Even when he was just a teenager, Gustav Klimt (1862–1918) showed signs of great talent. He was 14 years old when a relative encouraged him to take the examination for entering the Kunstgewerbeschule (the Viennese School of Applied Art) under the tutelage of principal Rudolf Eitelberger von Edelberg who believed in the idea of a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total art work in which all forms of art would be united and equally respected. This credo is omnipresent in Klimt's tremendous pieces of work that combine painting, metalworking and crafts to create the unique, transcendent style we know him for.
The First Steps of a Master
Arts and crafts seem to be something of a gift running in Klimt's family: his father was a gold and silver engraver, and all three boys displayed artistic talent very early on. Only one year after Klimt enrolled at the Kunstgewerbeschule his brother Ernst and their friend Franz Matsch passed the entrance examination and the three of them started working together most of the time. Georg Klimt followed them one year later but did not join what would later be known as the 'Company of Artists'.
The trio formed by Gustav, Ernst and Matsch proved to be functioning so well that their professors did not wait for them to graduate before securing them several paid commissions: in 1879 they worked on floats for the Festzug procession that would later be known as the Makart Parade celebrating the imperial silver wedding anniversary. A leading Viennese painter of the time was the director of this project: Hans Makart (1840–1884), the 'Magician of Colours'.
Klimt was highly influenced by Makart's work, as were most of the Austrian Art Nouveau artists. He particularly admired the Magician's dramatic use of light, symbolism and colours and made those notions a central part of his own work, as they were most adequate to his exploration of such mysterious themes as the subconscious driving the many desires of the human mind.
A Mosaic of Influences
However, Austrian contemporary painters were far from being the only ones to have influenced Klimt's art. In fact signs from every corner of the world can be found in the master's works: the stunning Stoclet Frieze, one of his most famous accomplishments, is overflowing with elements of Asian and Byzantine art and with symbols of the many mythologies and cultures Klimt often drew inspiration from.
In The Dancer, one of the side panels of the Frieze, the position of the character can be associated with Egyptian art, as can be the several eyes – a recurrent motif in Egyptian mythology – that are dispersed on her ornamented dress. Connections can also be made with Ancient Greece and its astonishing mosaic frescoes. Moreover Klimt was inspired by the mosaics of Ravenna that he visited during a trip to Italy in 1903. His use of silver and gold leaf is said to have begun upon his return from this trip as well.
Like many artists of the Art Nouveau period, Klimt's paintings also take after Japanese woodblock prints from the Edo period with their flat surfaces that are paid the same detailed attention as the lifelike faces of their characters. His intriguing Portrait of Baroness Elisabeth Bachofen-Echt is a great example of this 'Japaneseness' that can be found throughout his life's work.
Finally, one of Klimt's main sources of inspiration is the female form, its body and its spirituality. Although he remained discreet and always maintained his reputation, the master is known to have fathered no less than 14 illegitimate children and to have entertained intimate relations with most of his models. Among these countless women, two stand out as having marked him more specifically.
The first is Emilie Flöge, his brother's sister-in-law, whom he met after Ernst's tragic death at only 28 years old. Klimt then found himself assuming financial responsibility for his late brother's wife Helene and their infant daughter. He soon met Helene's sister Emilie and grew particularly close to her even though their relationship seems to have remained platonic throughout their lives.
The second is Adele Bloch-Bauer, an upper class Viennese woman whose husband commissioned Klimt to paint her portrait. Adele was the only one, apart from Emilie, to have been painted more than once by Klimt. Rumours of an affair between them were never verified but Adele bears strangely similar features to Judith I, who is considered Klimt's most erotic painting, and the ambiguous way she looks at the painter through the canvas is almost evidence in itself.If you're as enthusiastic about Klimt's masterpieces as we are, you'll love our new book Klimt and the Vienna Secessionists take a closer look at the title here.
- Rediscover Klimt's 'Golden Phase' paintings through photographer Inge Prader's real-life re-enactment of them.
- More about the ambiguous relationship between Klimt and Adele Bloch-Bauer in our other blog on the subject.
- An interesting review of the Simon Curtis film Woman in Gold starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds.