[Part 1/6] Expressionism: An Explosion of Colours

Expressionism has meant different things at different times. In the sense we use the term today, certainly when we speak of “German Expressionism”, it refers to a broad, cultural movement that emerged from Germany and Austria in the early twentieth century. Yet Expressionism is complex and contradictory. It encompassed the liberation of the body as much as the excavation of the psyche. Within its motley ranks could be found political apathy, even chauvinism, as well as revolutionary commitment.

Ironically, it was first applied most often to non- German artists such as Gauguin , Cézanne, Matisse and Van Gogh. In practice, well up to the outbreak of the First World War, “Expressionism” was still a catch-all phrase for the latest modern, Fauviste, Futurist or Cubist art. The important Sonderbund exhibition staged in Cologne in 1912, for example, used the term to refer to the newest German painting together with international artists.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Potsdamer Platz, 1914. Oil on canvas, 200 x 150 cm.
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Preussischer Kulturbesitz,
National Galerie, Berlin.

In Cologne though, the shift was already beginning. The exhibition organizers and most critics emphasized the affinity of the “Expressionism” of the German avant-garde with that of the Dutch Van Gogh and the guest of honour at the show, the Norwegian Edvard Munch. In so doing, they slightly played down the prior significance of French artists, such as Matisse, and steered the concept of Expressionism in a distinctly “Northern” direction. Munch himself was stunned when he saw the show. “There is a collection here of all the wildest paintings in Europe”, he wrote to a friend, “Cologne Cathedral is shaking to its very foundations”.

Wassily Kandinsky, Church in Murnau, 1908-1909. Oil and tempera on cardboard, Museum of Fine Arts, Omsk .

More than geography though, this shift highlighted Expressionist qualities as lying not so much in innovative formal means for description of the physical world, but in the communication of a particularly sensitive, even slightly neurotic, perception of the world, which went beyond mere appearances. As in the work of Van Gogh and Munch, individual, subjective human experience was its focus. As it gathered momentum, one thing became abundantly clear – Expressionism was not a “style”. This helps to explain why curators, critics, dealers, and the artists themselves, could rarely agree on the use or meaning of the term.

Wassily Kandinsky , Munich-Schwabing with the Church of St. Ursula, 1908.

Nonetheless, “Expressionism” gained wide currency across the arts in Germany and Austria. It was first applied to painting, sculpture and printmaking and a little later to literature, theatre and dance. It has been argued that while Expressionism’s impact on the visual arts was most successful, its impact on music was the most radical, involving elements such as dissonance and atonality in the works of composers (especially in Vienna) from Gustav Mahler to Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg.

Finally, Expressionism infiltrated architecture, and its effects could even be discerned in the newest modern distraction – film. Historians still disagree today on what Expressionism is. Many artists who now rank as quintessential Expressionists themselves rejected the label. Given the spirit of anti-academicism and fierce individualism that characterized so much of Expressionism, this is hardly surprising.

August Macke, Front of the Hat Shop, 1913. Oil on canvas, 54 x 44 cm.
Private collection.

In his autobiography, Jahre der Kämpfe (Years of Struggle), Emil Nolde wrote: “The intellectual art literati call me an Expressionist. I don’t like this restriction”. Vast differences separate the work of some of the foremost figures. The term is so elastic it can accommodate artists as diverse as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Paul Klee, Egon Schiele and Wassily Kandinsky. Many German artists who lived long lives, such as Max Beckmann, George Grosz, Otto Dix and Oskar Kokoschka, only worked in an “Expressionist” mode – and to differing degrees – for a small number of their productive years. Others had tragically short careers, leaving us only to imagine how their work might have developed. Paula Modersohn-Becker and Richard Gerstl died before the term had even come into common use. Before 1914 was out, the painter August Macke and the poets Alfred Lichtenstein and Ernst Stadler had been killed on the battlefields.

Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation 27 (Garden of Love II), 1912. Oil on canvas, 55 x 47 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Another poet, Georg Trakl, took a cocaine overdose after breaking down under the trauma of service in a medical unit in Poland. Franz Marc fell in 1916. In Vienna the young Egon Schiele did not survive the devastating influenza epidemic of 1918, and Wilhelm Lehmbruck was left so traumatized by the experience of war that he took his own life in Berlin in 1919.

It is easier to establish what Expressionism was not, than what it was. Certainly Expressionism was not a coherent, singular entity. Unlike Marinetti’s Futurists in Italy, who invented and loudly proclaimed their own group identity, there was no such thing as a unified band of “Expressionists” on the march. Yet unlike the small groups of painters dubbed “Fauves” and “Cubists” in France, “Expressionists” of one hue or another, across the arts, were so numerous that the epoch in German cultural history has sometimes been characterized as one of an entire “Expressionist generation”…

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Wiener Werkstätte: From Sweeping Success to Barbarism

A few members of the Viennese Secession had been contemplating the current condition of Austrian craftwork for years and found it severely lacking in many areas. In 1903, these artists decided to form the Wiener Werkstätte, a so-called Produktiv-Gemeinschaft von Kunsthandwerkern in Wien (Productive Community of Artisans in Vienna), which would last until 1932. They were essentially following in the footsteps of a development that had begun with the 19th-century Arts and Crafts Movement in England. The movement experienced its zenith between 1880 and 1920 and was most influenced by the painter, architect, and artisan William Morris and the art historian John Ruskin. In Germany, a similarly minded development resulted in the foundation of the Deutscher Werkund and later, the Bauhaus.

Ludwig Hevesi enthusiastically welcomed the event in an article from 21 January 1905:
[…] Today, Der Kunstwanderer presents as a novelty in this year’s series, the Wiener Werkstätte. This unusual but laudable undertaking is one of the most joyous developments in Vienna’s modern craftwork scene. It is especially remarkable since this project was set in motion by private citizens basing their decision on the righteousness and common sense of their own principles. We are facing a successful initiative of pragmatic idealists which no one would have dared to attempt to start a few years ago.

In secrecy, without the noisiness that is supposedly typical of craftwork, an artistic focal point has been created that is focused on reasonable, aesthetic and especially honest work with various materials. The principle of honesty that has been the mark of this new group from the very beginning, had nearly been lost in the current age of the machine and European-American mass production (according to the motto “cheap and bad”).

Josef Hoffmann, Armchair, 1904. MAK – Österreichisches Museum für angewandte Kunst /Gegenwartskunst, Vienna.

The desire for honesty in the applied arts was ultimately the catalyst for the change. The Wiener Werkstätte is today – and we want to say “hopefully” – just a beautiful beginning. It bears the seed for a healthy school for artisanship and artisans and thus also for the consuming public […].

Josef Hoffmann took on the artistic direction of the Wiener Werkstätte. As professor for architecture at the Kunstgewerbeschule, he had already worked with Koloman Moser before their Werkstätte-co-operation. They were joined by Fritz Waerndorfer, an industrialist and patron of the arts who volunteered to attend to the financial details of the venture, since artists were said not to have a very good comprehension of commercial issues back then; it was Hermann Bahr who introduced the two artists to Waerndorfer.

In an incredibly short amount of time, the Werkstätte, with their array of products ranging from Olbrich’s cutlery and Jugendstil-posters to complete furnishings for residential houses, were successful to such a degree that they had to hire a hundred more employees in order to handle the rising demand. Furthermore, they could open branches in Karlsbad, Zurich, and New York. Despite the raging world economic crisis, where even the wealthy had to act shrewdly to keep whatever they had, the Werkstätte was able to open another branch in Berlin in 1929. However, not even this sweeping success could prevent the impending end of the Werkstätte. Mismanagement and bad decisions paved the way for a declaration of bankruptcy in 1932.

Josef Hoffmann, Fabric design: Kiebitz, 1910-1915.
Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop).

