With the start of the twentieth century, Gustav Klimt’s paintings had become highly controversial. Commissioned to paint large works for the Great Hall of the university in Vienna, he had shown the first, for the faculty of Philosophy, at the Secession Exhibition in the Spring. It provoked uproar, with 87 of the university’s professors protesting against it.
Irrespective of opinion at home, that allegorical rendering of philosophy won him a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris later in the year, where Pallas Athena and Portrait of Sonja Knips were also very well-received.
The following year (1901), Klimt exhibited his second painting for the university, for the faculty of Medicine, which proved even more controversial. While the Viennese Academy for Arts proposesd making him a professor (something he was repeatedly denied), there were questions in parliament over who was funding his work. How little have politicians changed.
This year also saw the evolution of his paintings of women, in Judith I (1901). Klimt designed the frame himself, and it was made by his brother Georg. It marks the start of his ‘Golden Phase’, which reached its peak in 1907-08.
Judith was the beautiful widow who seduced Holofernes, enemy general of the Israelites, when he was in a drunken stupor, and beheaded him. She then placed his head in a bag held by her maidservant, and took it back with her to the Israelites and their great acclaim. Earlier paintings – most notably those of Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi – had shown Judith in the act of cutting Holofernes’ head off. Over time, emphasis shifted to Judith and her seduction.
Klimt shows the head of Holofernes at the far right edge of this painting, downplaying it in favour of showing Judith in clear ecstasy at her achievement. Her eyes are almost closed, her head tilted back, and her expression one of pleasure. This plays on the linkage between eroticism and death, already being explored by others in the context of Salome and John the Baptist, for example.
This painting was purchased from Klimt by Ferdinand Hodler when he visited Vienna in 1903.
In prints, Klimt remained steadfastly Art Nouveau, for example in his Music (1901), which was published in the Secession’s magazine Ver Sacrum. The muse here is holding a very large lyre, making his motif quite classical.
In 1902, the fourteenth exhibition of the Secession centred on Max Klinger’s Beethoven Sculpture. To raise funds to retain it in Vienna, members of the Secession contributed works, which were exhibited there. Klimt’s was a frieze of 24 metres in length, the Beethoven Frieze. The section shown above is that of The Hostile Powers, unusually painted using casein paints onto mortar, with added stucco, gold leaf, and other materials.
It features a range of his representations of women, including one who is heavily pregnant (previously an unusual condition for a nude figure), and another who is old and wizzened. The image of a pregnant woman returned the following year, in his Hope I.
The section Nagging Grief follows at the right, and is dominated by more decorative patterned passages which appear to be the bodies of snakes coiled on themselves, and a huge textured wing.
Casein paints became more popular in the twentieth century, and were a standard medium for many illustrators. They use milk protein as their binder, with water as a diluent, and dry very quickly. This makes them ideal for quick application to an absorbent mortar surface, although they don’t appear to have become very widely used in murals.
Nuda Veritas (1902) is another print which was published in Ver Sacrum, and may have originated in a drawing of several years earlier. At its head is a quotation from Friedrich Schiller: “If you cannot please everyone with your deeds and your art, please only a few. To please many is bad.” Klimt was not afraid to follow that injunction.
As in the previous summer, Klimt holidayed with the Flöge family at Attersee. It is not clear when Klimt and Emilie Flöge became partners, but it was probably from around the time that he painted his Portrait of Emilie Louise Flöge (1902), another key early work from his Golden Phase, and I think one of his finest portraits.
One of his best landscapes, Beech Forest I, was painted during the summer of 1902. Klimt’s Divisionist approach to the forest floor appears painstaking and gives it a contrasting texture from the patterned trunks. Patches of light, brilliant green foliage, and the distant sky give this painting a unique appearance and visual effect, which is distinctive of Klimt.
In 1903, Klimt met Ferdinand Hodler, the Swiss artist who also died a century ago this year, and they became good friends. Unusually for him, Klimt travelled to Italy twice that year, visiting Venice and Ravenna in the Spring, and Venice, Padua, Florence, and Pisa at the end of the year.
Once again, Klimt spent the summer holiday at Attersee with the Flöge family, where his landscape and figurative paintings showed more obvious convergence. Compare the densely-patterned trees and vaguer sky in his Approaching Thunderstorm (The Large Poplar II) (1903) above, with the densely-patterned dress and softer background of his Portrait of Emilie Louise Flöge previously.
Birch Forest (1903) was another of his landscape paintings from that summer, in which the depth seen in Beech Forest I above has been removed. As I will show in some of his later landscapes painted at Attersee, Klimt started to paint through a telescope, resulting in loss of perspective depth.
Although in 1903 Klimt had essentially completed his paintings for the Great Hall of the university, and exhibited them late in the year, they remained highly controversial. Tragically they were all destroyed by fire in 1945, caused by retreating SS forces, but I will show surviving images of them in the next article in this series.
Stephan Koja (2006) Gustav Klimt, Landscapes, Prestel. ISBN 978 3 7913 3717 3.
Rainer Metzger (2005) Gustav Klimt, Drawings & Watercolours, Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978 0 500 23826 4.
Various larger format books contain most or all of his figurative paintings.