The 14th exhibition of the Secession in 1902, again, generated a hail of criticisms. The central object of the exhibition was Max Klinger’s sculpture Beethoven, which Klimt sought to complement with a frieze that would be the backdrop for the exhibition room. One of the components of the frieze was a panel that showed three figures, Lust, Gluttony, and Unchastity, collectively called Hostile Forces, in Klimt’s painting.
Why Klimt chose his theme as a contribution to Beethoven of all things, was never entirely apparent. Nevertheless, this painting already showcases some of the Klimt-typical exotic ornamentation that would feature heavily in his later works. These ornaments were meant to create a composition in which decorative elements and the human figure can occupy the same space.
In his portrayal of Lust, Klimt uses the figure’s long hair to cover up her pubic region but, at the same time, also draws attention to it. The sumptuous depiction of Gluttony more resembles an oriental pasha than a woman – a man whose corpulence has reached the stage where his chest has transformed into huge breasts.
Conservative Viennese society was deeply shocked by these paintings. A contemporary of Klimt once used the following anecdote:
Suddenly the visitors of the exhibition could hear a scream from the middle of the room: “Ghastly!” A nobleman, customer, and art collector, whom, together with other close friends, the group had given early access to the rooms, lost his poise when faced with the frieze. He screamed the word with a high-pitched, shrill voice […] He threw the word like a stone against a wall: “Ghastly!”
Klimt, who was standing on a scaffolding, working on his frieze just responded by throwing an amused look in the direction of the screaming man. This calm gesture best illustrates Klimt’s usual reaction to the scandals that he caused. Although Klimt lost his imperial allowance due to the scandals surrounding the university paintings, as well as his support from the upper strata of society, he was still lucky enough to earn a sufficient amount of money through painting portraits. However, he was refused the chair for fine arts at the university more than once.
It is sometimes hard to realise that there are hardly any concrete details about the private life of a very famous man who lived not too long ago, compared with the information we have about the private lives of prominent figures from much more distant ages. The reason for this is Klimt’s own discretion and reservedness. While many details illustrate his artistic career and are cemented by facts, the scarce information about his private life is based on accounts that are barely better than hearsay.
On the one hand, he is portrayed as an insatiable womaniser with the physique of a peasant and the strength of an ox, who slept with numerous women, mainly his models. On the other hand, he seems like a hypochondriacal, self-confessed bachelor with routine habits, who lived with his mother and sisters and commuted daily to his studio in suburban Vienna.
Klimt never married but maintained a long-lasting relationship with the sister of his sister-in-law, Emilie Flöge. In 1891, his brother Ernst married Helene Flöge who ran a beauty salon together with her sister. The marriage only lasted 15 months but through Helene, Klimt was introduced to Emilie. From 1897 onwards, Klimt spent nearly every summer with the Flöge family in the village of Attersee. It was a calm and peaceful time for him which he used to paint the landscapes that account for almost a quarter of his oeuvre.
The details of the relationship between Klimt and Emilie Flöge are sketchy, but several known facts still cause debates over how platonic their relationship really was. They never lived together but Klimt asked for Emilie’s attendance at his deathbed.
Throughout his life he maintained an extensive correspondence with Emilie and Marie Zimmermann, the mother of two of his three illegitimate children; his letters to Marie are affectionate, describing details of his work and life while letters to Emilie are rather bland and devoid of emotion just containing things like travel arrangements or travel descriptions.
The Portrait of Emilie Flöge shows an attractive young woman, who is wearing a dress of her own design as well as jewellery that was designed by Koloman Moser. Many of her dresses and fabrics were designed by Klimt specifically for her fashion salon. It is a remarkably defeating painting which is most notable for the delicate, almost poignant indication of sensuality that expresses itself in the smooth light on the skin above her bodice.
How different is this portrait with the painting Hope I (1903), which shows a nude pregnant woman, Herma, one of Klimt’s favourite models. Supposedly, Klimt is reported to have said that her back was more beautiful and more intelligent than the faces of many other models. When she repeatedly failed to appear in his studio to model, Klimt, who was usually very concerned about his models, sent someone to enquire about her well-being. When he found out that she was not sick but pregnant he insisted that she come to his studio. Thus she became the model for Hope I and Hope II.
A remarkable example of Klimt’s ability to use just a few pencil-drawn lines to create a sensual and erotic effect can be seen in the 1905/1906 sketch Freundinnen in Umarmung (Friends in Embrace). A small dark circle draws attention to the thighs and the buttocks of the woman. It is not uncommon for Klimt to draw his women while they are masturbating, revelling in their sensual pleasure with closed eyes and face slightly averted. Men rarely appear in the pencil drawings; if they appear they are usually shown with their back towards the viewer.
While Klimt expresses his clear admiration for female beauty, he always shows a certain distance between the genders when he paints men and women together in a painting. In his most famous painting The Kiss, the face of the man is not visible, tellingly. He is holding the woman and his hands are cradling her face with great tenderness. Although she responds in kind, she still seems to shy away from the embrace. She just offers her cheek for the kiss and with her hands she seems to push away his.
The freedom in Klimt’s drawings is a sharp contrast to the portraits of the ladies of fine society which he started painting in 1903. While the women in his drawings are not confined by clothing or society standards, the women in his portraits, like Portrait of Fritza Riedler or Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, are almost asphyxiated in fabrics and ornaments. Their faces are the focal points of the paintings while their bodies, in their ornamental dresses, almost fuse with the background. This allows the faces to appear almost fragile, detached and lonely.
Another remarkable painting is the Portrait of Margaret-Stonborough-Wittgenstein, since it is one of the few images that is not dominated by patterned fabrics. Furthermore, it is a clear homage to James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) whom Klimt greatly admired.
Throughout his whole life, Klimt only gave one comment about himself and his art:
[…] I am convinced that I – as a person – am not extraordinary at all. I am simply an artist who is painting from morning to evening. I am not talented with words or letters, especially not when I have to talk about myself or my work. Only the idea of having to write a letter fills me with fear. I am afraid you have to make do without a portrait of myself, either painted or written. That is not a great loss, however. Whoever wants to get to know me better – as an artist only that is worth your trouble – should study my paintings and try to find out who I am and what I want […].
Gustav Klimt was an unusual and highly extraordinary artist who had neither precursors nor successors. On 11 January 1918 he suffered a seizure which paralysed half his body. Despite a temporary recovery, he died a month later. After his death his reputation as an artist remained controversial. Art historian Hans Tietze (1880-1954), a friend of Klimt and author of his first monograph, describes his influence and legacy:
[…] Klimt dragged Viennese art out of its isolation in which it had been rotting and opened up the world for it. At the turn of the century he was the guarantee, more than anyone else, for the artistic individuality of Vienna […].
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