Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University


Klimt's work embodies the high-keyed erotic, psychological, and aesthetic preoccupations of turn-of-the-century Vienna's dazzling intellectual world. He is also known for his eclecticism and his enormous range of historical references and sources: classical Greek, Byzantine, Egyptian, and Minoan art; late-medieval painting and the woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer; photography and the symbolist art of Max Klinger. In synthesizing these diverse sources, Klimt's art achieved both individuality and extreme elegance.

Poster for the 1st Secession exhibition (1898).

The Beethoven Frieze (1902); Osterreichische Galerie.
The Secessionists' 14th show was to be a homage to Beethoven. Klimt created an allegorical frieze depicting man's search of happiness. A naked man and woman are praying for a knight (modelled on Gustav Mahler) who will set out in search of happiness. Behind the man and woman is a second woman who gazes on in contemplation. Above the knight another woman gives the knight a laurel crown. Supposedly depicted are the sufferings of feeble mankind, compassion, and ambition. The frieze was criticized as lacking any connection to Beethoven.

The primal forces of sexuality, regeneration, love, and death form the dominant themes of Klimt's work. His paintings of femmes fatales personify the dark side of sexual attraction, as with:

Judith I (1901); Osterreichische Galerie, Vienna.

Hope I (1903); National Gallery, Ottawa.
The promise of new life is juxtaposed with the destroying force of death.

The sensualism and originality of Klimt's art led to a hostile reaction to his three ceiling murals -- Philosophy (1900), Medicine (1901), and Jurisprudence (1902) -- for the University of Vienna.

Die Jungfrau (The Virgin, 1913); Narodni Galerie, Prague.
A beautiful and very colorful painting of a group of women lolling, stretching, sleeping. It looks like ten women in one bed with loads of colorful duvets.

Girl-friends (1916-17).

Danae (1907); private collection, Graz.
Danae is seemingly underwater, thighs drawn up, gold and silver seminal flow rising between her legs. The legend concerns her mating with Zeus in the form of a gold shower, depicted here, to conceive Perseus. The eroticism is highly intentional: the red hair, etc. The small black rectangle is Klimt's reduction of maleness to an abstract symbol.

Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907); oil and gold on canvas, 138 x 138; Austrian Gallery, Vienna.
Adele Bloch-Bauer clasping her hands (she had a deformed finger) is dressed in gold and surrounded by gold; so it's a very gold picture.

The Kiss (1907-08); 180 x 180 cm (71 x 71 in); Österreichisches Galerie Wien, Vienna.
This famous piece celebrates the attraction of the sexes. The man is leaning over and kissing the kneeling woman. Both are shrouded in symbolically patterned gold, a bed of flowers below them. The Kiss is a fascinating icon of the loss of self that lovers experience. Only the faces and hands of this couple are visible; all the rest is great swirl of gold, studded with colored rectangles as if to express visually the emotional and physical explosion of erotic love. A contemporary impulse to overromanticize this work willfully ignores the disturbing nuances and potentially, if slightly, sinister implications.

Death and Life (1916); oil on canvas.

Klimt was the target of violent criticism; his work was sometimes displayed behind a screen to avoid corrupting the sensibilities of the young. His work is deceptive, though. Today we see in it the Byzantine luxuriance of form, the vivid juxtaposition of colors derived from the Austrian rococo -- aspects so markedly different from the clinical abruptness of Egon Schiele. But we see it with expectations generated by epochs of which his own age was ignorant.

For the sumptuous surface of Klimt's work is by no means carefree. Its decorative tracery expresses a constant tension between ecstasy and terror, life and death. Even the portraits, with their timeless aspect, may be perceived as defying fate.... Klimt's works, although they do not explicitly speak of impending doom, constitute a sort of testament in which the desires and anxieties of an age, its aspiration to happiness and to eternity, receive definitive expression. For the striking two-dimensionality with which Klimt surrounds his figures evokes the gold ground of Byzantine art, a ground that, in negating space, may be regarded as negating time -- and thus creating a figure of eternity. Yet in Klimt's painting, it is not the austere foursquare figures of Byzantine art that confront us, but ecstatically intertwined bodies whose flesh seems the more real for their iconical setting of gold. (Gibson)

Works Consulted

Dempsey, Amy. Art in the Modern Era: A Guide to Styles, Schools & Movements. NY: Harry N. Abrams Inc., Pub., 2002.

Gibson, Michael. Symbolism. Taschen. Excerpted in "Gustav Klimt." The Artchive. http://www.artchive.com/artchive/K/klimt.html.

Pioch, Nicolas. "Klimt, Gustav." WebMuseum, Paris. 2002. http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/klimt/.

20th-Century Index