July 14, On This Day
Born 159 years ago today, on July 14, 1862, Gustav Klimt is today one of the most well-known names in global art, who was one of the most radical artists of the 20th century. The Austrian symbolist painter is one of the most prominent members of the Vienna Secession movement, and was heavily influenced by Japanese art and its methods.
Klimt is noted for his intricate, decorative paintings, murals, sketches, and other objects d’art. His primary subject was the female body, and his works are marked by a frank eroticism. Known for his figurative works, which include allegories and portraits, he also painted some iconic landscapes.
Although Klimt became one of the most commercially successful artists of his time, he grew up in poverty. He won a scholarship to art school aged just 14 and began his career as an interior decorator. In 1891, both his father and one of his younger brothers, Ernst, passed away, and the intense grief profoundly impacted his art. It was shortly thereafter that Klimt ditched classicism in favour of a more personal aesthetic, with symbolist overtones and Art Nouveau ornamentalism. In 1897, he left the Vienna Artists’ Association and co-founded a new group, the Vienna Secession, which championed the work of young, non-traditional artists, from both Austria and abroad, working across a variety of styles.
The trio of panels he completed around 1900 for the ceiling of the Great Hall of the University of Vienna — Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence — were criticized as “pornographic”. Outraged, he swore of accepting no more public commissions, but achieved a new success with his “golden phase”, many of which include gold leaf, said to be influenced by Byzantine mosaics. Works during this time include his masterful Beethoven Frieze (1901), dedicated to the composer.
Sadly, all three of the Vienna paintings that had sparked controversy were lost forever. As many as 14 of Klimt’s works were destroyed on May 8, 1945, when the Schloss Immendorf, a castle in a the small Austrian village of Immendorf that had been used as a safe storage space for looted and stolen art during the war, was burnt down by an SS unit.
Klimt’s paintings were the subject of perhaps the most famous case of Nazi art theft. The Czech sugar magnate Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer owned five Klimt paintings, including two portraits of his wife, Adele. After the annexations of Czechoslovakia and Austria in 1938, their assets became the target of Nazi plunder. Bloch-Bauer’s niece, Maria Altmann, filed a lawsuit in 2000 to recover the paintings from the Austrian government; it was ultimately successful. In 2006, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I was sold for the record-breaking sum of $135 million and this case is depicted in the 2015 film Woman in Gold, starring Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann.
Like his cultural contemporary Sigmund Freud, Klimt was fascinated by human sexuality, dreams and the unconscious. He is once said to have stated: “All art is erotic”—an assertion with which Dr Freud would undoubtedly have agreed. Interestingly, Major figurative painter Egon Schiele of the early 20th century, whose work is noted for its intensity and its raw sexuality, was Klimt’s protégé.
Klimt was known as a notorious womaniser, whose greatest pleasures were female beauty and sex: he is rumoured to have fathered at least 14 illegitimate children over the course of his lifetime – only four of whom he formerly acknowledged.
But his most long-lasting and intimate friendship was with his sister-in-law Emilie Flöge. Their relationship is said to have been chaste and tender; she featured in many of his works and it is said that the last words he spoke before he died were, “Send for Emilie”.
Another fond love of Klimt’s was cats, as is apparent in the iconic photograph of his cradling the feline named Katze. The critic Arthur Roessler recalled a visit to Klimt’s studio, “surrounded by eight or ten mewing and purring cats” running wild through heaps of sketches. When Roessler questioned why the cats were allowed such liberty, Klimt apparently replied: “It doesn’t matter if they crumple or tear a few sheets— they piss on others, and don’t you know, that’s the best fixative.”
On February 6, 1918, he died at the age of 55, a victim of the global flu pandemic. Numerous paintings by him were sadly left unfinished.