[Part 1/2] Gustav Klimt: Rediscovered Pubic Hair (Ruskin)

Gustav Klimt was the motor and the soul of The Viennese Secession, even though he had already left the Secession in 1905.

No connection to the outside world can disrupt the appeal of Klimt’s portraits, landscapes, allegorical or other representative paintings. For the development of his seductive oeuvre, which has many aspects, one of them being a vehicle for the complete unravelling of the sensuality of the female body, Klimt makes use of oriental colours and motifs, a flat, two-dimensional canvas space, and strongly stylised images.

Among his main inspirations were the art of Japan, ancient Egypt, and Byzantine Ravenna. He had already received a government allowance to study at Vienna’s Kunstgewerbeschule (Artisan’s School) as a 14-year-old teenager, where his talent as a painter and illustrator began to unfold. His first works therefore earned him an early and precocious success. His first important contribution to the world of art was the foundation of the artist group Künstler-Compagnie with his brother Ernst and friend Franz Matsch in 1879.

Late 19th century Vienna was in a period of architectonic transition since Kaiser Franz Joseph I decided to have the medieval city walls demolished in order to build the Ring. Since the areas surrounding the Ring were planned as upper-class residential areas, Klimt and his partners had many profitable opportunities to fill the walls of the new houses with art. In 1897, Klimt left the conservative Künstlerhaus-Genossenschaft (Artist’s House Union) and founded the Secession along with a few close friends. Public acceptance of the movement soon followed.

The Secession did not only represent the very best in art that Austria had to offer, but it also helped to make Vienna an internationally recognised city of art by inviting foreign artists, like French impressionists or Belgian naturalists, to exhibit their work in the city. His rising fame as a modern artist in turn led to a decline of his reputation as an “acceptable artist” among the members of the Austrian upper class. The more he distanced himself from the academic style of his early artwork, the more he plunged into scandals surrounding his modern art. These scandals would direct his artistic career along new paths.

In 1894, Klimt and Matsch received the commission to create a wall painting for the festive hall of the Vienna University, which would include portrayals of the three most prominent courses of study – medicine, philosophy, and law. The nature of this commission is easily understood: the university expected a series of formal, dignified artworks in a classical style, which were supposed to portray the healing power of medical science, the wisdom of the philosopher, and undoubtedly the robed figure of Justice holding scales with blindfolded eyes representing law and jurisprudence. After a few years of hard work, however, the university received such a controversial painting that it immediately caused a scandal and sparked wild debates over its propriety. Klimt eventually had to pay back the advance and withdraw his paintings. Nevertheless, in 1900, Klimt received a golden medal for the painting Philosophy at the World Fair in Paris.

Gustav Klimt , Philosophy, 1899.

When he exhibited the unfinished painting Medicine in the following year, the outrage was even worse and the polemics reached an all-time high in their fervour.

Gustav Klimt, Medicine, 1901.

It is hard to say what Klimt wanted to express with this painting. The vision that the painting is conveying is chaotic and almost hellishly bleak. The skulls of old and wrinkled figures, and the randomly scattered people attest more to the decay and suffering of the human body rather than to its healing. The figure at the bottom with the snake wrapped around her arm is meant to represent the concept of medicine. Her portrayal, however, in her ornamental garment rather evokes the image of a priestess that is sacrificing the sick. The other female figure which is positioned beside the pillar of the human bodies and silhouettes is notable for her posture: her arms are thrown out as if mockingly imitating the crucifixion.The sketch for this figure is a compelling proof of Klimt’s extraordinary talent as an artist. The ductus of his pencil and the delicate shading lead our eyes to the pubic region of the woman. It is also interesting to note that the woman in the sketch is lying on the floor with her back pressed against an invisible object while she is standing unstably, unsupported as if she were to fall down every moment in the painting.

This work also represents a complete break with the tradition of depicting round and homely women that were predominant in the academic style of the nineteenth century. Klimt paints his women with long hair and lean, curvy bodies. Their sexual confidence makes them attractive but – in its directness – menacing at the same time. Klimt’s contemporary, the journalist and critic Berta Zuckerkandl (1864-1945), noted in her memoirs:
[…] Klimt transformed the Viennese women into the ideal type of woman: modern, with a boyish figure. These figures exerted a mysterious fascination on the viewer. Although the word “vamp” was not known back then, Klimt painted women who fit that description perfectly; women with the allure of Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich, long before they actually lived […]

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Beethoven Frieze: Three Gorgons: Sickness, Madness, and Death

Klimt’s painting cycle Beethoven Frieze was, together with Klinger’s sculpture, a grand homage to the composer who lived and worked in Vienna until his death on 26 March 1827. He had been one of the most celebrated pianists and composers of his time. During the exhibition, the frieze was spread over three different walls and arranged sequentially in the left wing of the Secession-house. The individual paintings are categorised according to their order on the walls. First come Floating Genii, Suffering Humanity, and Knight in Shining Armour. The second wall showed Hostile Forces, The Gorgons, and the giant Typhoeus. The third wall showed Poetry, The Arts, and Choir of Angels.

The Beethoven Frieze at the 14th Secession Exhibition: Klinger, Beethoven.
Gustav Klimt. Photograph, 1902.

The Beethoven Frieze was intended as a backdrop for Max Klinger’s coloured, three-metre high sculpture. Since most of the ceiling frescoes in the University of Vienna were destroyed, the frieze is the most important survivor. The huge and fragile painting – it was painted on plaster – survived miraculously, although it was initially not meant to be a permanent installation. This is a small comfort for the other art losses that the world of art suffered as a consequence of World War II.

With 56,000 visitors and sales amounting to 85,000 Kronen, the Beethoven-exhibition established itself instantly as an influential element in Austria. Even the omnipresent ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Kaiser Franz Joseph I, was among the visitors. To honour the success of the exhibition, the emperor bestowed the golden order of merit upon Klimt. The eighth issue of Ver Sacrum published the results of the sales: 218 paintings.

Joseph Maria Olbrich, Poster for the Second Secession Exhibition (detail), 1898.
Lithograph, 86 x 51 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

In 1905, Klimt resigned as director of the Secession after long-running, irreconcilable conflicts with other members of the group. An untraversable chasm had opened between two parties within the association: the artists surrounding Klimt and the artists who wanted to focus solely on painting. The “Klimt Group” wanted to further applied arts like architecture and design while the others wanted to improve the art of painting by making it the sole concern of the Secession. The dream of the Secession, to create harmony between the arts and thus deliver the world through art, had proven itself to be an unattainable Utopia.

How did contemporary witness Hermann Bahr judge the history of the Secession ? He had already voiced his concerns five years earlier:

What is it that the Secession originally wanted? What was its purpose? What did the young artists think when they left the old association? People said that they are against old art and for a new art. They were called all manner of names like symbolists or naturalists. Well, we have left those stupid words behind nowadays. Now we know that it is not about “old” or “new” or a specific school of painting, which they did not want to destroy everything that came before them or even that they wanted to establish a certain technique or way of seeing as scales to measure artists against. There are no old or new artists. There are artists and – let’s say – makers.

Artists are those who possess their own perception of the world, the people and life in general, and have the gift to share these impressions with others. Makers are those who just create without perceiving anything but have considerable talent to imitate the impressions of others. That is at the heart of the argument that has been running for so many years –in literature as well as in art. People argued against the process of just “making”, against the absence of impressions and emotion, against the empty routine […].

This shows that there were imitators who wanted to jump on the sudden success bandwagon and profit from the work of other artists.

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