Gustav Klimt is an artist that I studied my early years at Art Center College of Design. There is something mesmerizing about is work – mystical and magical – sensuous and magnetic. Although I have seen his work in print hundreds of times, I have never seen his original work – up close and personal. I hope to soon – Scott
Gustav Klimt: 150 Anniversary Celebration
Few artists evoke the troubled opulence of Vienna before World War I as vividly as Gustav Klimt (1862-1918). To mark the 150th anniversary of his birth, the Neue Galerie has mounted an exhibition of paintings and drawings from its own and private collections.
“Gustav Klimt: 150th Anniversary Celebration” is not the exhausting blockbuster you might expect. Instead, having staged a larger Klimt show in 2007, the Neue Galerie has now zeroed in on some of his top works, offering a succinct and cogent presentation of Klimt’s fairly rapid artistic evolution from polished academic realism toward his distinct, increasingly abstract style vividly linked to Art Nouveau.
Klimt absorbed old and recent influences as he needed them, from ancient Egypt and Byzantium through 19th-century Orientalism, Impressionism and Symbolism. Among the show’s landscapes, “The Park of Schloss Kammer” (c. 1910) presents a shimmering blend of French influences—the massive trees and dappled background light rendered with Pointillist textures, the opalescent lake suggesting one of Monet’s water-lily views. “Forester House in Weissenbach on the Attersee” (1914) is another wonderfully decorative composition, its textures of slate roof, flower-strewn lawn and vine-covered wall punctuated by the open casement windows whose slightly wavy delineation conjures up the flamelike intensity of Van Gogh.
Beyond the visual impact of Klimt’s portraits and figure studies, their allure rides upon their libidinous candor. In the era when the essentially conservative Viennese were disquieted by Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical probing into the unconscious, Klimt’s increasingly rebellious imagery disturbed the establishment. He loved women, and his posing, floating and reclining female subjects seem sexually aware—and willing. Even when they aren’t nude, he implies they ought to be.
Thus Klimt, who in 1897 co-founded the anticonservative artists group Vienna Secession, was at the artistic center of an imperial capital increasingly divided between the traditions of the Habsburg empire and the revolutionary ideas of a rising generation. Apart from their sexuality, Klimt’s oil portraits and allegorical groups reflect this through persistent tension between naturalism and stylization.
“The Dancer” (1916) is a prime example. Her face, bare bosom and legs, painted in morbid blue-gray tones, are engulfed in a polychrome welter of stylized floral patterns. The riotous Japanesque background seems to flow from the dancer’s flower-patterned chemise—provocatively unbuttoned. And so busy is that background and enigmatic the perspective, that you can easily miss the yellow daffodils in her left hand. Another naturalistic touch is the meticulous rendering of the dancer’s shoes—Klimt pays conspicuous attention to their wide ribbon ties and gracefully curved “Louis” heels, then at the height of fashion. He was, after all, a close companion of the fashion designer Emilie Flöge, with whom he is depicted in several rare photographs hung in the adjoining room.
The stark sensuality of “Pale Face” (1903), suggests 17th-century Dutch portraiture seen through an Art Nouveau lens. The pale pinks and delicate modeling of the subject’s calm, sculptural profile are set against softly defined, sinuous black-and-white passages of her hat, hair and coat. And the smokelike quality of these passages is sharply offset by a typical Klimtian touch—a silver-gray checkerboard pattern in the upper right corner further accented with the portrait’s only stroke of red.
Not surprisingly, the place of honor is accorded the Neue Galierie’s prized possession, the 1907 portrait of Klimt’s possible lover, Adele Bloch-Bauer. In all its gleaming allure of gold and silver leaf, this portrait stands as a more modernist riposte to John Singer Sargent’s once-notorious portraits of Madame X (1884) and of Isabella Stewart Gardner (1888). Like many of Klimt’s mature portraits, it is iconic not just because it is so familiar, but because it actually evokes the style of Byzantine and Russian icons, the latter with their characteristic gilt metal coverings. Bloch-Bauer’s head, shoulders and arms seem to peer out from behind a carapace of gold, its surface a dazzling swirl of burnished and stippled textures.
It is hard to separate precisely Bloch-Bauer’s gown from the elaborately patterned background, or to determine whether she is seated or standing. But in the adjoining gallery a series of eight preparatory drawings for the portrait reveal how painstakingly Klimt worked out the pose and composition that today seem so spontaneous. The drawings also reveal the various ways Klimt arranged her hands to conceal her deformed finger.
Klimt was associated with the Wiener Werkstatte, which was dedicated to raising the quality of design of domestic objects. Placing Klimt’s paintings in the context of Viennese decoration are three important Modernist-style clocks, designed by architects Adolf Loos, Otto Prutscher and Josef Urban. And to provide a telling reflection of the jewel-like patterns of the Bloch-Bauer and “Dancer” portraits, the gallery also features a group of brooches and related jewelry whose burnished silver and gilt mounts glow with the seductive radiance of polished cabochon emeralds, opals, carnelians and other precious stones.
When Klimt died in 1918 at age 55, painting and music were at a crossroads, and his late imagery prompts us to speculate which path he’d have taken had he lived into the 1920s and ’30s. Would he have reflected Arnold Schoenberg’s atonality and become more abstract? Or would he have continued to vent his erotic nature by maintaining his increasingly stylized representational idiom, echoing the late-Romanticism of Richard Strauss? It’s tantalizing to ponder.