Previously written for my freshman seminar, Vienna at the Turn of the Century
Gustav Klimt was the leader of a group of artists in fin-de-siècle Vienna called the Secession. These artists embodied the modernity movement, using their mediums to express raw emotions, unveiled from the stifling conservatism of the bourgeoisie. Klimt exemplified this spirit in his use of overt sexuality to express subconscious thoughts and feelings in his paintings. While he was criticized by the middle class for the ambiguous and profane aesthetics of his works, Klimt’s art represented themes that ran deeper than his paint on the canvas. The artwork of Gustav Klimt contrasts with traditional culture in turn of the century Vienna. While Klimt’s artwork served to present his personal reality, the appearances of members of Viennese society at the time strove to distort and repress emotions that they did not wish to confront. This juxtaposition propelled Klimt’s work to the forefront of Viennese society, forcing critics to stand with the blatant and unapologetic interpretations of Modernism, or the safe, traditional works of old Vienna.
Klimt was very secretive about his personal life. His most revealing comment was, "Whoever wants to know something about me—as an artist, the only thing—ought to look carefully at my pictures and try to see in them what I am and what I want to do" (Brockman 24). He was known to be a poor communicator. His written correspondence with family and close friends was almost non-existent, and he was incapable of forming deep, meaningful relationships with women. He never married, living with his mother and two sisters. He had various affairs, fathering several illegitimate children, but Klimt kept his sexual endeavors private and seemingly unattached, never involving himself in the lives of past mistresses or his children (Brockman).
While Klimt certainly experienced a physical connection with women in real life, he saved the emotional component of relationships for his art. In his paintings, he was able to express feelings that he never discussed in words. In this sense, Klimt lived his life through appearances; he only revealed certain parts of himself through carefully created art. Klimt paralleled Viennese culture at the time through his use of aesthetics as his only connection to the world around him. He used his paintings, such as “The Kiss” to depict intimacy and emotion that could not be discussed in daily life. While sexuality was a large part of Klimt’s identity, it was a taboo subject in Viennese culture, so Klimt resorted to his artwork to present his feelings to the public. Much like Klimt and his artwork, the bourgeoisie class lived their lives through appearances. They flaunted their wealth and lived a materialistic existence. However, unlike Klimt, Vienna’s middle class used material goods to hide, rather than reveal their true feelings. While Klimt used his art as a medium to express his overwhelming and often disturbing emotions, citizens of fin-de-siècle Vienna used their wealth to hide their personal demise.
At the turn of the century, Vienna was experiencing a movement toward Modernism. According to Schorske, this change in architecture, music, philosophy, and science rejected “antiquated” tradition for the new and the liberal (“Politics in a New Key” xvii). This sudden social change brought about confusion as Viennese society members struggled to define themselves. Unable to completely support modernism, but unwilling to appear outdated or outmoded, many members of the middle class hid their reluctance behind their support for the progressive movement of the time. Klimt, as a highly regarded artist was at the center of the movement towards modernism. Klimt’s brand of modernism, however was not restrained by conservatism. He saw his artwork as “the interpretation of a symbolic dream, or of a decorative overlay… the link between the conscious and the unconscious life” (Rogoyska 6). This “link” was the key to what Klimt saw as great art, and he believed that nothing, including tradition, should stand between Austrian art and the best art of the rest of Europe. (Daviau 33) This spirt of total disregard for tradition, and a full embrace for unbridled freedom of artistic expression is what suited Klimt to be the leader of the Secession.
Therefore, Klimt cast away his classical training and used his paintings to fully express himself. He strayed from the Greco-Roman style that was popular in Vienna, painting somewhat abstract pieces. Klimt also had an obvious fascination with women. A known womanizer, Klimt’s subjects were almost exclusively women. Both of these influences are apparent in Klimt’s painting "Adele Bloch-Bauer I", in which “the sitter's face emerges from a gorgeous, swirling, gold-painted mosaic. She is both a beauty and a seductress” (The Economist). In this piece, Klimt uses his trademark style: an undefined body comprised of geometric shapes and a realistic and detailed face. Adele’s demeanor is rather sensual for the time. In this one painting, Klimt is able to express his deepest thoughts. It is clear to the viewer that Klimt has a carnal fascination with Adele and a disregard for traditional art rules.