Nevertheless, the legacy remains. The greatest international success of the Werkstätte was the Jugendstil-mansion of magnate Adolphe Stoclet, which was built according to blueprints from Josef Hoffmann in Brussels. Fernand Khnopff crafted the décor for the music room while Gustav Klimt decorated the dining room with his famous Stoclet-Frieze. Today, the Palais Stoclet is deservedly part of the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.

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[Part 2/2] Egon Schiele: In Praise of Anorexia of Viennese Beauties

Schiele met Klimt in 1907 and they immediately befriended each other. Klimt even modelled for one of Schiele’s sketches. Schiele played to his strength by employing his exceptional skill in manipulating the composition and thus creating works with a tense expressiveness. He was deeply convinced of his own artistic importance and thus achieved more in his short life than many other artists have in a long one.

Schiele slowly veered away from Jugendstil and more towards Expressionism. This is most obvious when comparing Klimt’s Kiss with any painting that his former protégé created at the same time. Klimt’s painting was exhibited in 1908 as the central piece in a special hall of the Kunstschau (Art Show) which also displayed another 16 of his more recent paintings. The Kiss was the culmination of a development that had begun with two opulent wall paintings, the Beethoven Frieze from 1902 and the wall mosaics which he created between 1905 and 1909 as decoration for the dining room of Josef Hofmann’s Palais Stoclet in Brussels.

Although the painting was already regarded as a sumptuous icon of sensuality, it was still not decorative enough to be bought by the government. The painting shows a magical, ethereal dreamscape in which a man is embracing a woman who seems to fall unconscious at the touch of lips. They are surrounded by glimmering gold, silver and minute blossoms. The “biomorphic” shape of the halo-like aura which surrounds the couple alludes to the blossoming of sexual passion and serves the religious function of an altar at the same time. Klimt himself did not bother to hide the subtle eroticism of his painting. Some of his friends (including Schiele) explained that the broad back of the man is not only representative of his potency but is also supposed to look like the underside of a phallus.

Unlike Klimt, Schiele found his models on the streets: young girls of the proletariat and prostitutes; he preferred the child-woman androgynous types. The thin, gaunt bodies of his models characterised lower-class status, while the full-bosomed, luscious ladies of the bourgeoisie expressed their class through well-fed corpulence. Yet, the attitude of the legendary Empress “Sissi” is symptomatic of a time in which the conventional image of women began to change. She indeed bore the desired offspring; however, she rebelled against the maternal role expected of her. The ideal of a youthful figure nearly caused her to become anorexic. At the same time, she shocked Viennese court society not only with her unconventional riding excursions, but also in that she wore her clothing without the prescribed stockings.

Egon Schiele, Schiele Drawing a Nude Model in front of a Mirror, 1910.
Pencil, 55.2 x 35.3 cm. Albertina, Vienna.

Around the time of the fin de siècle, Schiele portrayed young working-class girls. The number of prostitutes in Vienna was among the highest per capita of any European city. Working-class women were where upper-class gentlemen found the defenceless objects of their desire, which they did not find in their own wives. The young, gaunt bodies in Schiele’s nude drawings almost stir pity; red blotches cover their thin skin and skeleton-like hands. Their bodies are tensed; however, the red genitalia are full and voracious. Like little animals, they lie in wait for the lustful gaze of the beholder. Despite their young age, Schiele’s models are aware of their own erotic radiance and know how to skilfully pose. The masturbating gesture of the hand on the vagina accompanies the provocative gaze of the model. Contrary to the hygienic taboos of the upper class, for example, not to linger overly long while washing the lower body and not to allow oneself to be viewed in the nude, Schiele’s drawings testify to a simple body consciousness and a matter-of-fact attitude. For the lower levels of society, “love for sale” pertained to earning one’s daily bread.

Egon Schiele, Reclining Male Nude with Yellow Pillow, 1910.
Gouache, watercolour and black pencil on paper, 31.1 x 45.4 cm
Private collection

Schiele’s productive life scarcely extended beyond ten years, yet during this time he produced 334 oil paintings and 2,503 drawings (according to Jane Kallir, New York. 1990). He painted portraits and still-lifes, as well as land and townscapes. However, he became truly famous for his draughtsmanship. Even his most scant sketches are the result of his extraordinary skill of observation. Similar to many other artists of his age, he deeply analyses his inner life and his subjects. According to expressionist ideas this first introspective step is what truly defines the artistic process of creation.

