable to an otherwise uptight society.
But after Klimt left school and entered his late twenties, he became increasingly influenced by the Viennese avant-garde. The decadence and intellectual rebelliousness of his peers enthralled him. The Jung-Wien group of writers reacted against moralistic 19th-century literature by exploring dreams and sexuality in their work, while Freud “saw no upright object without interpreting it as erectile, no orifice without potential penetration,” as historian Gilles Neret has pointed out.
Klimt began to reject more traditional approaches to painting that favored classicism, rationality, and naturalism. He started taking risks as early as 1890, when he was commissioned to paint a grand mural depicting the history of art for the Kunsthistorisches Museum. He chose to represent each stage, from Egypt to the Renaissance, through female figures. But unlike the historical and allegorical paintings made by Klimt’s predecessors, he represented his subjects with human, rather than godly, characteristics. In Ancient Greece II (Girl from Tanagra) (1890–91), Klimt’s subject resembles one of his bohemian peers—a living, breathing woman with a brooding air—rather than a serene, mythical being. She was the first of Klimt’s “femme fatales,” as Neret has called the artist’s female subjects—strong, expressive women capable of both seduction and destruction. This mural gave way to a period of mounting experimentation and rebelliousness in Klimt’s work, as he teetered on the edge of acceptability.
By 1897, Klimt and some of his more adventurous artist and designer friends broke from the Vienna Artists’ Association, a more traditional association of painters, to form a radical group called the Secession (named after an ancient Roman term meaning “revolt against ruling powers”). Klimt became the group’s president and its guiding spirit. A drawing he made for the first issue of the movement’s magazine, Ver Sacrum, shows a naked woman holding a mirror up to the audience—“as if to invite new inspiration, a new beginning,” writes historian Dr. Julia Kelly.
Increasingly, Klimt’s inspiration became the psychological inquiry and preoccupation with sexuality that pervaded the Viennese avant-garde. A favorite topic of the salons was the battles of the sexes—in particular, the domination of woman over man. Klimt’s early interest in the female form mingled with these themes, and he began to take more risks in his depictions of women. In works like Judith and the Head of Holofernes (1901), he presents a strong, sexualized Judith holding the head of her aggressor.
Women had always been Klimt’s favorite subjects. “I am less interested in myself as a subject for painting than I am in other people, above all women,” he once said. But by the early 1900s, his depictions of women became increasingly expressive of their personalities and desires—and of human emotion in general. Even his portraits of society women were rife with expressive features and gowns that looked as if they’d been woven from flowers newly bursting into bloom. This exemplifies an aspect of Klimt’s work in which “the anatomy of the models becomes ornamentation, and the ornamentation becomes anatomy,” as art historian Alessandra Comini has said.
The Viennese art establishment wasn’t pleased. While Klimt had won a commission for the University’s ceremonial hall, critics immediately objected to the painter’s newly “indefinite forms and ambiguous evocation of human relationships, suggestive of sexual liberation,” writes Kelly. In a sketch for one panel of the mural, Philosophy (1899–1905), naked bodies entangle and rise into the sky next to a whirl of stars.
Eventually, Klimt quit the project, but he wasn’t deterred from continuing in this vein. “Enough of censorship,” he said in response. “I want to get away.…I refuse every form of support from the state, I’ll do without all of it.” From 1901–02, he painted Goldfish, originally titled To My Critics. It shows a naked nymph sticking her rear in the direction of the viewer.
Not long after, Klimt took a trip to Ravenna, Italy, where he saw Byzantine art, shimmering with gilded details. It stuck with him, and his famed Gold Period ensued. For portrait commissions (when he was required to stay within the bounds of propriety), the clothing of his subjects became tapestries of abstract shapes rendered in rich golds, reds, blues, and greens. During this time, even paintings lacking human figures—like his landscapes or abstract friezes—were filled with organic forms: undulating spirals, rushing whirlpools, profusions of flowers.
As Klimt edged closer to his untimely death at age 55 (the result of complications from a stroke), references to the life cycle also appear more frequently in his paintings. The Tree of Life (1905), for instance, becomes a recurring symbol in his late work. As Neret has suggested, the tree brings together a number of the artist’s favorite themes: flowers, women, and ever-changing seasons.
Why does his work matter?
Klimt’s work boldly broke from artistic convention. He ushered in a new period of figuration that jettisoned rigid tenets of naturalism and classicism. Instead, he favored expressive, virile, human figures who made their desires and emotions known. These inclinations paved the way for the Vienna Secession, of which Klimt was the fearless leader, and went on to influence Viennese Expressionism, a movement spearheaded by his pupil, Schiele. With Klimt as his inspiration, Schiele further unmasked the emotional and psychological inner workings of his sitters.
What’s more, Klimt’s mural work pioneered the union of art and architecture that would later influence the Bauhaus and the Russian Constructivists. With Secessionist allies like architect Josef Hoffmann and designer Koloman Moser, Klimt expanded on the notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total artwork. He conceived both his Beethoven Frieze and Stoclet Frieze (1905–11) so they would blend seamlessly with the architecture and furniture that surrounded them.
Later in his career, Klimt continued to prove influential: The paintings from his Gold Period, as well as structured landscapes he made just before his death, foreshadowed Art Nouveau and Cubism, respectively.