Little-Known Facts About Symbolist Master Gustav Klimt

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Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, 1908Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

To coincide with a new exhibition of his beguiling paintings in San Francisco, we present our guide to the notoriously secretive artist

Austrian painter Gustav Klimt was one of the most radical artists of the 20th century. Through his intensely decorative and erotic style, he pushed at the boundaries of traditional artistic convention, paving the way for modernists of the future. Now, a new exhibition at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco offers American audiences a rare chance to see 30 of the painter’s works in person, including the iconic Nuda Veritas (1899) and two panels from the Beethoven Frieze (1902), many of which have ever been shown in the US before. Titled Klimt & Rodin: An Artistic Encounter, and timed to coincide with the anniversary of Klimt’s and French sculptor Auguste Rodin’s deaths – both champions of the avant-garde and creators of two of the most innovative kisses in modern art – it will explore “shared touch points and developments in the two artists’ practices throughout”, while shedding light on their radical idiosyncrasies.

Unlike Rodin, who produced several writings over the course of his lifetime, Klimt was a deeply private character, who rarely wrote or talked about his art, preferring to let the works speak for themselves. Our curiosity piqued by this latest investigation into his oeuvre, we unearthed ten lesser-known facts about the symbolist master.

1. He won a scholarship to art school aged just 14

Klimt was born in 1862 in Baumgarten, just outside Vienna, and was the second of seven children. His mother, Anna, was Austrian and a talented musician, whose dream of becoming an opera singer was never fulfilled, such were the pressures of motherhood. Klimt’s father, Ernst the Elder, hailed from from Bohemia and was a gold engraver by trade as well as a skilled painter, who taught his children to paint from a young age. The family lived by humble means, but Klimt’s artistic talent earned him a full scholarship to the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts aged only 14, his younger brother Ernst following suit soon after.

2. He began his career as an interior decorator

Klimt was the academy’s star pupil, earning him a number of commissions before he’d even graduated. His studies there centred on architectural painting, while his style was profoundly influenced by the classical approach of Hans Makart, Vienna’s foremost history painter of the time. Upon leaving, Klimt, Ernst and their friend Franz Matsch set up their own interior decoration studio, dubbed the Company of Artists, with a focus on public and private murals in the popular historical style. They soon garnered multiple commissions, including their fêted mural at the Vienna Burgtheater and the ceiling of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. In 1888 their work was officially recognised by Emperor Franz Josef I, who awarded them the Golden Order of Merit.

3. Family tragedy changed Klimt’s artistic outlook profoundly

In 1890, the Klimt brothers and Matsch joined the Vienna Artists’ Association, a traditional group, which oversaw most of the city’s exhibitions, and the Company of Artists continued to flourish. Just one year later, however, everything changed when both Klimt’s father and Ernst died, the responsibility for both their families falling to the artist as he battled with intense grief. Soon afterwards he ditched classicism in favour of a more personal aesthetic, with symbolist overtones and Art Nouveau ornamentalism.

In 1897, Klimt left the Vienna Artists’ Association and co-founded a new group, the Vienna Secession, which championed the work of young, non-traditional artists, from both Austria and abroad, working across a variety of styles. Under Klimt’s presidency, it would become the most influential group of the time. The painter continued his work with the Company of Artists, but when his dark and raunchy murals for the University of Vienna were deemed pornographic, and eventually refused display, he vowed never to undertake another public work.

4. Klimt loved cats – but not as much as he loved women

Klimt was a notorious womaniser, whose greatest pleasures were female beauty and sex: he is rumoured to have slept with every woman whose portrait he ever painted and fathered at least 14 illegitimate children over the course of his lifetime – only four of whom he formerly acknowledged. He famously said, “Whoever wants to know something about me, as an artist, which alone is significant, should look attentively at my pictures and there seek to recognise what I am and what I want.” Women were undoubtedly what he wanted, and they filled both his canvases and his studio, where they lounged nude in abundance, alongside the artist’s many beloved cats, ready to freeze at Klimt’s command when a pose caught his attention. In a 1909 newspaper review Richard Muter wrote that “the new Viennese woman, a specific sort of new Viennese woman – their grandmothers were Judith and Salome – has been invented or discovered by Klimt. She is delightfully vicious, charmingly sinful, fascinatingly perverse.”

