Art in Europe,  English

[P2/2] An explosion of passionate emotions: From Mayerling to Sarajevo

As previously mentioned, the second half of the 19th century was characterised by a plethora of constructional activity in Vienna. In 1857, at the behest of Emperor Franz Joseph, the demolition of the medieval city wall that still surrounded the city centre was initiated. During this period, the Ringstraßenviertel was created: a thriving new district of magnificent buildings and beautiful parks, while the essence of regeneration provided Gustav Klimt and his partners with the opportunity to showcase their talent. The first commissions did not take long to follow, and they were asked to contribute artistically to the festivities on the occasion of the silver wedding of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth. Shortly after that, they painted a ceiling fresco for a spa in Karlsbad. More state commissions followed. A study of Klimt’s paintings of that time – like Fable (1883) or The Idyll (1884) – reveals that, although he was a talented and promising young artist, his art was rooted in the conventional, academic standards for allegorical and mythological themes.

Gustav Klimt , The Idyll, 1884. Oil on canvas, 50 x 74 cm. Wien Museum Karlplatz , Vienna.

The colours in The Idyll are not particularly elegant but still skilfully colour the fabrics of the central figure with her smooth hair. She would neither have been shocking nor inspiring in the 17th or 18th century. Her beauty is rather maternal and matronesque while her nakedness is more decorative than arousing.

Gustav Klimt , Fable, 1883. Oil on canvas, 85 x 117 cm. Wien Museum Karlplatz , Vienna.

In the past the pubic region was – if at all – stylised to a smooth, innocent “V”. Numerous paintings from early medieval times or the early Renaissance who dared to show or allude to male or female genitalia were later covered with absurd fig leaves.

By 1896, Klimt already began painting the human body in a more unconventional and individual manner. For example, there is an interesting discrepancy between the last study for Allegory of Sculpture and the fully realised painting: in the study, the wild and loose hair that would later characterise Klimt’s style is already visible and there are traces of a more detailed depiction of pubic hair. The woman is looking directly at the viewer and strikes a provocative pose, as if she was caught naked in her bedroom. The painting, on the contrary, shows a traditional figure again: her pose is classically sculpture-like, her hair is braided and the pubic hair is gone.

Gustav Klimt , Allegory of Sculpture, 1889. Pencil and watercolour, 44 x 30 cm.
Wien Museum Karlplatz , Vienna.

All the early commissions made Klimt a successful and popular artist. In 1892, Klimt’s father died, shortly followed by his brother Ernst. In that difficult time, the relationship between Klimt and his co-student Franz Matsch, with whom he and his brother Ernst had founded the Künstler-Compagnie, cooled off. These events deeply impacted Klimt and he began to forge new and more adventurous paths.

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