While Sigmund Freud exposed the repressed pleasure principles of upper-class Viennese society, which put its women into corsets and bulging gowns and delegated them a static and lone role as future mothers, Schiele bares his models. His nude studies penetrate brutally into the privacy of his models and finally confront the viewer with his or her own sexuality.

The photograph of Schiele on his deathbed depicts the 28-year-old looking asleep, his gaunt body completely emaciated, his head resting on his bent arm; the similarity to his drawings is astounding. Because of the danger of infection, his last visitors were able to communicate with the Spanish flu-infected Schiele only by way of a mirror, which was set up on the threshold between his room and the parlour.

On October 31, three days after the death of his wife who was six months pregnant, Schiele also died from Spanish flu. Three days later, on 3 November 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire capitulated. Earlier in the same year, 1918, Schiele designed a mausoleum for himself and his wife. Did he know, he who had so often distinguished himself as a person of foresight, of his impending death?

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[Part 1/2] Egon Schiele: In Praise of Anorexia of Viennese Beauties

Art cannot be modern, art is eternal.

Egon Schiele’s oeuvre is unique to such an extent that it simply defies categorisation. Since he was initially heavily influenced by Gustav Klimt and the Jugendstil, he is also given space in this article, even though he later exhibited an art style that is closer to Expressionism than Jugendstil.

In modern industrial times, with the noise of racing steam engines, factories and the human masses working in them, Egon Schiele was born in the railway station hall of Tulln, a small, lower Austrian town on the Danube, on 12 June 1890. After his older sisters Melanie and Elvira, he was the third child of the railway director Adolf Eugen Schiele and his wife Marie (née Soukoup). The shadows of three male stillbirths were a precursor for the only boy, who in his third year of life would lose his ten-year-old sister Elvira. The high infant mortality rate was the lot of former times, a fate that Schiele’s later work and his pictures of women would characterise.

Egon Schiele, Nude Girl with Folded Arms (Gertrude Schiele), 1910.
Watercolour and black pencil on paper, 48.8 x 28 cm.
Albertina, Vienna
Egon Schiele, Black-Haired Nude Girl, Standing, 1910.
Watercolour and pencil with white highlights, 54.3 x 30.7 cm.
Albertina, Vienna.

In 1900, he attended the grammar school in Krems. But he was a poor pupil who constantly took refuge in his drawings, which his enraged father would burn. In 1902, Schiele’s father sent his son to the regional grammar and upper secondary school in Klosterneuburg. The young Schiele had a difficult childhood marked by his father’s ill health. He suffered from syphilis, which, according to family chronicles, he is said to have contracted while on his honeymoon as a result of a visit to a bordello in Triest. His wife fled from the bedroom during the wedding night and the marriage was only consummated on the fourth day, on which he infected her also. Despair characterised Schiele’s father, who retired early and sat at home dressed in his service uniform in a state of mental confusion. In the summer of 1904, stricken by increasing paralysis, he tried to throw himself out of a window. He finally died after a long period of suffering on New Year’s Day in 1905. The father, who during a fit of insanity burned all his railroad stocks, left his wife and children destitute. An uncle, Leopold Czihaczek, chief inspector of the imperial and royal railway, assumed joint custody of 15-year-old Egon, for whom he planned the traditional family role of railroad workers.

Egon Schiele, Schiele Drawing a Nude Model in front of a Mirror, 1910.
Pencil, 55.2 x 35.3 cm. Albertina, Vienna.
Egon Schiele, Reclining Nude with Black Stockings, 1911.
Watercolour and pencil, 22.9 x 43.5 cm.
Private collection.

