Art in Europe,  English

[Part 1/2] Gustav Klimt: Rediscovered Pubic Hair (Ruskin)

Gustav Klimt was the motor and the soul of The Viennese Secession, even though he had already left the Secession in 1905.

No connection to the outside world can disrupt the appeal of Klimt’s portraits, landscapes, allegorical or other representative paintings. For the development of his seductive oeuvre, which has many aspects, one of them being a vehicle for the complete unravelling of the sensuality of the female body, Klimt makes use of oriental colours and motifs, a flat, two-dimensional canvas space, and strongly stylised images.

Among his main inspirations were the art of Japan, ancient Egypt, and Byzantine Ravenna. He had already received a government allowance to study at Vienna’s Kunstgewerbeschule (Artisan’s School) as a 14-year-old teenager, where his talent as a painter and illustrator began to unfold. His first works therefore earned him an early and precocious success. His first important contribution to the world of art was the foundation of the artist group Künstler-Compagnie with his brother Ernst and friend Franz Matsch in 1879.

Late 19th century Vienna was in a period of architectonic transition since Kaiser Franz Joseph I decided to have the medieval city walls demolished in order to build the Ring. Since the areas surrounding the Ring were planned as upper-class residential areas, Klimt and his partners had many profitable opportunities to fill the walls of the new houses with art. In 1897, Klimt left the conservative Künstlerhaus-Genossenschaft (Artist’s House Union) and founded the Secession along with a few close friends. Public acceptance of the movement soon followed.

The Secession did not only represent the very best in art that Austria had to offer, but it also helped to make Vienna an internationally recognised city of art by inviting foreign artists, like French impressionists or Belgian naturalists, to exhibit their work in the city. His rising fame as a modern artist in turn led to a decline of his reputation as an “acceptable artist” among the members of the Austrian upper class. The more he distanced himself from the academic style of his early artwork, the more he plunged into scandals surrounding his modern art. These scandals would direct his artistic career along new paths.

In 1894, Klimt and Matsch received the commission to create a wall painting for the festive hall of the Vienna University, which would include portrayals of the three most prominent courses of study – medicine, philosophy, and law. The nature of this commission is easily understood: the university expected a series of formal, dignified artworks in a classical style, which were supposed to portray the healing power of medical science, the wisdom of the philosopher, and undoubtedly the robed figure of Justice holding scales with blindfolded eyes representing law and jurisprudence. After a few years of hard work, however, the university received such a controversial painting that it immediately caused a scandal and sparked wild debates over its propriety. Klimt eventually had to pay back the advance and withdraw his paintings. Nevertheless, in 1900, Klimt received a golden medal for the painting Philosophy at the World Fair in Paris.

Gustav Klimt , Philosophy, 1899.

When he exhibited the unfinished painting Medicine in the following year, the outrage was even worse and the polemics reached an all-time high in their fervour.

Gustav Klimt, Medicine, 1901.

It is hard to say what Klimt wanted to express with this painting. The vision that the painting is conveying is chaotic and almost hellishly bleak. The skulls of old and wrinkled figures, and the randomly scattered people attest more to the decay and suffering of the human body rather than to its healing. The figure at the bottom with the snake wrapped around her arm is meant to represent the concept of medicine. Her portrayal, however, in her ornamental garment rather evokes the image of a priestess that is sacrificing the sick. The other female figure which is positioned beside the pillar of the human bodies and silhouettes is notable for her posture: her arms are thrown out as if mockingly imitating the crucifixion.The sketch for this figure is a compelling proof of Klimt’s extraordinary talent as an artist. The ductus of his pencil and the delicate shading lead our eyes to the pubic region of the woman. It is also interesting to note that the woman in the sketch is lying on the floor with her back pressed against an invisible object while she is standing unstably, unsupported as if she were to fall down every moment in the painting.

This work also represents a complete break with the tradition of depicting round and homely women that were predominant in the academic style of the nineteenth century. Klimt paints his women with long hair and lean, curvy bodies. Their sexual confidence makes them attractive but – in its directness – menacing at the same time. Klimt’s contemporary, the journalist and critic Berta Zuckerkandl (1864-1945), noted in her memoirs:
[…] Klimt transformed the Viennese women into the ideal type of woman: modern, with a boyish figure. These figures exerted a mysterious fascination on the viewer. Although the word “vamp” was not known back then, Klimt painted women who fit that description perfectly; women with the allure of Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich, long before they actually lived […]

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