Klimt was unique not only in expressing his true emotions, but also in using women to do so. While pieces like “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” portray women in a more conservative fashion, paintings such as “Gold Fish” present a blatantly naked form. Such a representation of the female body was virtually unheard of before fin-de-siècle culture. Klimt did not allow the status quo to limit his expression. He painted women in many revealing ways, perhaps seeking to form an emotional connection between artist and his subject that he could not make without a paintbrush as a medium. Klimt often used nudity to spite his critics. In fact, “Gold Fish” was initially titled “For My Critics”, as the provocative painting of a woman’s backside was a not so subtle euphemism in retort to critiques on Klimt’s use of nudity in his paintings for the University of Vienna. Klimt refused to let his self-expression through art be stifled, even if his expression broke existing moral standards.
Klimt’s early works such as “The Death of Romeo and Juliet”, painted on the Burgtheater ceiling, were met with acclaim as they were done in a classic form. However, as Klimt became active with the Secession, his style began to embrace modern ideals, and his work was met with harsh criticism. His depictions of Philosophy and Medicine on the University of Vienna’s ceiling panel were met with aghast by conservative critics. Eighty-seven staff members protested the paintings as it could not be overlooked that Klimt did little to represent the prestige and science behind the subjects, and provided a more fantastic, ambiguous, and distinctly nude representation of each (Gustav Klimt’s Faculty Paintings and the Crisis of the Liberal Ego 18). Critics were particularly appalled by Klimt’s emphasis on nudity in Medicine. The viewer’s eyes are automatically to the naked woman at the top left of the painting. Her stance is both provocative and unabashed. Critics claimed that such a depiction was uncouth and immoral. They claimed that Klimt’s art was not progressive, but animalistic. (Rogoyska 27).
Despite their claims that Klimt’s work brought shame and an attack upon the public’s morals, critic’s distaste for Klimt’s art was tied to another sentiment as well. Viennese society was shocked by the raw, and very real feelings portrayed in Klimt’s paintings. Klimt did not satiate their desire for respectful and predictable art, rather he allowed his unrefined thoughts to spill across the canvas. This form of self-expression was foreign to Vienna at the time. Although Modernism was on the rise, fin-de-siècle was still entrenched in the formalities and airs that defined the culture for centuries before. Klimt’s work stood out because it castaway these traditions, offering his interpretation of Philosophy and Medicine at face value.
While Klimt’s honesty was treated with disdain by some, many appreciated the freshness of his work. Historian Carl Schorske quoted Minister von Hartel defending Klimt’s work, writing “To oppose such a movement would be evidence of total failure to understand the responsibilities of a modern policy in the arts; to support it I regard as on of our finest tasks” (“Gustav Klimt’s Faculty Paintings” 19) Klimt did not paint to soften or glorify life. He painted to depict the often dark and distorted reality of human life. This realistic and raw approach received support from fellow Viennese citizens as many were also disenchanted with the haughtiness of the Hapsburg Empire. Klimt was active during a tumultuous time in Austria. The nation was only years away from a World War and the collapse of its vast empire. This climate produced complex and varied reactions in the people of Vienna. While some struggled to accept Klimt’s progressive take on Modernism, others saw his art as a torch guiding Vienna to a vibrant and contemporary culture. His work was well received because those with similar views were tired of the superficiality of Viennese culture. For the same reason that critics despised his work, fellow Modernists and Sectionalists lauded Klimt- he presented his thoughts at face value to a culture which stifled theirs behind niceties.
It is certain that Klimt was a talented and adept artist. His work, however achieved heightened acclaim because it was produced during a time in which it was considered provoking and shocking. Klimt painted subjects which other Viennese artists had not dared to paint. His work burst through a conservative and formal culture, shocking many with its unrefined honesty. His work’s popularity was sustained by likeminded people, seeking to create a Vienna that would be one with the other modern metropolises of Europe. A Vienna, freed from the stuffiness of age-old traditions. Klimt’s work was complex, often addressing the subconscious of human nature and man’s struggle with relationships and identity. It is then fitting that his work was introduced to a culture facing complex issues of national identity. Perhaps for their many differences, Klimt’s work and the conservatives in fin-de-siècle Vienna were not so different. Both were simply searching for a way to define themselves in a rapidly changing landscape.