During this time, young Schiele wore second-hand clothing handed down from his uncle and stiff white collars made from paper. It seems that Schiele had been very close to his father, for he, too, possessed a certain talent for drawing, collected butterflies and minerals, and was drawn to the natural world. Years later, Schiele wrote to his sister:

[…] I have, in fact, experienced a beautiful spiritual occurrence today, I was awake, yet spellbound by a ghost who presented himself to me in a dream before waking, so long as he spoke with me, I was rigid and speechless.

Unable to accept the death of his father, Schiele let him rise again in visions. He reported that his father had been with him and spoken to him at length. In contrast, distance and misunderstanding characterised his relationship with his mother who, living in dire financial straits, expected her son to support her; instead, the eldest sister would work for the railroad. However, Schiele, who had been pampered by women in his childhood, claimed to be “an eternal child”. By a stroke of fate, painter Karl Ludwig Strauch (1875-1959) instructed the gifted youth in draughtsmanship; the artist Max Kahrer of Klosterneuburg looked after the boy as well. In 1906, at the age of only sixteen, Schiele passed the entrance examination for the general art class at the Academy of Visual Arts in Vienna on his first attempt. Even his strict uncle, in whose household Schiele now took his midday meals, sent a telegram to Schiele’s mother: “Passed”.

His sister, four years his junior, was a compliant subject for him. The nude study of the fiery redhead with the small belly, fleshy bosom and tousled pubic hair is his younger sister Gertrude (1894-1981). In another watercolour, Gerti reclines backwards, still fully clothed with black stockings and shoes, and lifts the black hem of her dress from under which the red orifice of her body appears. Schiele draws no bed, no chair, only the provocative gesture of his sister’s body offering itself (Reclining Girl in a Dark Blue Dress, c. 143).

Egon Schiele, Reclining Girl in Dark Blue Dress, 1910.

At the same time as Sigmund Freud was postulating that self-discovery occurs by means of erotic experiences, and “the urge to look” emerges as a spontaneous sexual expression within the child, young Egon recorded confrontations with the opposite sex on paper. He incorporated erotic games of discovery and an unabashed interest in the genitalia of his model into his nude studies; the forbidden gaze, searching for the opened female vagina beneath the rustling of the skirt hem and white lace. Gerti, with her freckled skin, green eyes, and red hair, is the prototype of all the later women and models of Schiele.

Schiele’s roots can be found in the Jugendstil of the Viennese Secession. Like many other artists who joined the movement, he followed the famous and charismatic Gustav Klimt.

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Alfred Roller: Ver Sacrum

Another founding member of the Viennese Secession who also acted as president from 1902 to 1905 was Alfred Roller, although he never attained the same fame as some of his colleagues. Today, he is mainly known in professional circles.

He took the main concept of his art, the idea of holistic art, from 19th century romantic Richard Wagner (1813-1883). Although Wagner was referring to the fusion of music and poetry, Roller adapted the concept for his own purposes and practiced it in his capacity as a stage designer. Prior to that, he designed the 1898 January cover of Ver Sacrum, developed several typefaces and posters for the 12th and the 14th exhibitions of the Secession.

A photo, presumably from 1903, shows him together with Carl Moll, Gustav Mahler, and Max Reinhardt in the garden of Moll’s villa, having a coffee break. Roller left the Secession in the same year as Klimt. Two years before that Gustav, Mahler had already invited him to work at the Vienna State Opera. After his departure from the Secession, it was his work at the State Opera that made him successful.

Aside from his friendship and working relationship with Mahler, he also collaborated with Richard Strauss (1864-1949). Roller designed and produced all stage settings for the debut performances of Strauss’ plays. Later, he also worked at the Burgtheater (Imperial Court Theatre) with theatre director Max Reinhandt. Reinhardt also employed him as a teacher at his Reinhardt-Seminar, a workshop for actors. A whole generation of famous actors of the German-speaking parts of Europe graduated from the Seminar. Together with Reinhardt and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Roller founded the Salzburg Festival as a successor to the late international music festivals. In collaboration with Hofmannsthal, he also created the stage design for Hofmannsthal’s Jedermann (Everyman) (1911).

