Vienna born Gustav Klimt shocked the art world in the late 1800s with his blatantly erotic paintings, murals and sketches of nude women.
Gustav Klimt was born on July 14, 1862 in Baumgarten. The second of seven children, he and his three brothers showed an interest as well as a pension for the arts. The family was poor despite his father’s hard work as a gold engraver. This would not detour Gustav’s ambition to study art and in 1876 he was awarded a scholarship to the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts where he learned architectural painting.
Klimt idolized Hans Makart, the principal history painter of the time and accepted the principals of a conservative training. In 1887, his brother Ernst joined Gustav at the school. Both joined forces with fellow art student Franz Matsch and by 1880 the group received a number of commissions as a team they called the “Company of Artists”. One of these assignments was to help their teacher in painting murals in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Klimt became a professional artist painting interior murals and ceilings in large public buildings including a successful series of “Allegories and Emblems”. The artist was awarded the Golden order of Merit from Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria in 1888 for his assistance in painting the murals in the Burgtheater in Vienna.
In 1892 tragedy struck twice. Both Klimt’s father and brother, Ernst, died leaving him with the financial responsibility of both his mother and brother’s family. These devastating events would affect his artistic vision and change course towards a new personal direction. Aided by the company of Emilie Flöge – his constant companion until his death – Klimt forged on. Whether their relationship was intimate or platonic is unknown and Klimt had many lovers and fathered at least 14 children.
By 1897, Klimt was both founder and president of Vienna Secession where he remained until 1908. Their goal was to provide a platform for unconventional young artists to showcase their work, to attract the best artist works to Vienna, and to publish their own magazine featuring member’s art. The group did not favor any one style and Naturalists, Realists, and Symbolists all coexisted. They were supported by the government and given a lease to build an exhibition hall.
Now in high demand, Klimt was hired to paint three works to decorate the ceiling of Great Hall in the University of Vienna. While he did not finish these until the turn of the century, once completed, Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence were criticized and dubbed pornographic. In reality, what the artist had done was simply transform traditional allegory and symbolism into a new language in art that was more sexually evident. The political, aesthetic and religious fallout over the paintings caused the decisive rejection of the Great Hall exhibition. This would ultimately be the last commission Klimt would ever accept.
In the 20th century Klimt began his Gold Phase which was met with critical praise and success. Klimt’s trips to Venice and Ravenna more than likely inspired his gold technique and his Byzantine imagery. He collaborated with other artists in 1904 on the Palais Stoclet, the home of a wealthy Belgian industrialist. He contributed to the dining room with decorative pieces including both Fulfillment and Expectation.
It is easy to spot a Klimt painting as there are several reoccurring themes. His work is often distinguishable by the use of gold. Spirals and swirls are another staple in his works. Phallic shapes are used to hide the more erotic positions of the drawings which lead to many of his paintings. The evidence of these can be seen in Judith I (1901), and in The Kiss (1907–1908), and Danaë (1907). One of the most frequent premises of Klimt’s work was the dominant woman.
By 1911 Klimt was a renowned artist of the time and his painting Death and Life received first prize in the world exhibitions in Rome. He would die seven years later at the age of 56. While he lived a short life, it was a full life. What he left behind was some of the most beautiful and revered work of all time. Estimates of his pieces go as $327 million.