5. In spite of his many affairs, he had one enduring relationship

Klimt’s most long-lasting and intimate friendship was with his sister-in-law Emilie Flöge, the talented owner of a Viennese fashion salon. It is not confirmed whether their relationship was physical or not, but it was certainly very tender; she featured in many of his works and it is said that the last words he spoke before he died were, “Send for Emilie”. During the latter part of his life the artist spent each summer with Flöge and her family at Attersee, a lake in Austria’s Salzkammergut region, where he painted a number of gloriously evocative landscapes – the only other genre that interested him aside from figurative works.

6. Byzantine mosaics were a key influence on his fêted “Golden Phase”

Klimt rarely travelled, but is known to have visited Venice and Ravenna, both famous for their glistening, gold specked Byzantine mosaics. These made a marked impression on Klimt and were likely the driving force behind his “Golden Phase” – a period of immense critical and financial success for the painter. Works during this time include his masterful Beethoven Frieze (1901), dedicated to the composer and created for the 14th Vienna Secessionist exhibition, and his hypnotic murals for the dining room of Art Nouveau paragon the Palais Stoclet, carried out in 1904. These featured the swirling masterpieces Expectation and Fulfillment, the latter of which depicts a couple embracing in a distinct precursor to The Kiss (1907-08), Klimt’s most popular work.  

7. His Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I was the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction

Arguably more famous than Klimt’s entwined, decoratively robed lovers on a cliff edge, however, is his 1907 Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. This was commissioned in 1903 by Bloch-Bauer’s husband, a Jewish banker and sugar producer, and sees Klimt treat the sitter’s face and arms with a straightforward realism, while her billowing dress and intricately rendered, gold surroundings are a study in ornate abstraction. The arresting painting remained in the Bloch-Bauer family’s possession until it was seized by the Nazis during World War II and hung in the Austrian State Gallery. In 2006, after a lengthy court battle, one of Bloch-Bauer’s nieces, Maria Altmann reclaimed ownership of the work, selling it at auction the same year for $135 million – the most money ever paid for a work of art at auction.

8. Egon Schiele was his protégé

In 1907, when Egon Schiele was still a teenager, he sought out Klimt, his artistic idol, in search of guidance. The duo formed a firm friendship, bonding over their shared interest in figurative art, the erotic, and the modern condition in Vienna. Klimt introduced his student to many galleries and artists, helping to launch his career. Many of Schiele’s early works borrow from Klimt’s singular style, and his 1912 work, Cardinal and Nun (Caress), is a tongue-in-cheek parody of The Kiss. Schiele called his teacher, “an artist of incomparable perfection; a man of rare depth”, and described his art as sacred. In 1913, he produced an unfinished sketch of Klimt in his famous blue smock – the artist always wore this loose fitting garment while painting, with nothing underneath – and in 1917, the two men joined forces to found Vienna’s Kunsthalle (Hall of Art) in an effort to keep local artists from going abroad.

9. Many of Klimt’s most brilliant paintings were burned

As many as 14 of Klimt’s works were destroyed on May 8, 1945, when the Schloss Immendorf, a castle in a the small Austrian village of Immendorf that had been used as a safe storage space for looted and stolen art during the war, was burnt down by an SS unit. Among the most devastating losses were Klimt’s controversial paintings for the University of Vienna ceiling, now preserved solely through preparatory sketches and a number of photographs.

10. An unfinished work in his studio reveals the kink beneath the cloth

What has been preserved for posterity, however, is a revealing, unfinished painting, titled The Bride and found in his studio after his death from pneumonia in February of 1918. On the right hand side is a scantily clad female figure, her legs akimbo, her pubic region portrayed in meticulous detail. Over the top of this, the artist has begun painting a patterned skirt, which presumably would have obscured the subject’s nether regions. Viewers have often wondered what is happening beneath the hefty drapery covering the protagonists of The Kiss and other such works, and if The Bride is anything to go by, the answer is a lot.

Klimt & Rodin: An Artistic Encounter is at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco until January 28, 2018.