On a side note, a yet nameless admirer of Alfred Roller was a man named Adolf Hitler, who would have liked to start an apprenticeship with Roller. They presumably did not meet in Vienna but rather later when Hitler was already chancellor of the Reich and received Roller in an official capacity. Alfred Roller died on 21 June 1935 in Vienna.

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Koloman Moser: Gone with the Vienna wind

Koloman Moser was a pioneer of modernity. Not only was he the co-founder of the Wiener Werkstätte, but he also was the world’s first graphic designer. He worked as a painter, illustrator, and artisan. Moser is also well known for his designs for jewellery, furniture, textiles and wallpapers.

Koloman Moser, Cover design for Meggendorfer Blätter (Meggendorf Folios), c. 1895. China ink, collage on paper, 37.5 x 26 cm. Collection and Archive, Universität für angewandte Kunst , Vienna.

Before beginning his career as a multifaceted artist, Moser studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna where he was taught by Otto Wagner, the famous architect and city planner of Vienna and where he would later spend eight years teaching. He also attended courses by Franz Matsch and Gustav Klimt. During his studies Moser met the architects and decorators Joseph Maria Olbrich and Josef Hoffmann. His first work was a job as an illustrator for the art journal Meggendorfer Blatter

At the beginning of the 1890s, Moser began developing an innovative and highly individual variant of the Jugendstil while working as an illustrator. In 1897, he was part of the alliance of artists and architects surrounding Klimt, Olbrich, and Hoffmann, who founded the Secession to propagate radically new aesthetic ideas. Moser contributed heavily: he designed and also partly produced the stained glass windows, textiles, furniture, and different decorative objects for the Secession building. Furthermore, he created posters and illustrations.

Koloman Moser, Textile design “Abimelech” for Backhausen, design no 3806, 1899. Pencil and watercolour on paper, 44 x 31 cm. Backhausen Interior Textiles, Vienna.
Koloman Moser, Design for knotted carpet “Kleeblatt” (Shamrock) for Backhausen, design no 3436, 1898. Design for the Hotel Bristol in Bolzano.
Pencil and watercolour on paper, 48 x 60 cm. Backhausen Interior Textiles, Vienna.

During these years Moser was one of the most influential artists in Vienna. As an expression of his passion for Jugendstil he organised the sixth themed exhibition of the Secession. In the following years, he worked as a stage designer for the ensuing exhibitions of the group. In the same year, he began to create more and more monumental paintings which were especially remarkable for their bright colours. Moser’s most important paintings were created in the second decade of the 20th century.

Koloman Moser, Design for furniture velour “Lindenblüten” (Linden blossom) for Backhausen, Design no 3732, 1899. Design for the Hotel Bristol in Bolzano.
Pencil and watercolour on paper, 43 x 36.5 cm. Backhausen Interior Textiles, Vienna.

Moser also contributed to the magazine Die Fläche (The Space) and the self-styled “illustrated biweekly scripture for the artistic, spiritual and economic interests of urban culture” magazine Hohe Warte; both published in Vienna and Leipzig. Another title they used for their magazine was Organ for the Nurture of Artistic Education. Their topics included house-, city-, and interior architecture, but also with interior art, fine arts, and technology. The magazine staff represented the various fields of interests; among them architects Josef Hoffmann and Jugendstil-critic Hermann Muthesius (1861-1927). Later the group was complimented by another architect, the art theoretician Paul Schultze-Naumburg (1869-1949), who later joined the NSDAP and gathered questionable fame with his nationalistic art theory books Kunst aus Blut und Boden (Art from Blood and Soil) (1934) and Rassengebundene Kunst (Race-Related Art) (1934), and Professor Otto Wagner.

In 1903, Moser was involved in the foundation of another important association of artists, the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshops) which offered jobs and research opportunities to graduate students. They crafted the most diverse decorative objects in their studios: jewellery, tapestries, and articles of daily use. Some of these creations were used in the decoration of buildings that were conceived by the association-internal architects, like Otto Wagner.

In later years, Moser travelled and worked in different countries like France, Germany, Switzerland, and the Low Countries. He especially favoured the cities of Bern, Hamburg, and Paris. In 1905, he participated – together with Klimt and Josef Hoffmann – in the celebrated project of the now famous Palais Stoclet in Brussels. In the same year he left the Secession and two years later, also, the Wiener Werkstätte. His artistic style quickly started to change and transform, inspired by French and Belgian Art Nouveau, into a more sober version of the Jugendstil with long and geometrical shapes replacing the intricate and curved, endlessly dancing arcs.

Moser fused various influences from “high” art as well as from applied art, and was fascinated with the different branches of artistic expression, from painting to interior decoration and illustration. This makes him one of the artists who embodied the ideals of the Jugendstil, Art Nouveau, the Arts and Crafts Movement and ultimately the Secession. He died in October of 1918, aged 50, suffering from throat cancer.

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[Part 2/2] Goldfinger, golden eyes, golden Klimt

The 14th exhibition of the Secession in 1902, again, generated a hail of criticisms. The central object of the exhibition was Max Klinger’s sculpture Beethoven, which Klimt sought to complement with a frieze that would be the backdrop for the exhibition room. One of the components of the frieze was a panel that showed three figures, Lust, Gluttony, and Unchastity, collectively called Hostile Forces, in Klimt’s painting.

Why Klimt chose his theme as a contribution to Beethoven of all things, was never entirely apparent. Nevertheless, this painting already showcases some of the Klimt-typical exotic ornamentation that would feature heavily in his later works. These ornaments were meant to create a composition in which decorative elements and the human figure can occupy the same space.

In his portrayal of Lust, Klimt uses the figure’s long hair to cover up her pubic region but, at the same time, also draws attention to it. The sumptuous depiction of Gluttony more resembles an oriental pasha than a woman – a man whose corpulence has reached the stage where his chest has transformed into huge breasts.

Conservative Viennese society was deeply shocked by these paintings. A contemporary of Klimt once used the following anecdote:

Suddenly the visitors of the exhibition could hear a scream from the middle of the room: “Ghastly!” A nobleman, customer, and art collector, whom, together with other close friends, the group had given early access to the rooms, lost his poise when faced with the frieze. He screamed the word with a high-pitched, shrill voice […] He threw the word like a stone against a wall: “Ghastly!”

Klimt, who was standing on a scaffolding, working on his frieze just responded by throwing an amused look in the direction of the screaming man. This calm gesture best illustrates Klimt’s usual reaction to the scandals that he caused. Although Klimt lost his imperial allowance due to the scandals surrounding the university paintings, as well as his support from the upper strata of society, he was still lucky enough to earn a sufficient amount of money through painting portraits. However, he was refused the chair for fine arts at the university more than once.

It is sometimes hard to realise that there are hardly any concrete details about the private life of a very famous man who lived not too long ago, compared with the information we have about the private lives of prominent figures from much more distant ages. The reason for this is Klimt’s own discretion and reservedness. While many details illustrate his artistic career and are cemented by facts, the scarce information about his private life is based on accounts that are barely better than hearsay.

On the one hand, he is portrayed as an insatiable womaniser with the physique of a peasant and the strength of an ox, who slept with numerous women, mainly his models. On the other hand, he seems like a hypochondriacal, self-confessed bachelor with routine habits, who lived with his mother and sisters and commuted daily to his studio in suburban Vienna.

Klimt never married but maintained a long-lasting relationship with the sister of his sister-in-law, Emilie Flöge. In 1891, his brother Ernst married Helene Flöge who ran a beauty salon together with her sister. The marriage only lasted 15 months but through Helene, Klimt was introduced to Emilie. From 1897 onwards, Klimt spent nearly every summer with the Flöge family in the village of Attersee. It was a calm and peaceful time for him which he used to paint the landscapes that account for almost a quarter of his oeuvre.

The details of the relationship between Klimt and Emilie Flöge are sketchy, but several known facts still cause debates over how platonic their relationship really was. They never lived together but Klimt asked for Emilie’s attendance at his deathbed.

Throughout his life he maintained an extensive correspondence with Emilie and Marie Zimmermann, the mother of two of his three illegitimate children; his letters to Marie are affectionate, describing details of his work and life while letters to Emilie are rather bland and devoid of emotion just containing things like travel arrangements or travel descriptions.

The Portrait of Emilie Flöge shows an attractive young woman, who is wearing a dress of her own design as well as jewellery that was designed by Koloman Moser. Many of her dresses and fabrics were designed by Klimt specifically for her fashion salon. It is a remarkably defeating painting which is most notable for the delicate, almost poignant indication of sensuality that expresses itself in the smooth light on the skin above her bodice.

How different is this portrait with the painting Hope I (1903), which shows a nude pregnant woman, Herma, one of Klimt’s favourite models. Supposedly, Klimt is reported to have said that her back was more beautiful and more intelligent than the faces of many other models. When she repeatedly failed to appear in his studio to model, Klimt, who was usually very concerned about his models, sent someone to enquire about her well-being. When he found out that she was not sick but pregnant he insisted that she come to his studio. Thus she became the model for Hope I and Hope II.

Gustav Klimt, Hope I, 1903. Oil on canvas, 189.2 x 67 cm.
 National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

A remarkable example of Klimt’s ability to use just a few pencil-drawn lines to create a sensual and erotic effect can be seen in the 1905/1906 sketch Freundinnen in Umarmung (Friends in Embrace). A small dark circle draws attention to the thighs and the buttocks of the woman. It is not uncommon for Klimt to draw his women while they are masturbating, revelling in their sensual pleasure with closed eyes and face slightly averted. Men rarely appear in the pencil drawings; if they appear they are usually shown with their back towards the viewer.

While Klimt expresses his clear admiration for female beauty, he always shows a certain distance between the genders when he paints men and women together in a painting. In his most famous painting The Kiss, the face of the man is not visible, tellingly. He is holding the woman and his hands are cradling her face with great tenderness. Although she responds in kind, she still seems to shy away from the embrace. She just offers her cheek for the kiss and with her hands she seems to push away his.

The freedom in Klimt’s drawings is a sharp contrast to the portraits of the ladies of fine society which he started painting in 1903. While the women in his drawings are not confined by clothing or society standards, the women in his portraits, like Portrait of Fritza Riedler or Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, are almost asphyxiated in fabrics and ornaments. Their faces are the focal points of the paintings while their bodies, in their ornamental dresses, almost fuse with the background. This allows the faces to appear almost fragile, detached and lonely.

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907. Oil, silver and gold on canvas, 140 x 140 cm. Neue Galerie , New York.

Another remarkable painting is the Portrait of Margaret-Stonborough-Wittgenstein, since it is one of the few images that is not dominated by patterned fabrics. Furthermore, it is a clear homage to James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) whom Klimt greatly admired.

Throughout his whole life, Klimt only gave one comment about himself and his art:

[…] I am convinced that I – as a person – am not extraordinary at all. I am simply an artist who is painting from morning to evening. I am not talented with words or letters, especially not when I have to talk about myself or my work. Only the idea of having to write a letter fills me with fear. I am afraid you have to make do without a portrait of myself, either painted or written. That is not a great loss, however. Whoever wants to get to know me better – as an artist only that is worth your trouble – should study my paintings and try to find out who I am and what I want […].

Gustav Klimt was an unusual and highly extraordinary artist who had neither precursors nor successors. On 11 January 1918 he suffered a seizure which paralysed half his body. Despite a temporary recovery, he died a month later. After his death his reputation as an artist remained controversial. Art historian Hans Tietze (1880-1954), a friend of Klimt and author of his first monograph, describes his influence and legacy:

[…] Klimt dragged Viennese art out of its isolation in which it had been rotting and opened up the world for it. At the turn of the century he was the guarantee, more than anyone else, for the artistic individuality of Vienna […].

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