Gustav Klimt died 100 years ago, successful as a painter and as a womanizer. His paintings are famous all over the world and are highly traded. Some find all the gold in them kitschy.
His probably most famous painting, “The Kiss”, has been immortalized a thousand times, not only on reproductions, but also on coffee cups, spectacle cases, ties, shopping bags and numerous other everyday objects. They all pay homage to him, Gustav Klimt, the darling of the public. He has become the standard-bearer of Art Nouveau, but was rather someone who wanted to do away with the art of his time, says Alfred Weidinger, director of the Museum of Fine Arts Leipzig and Klimt specialist.
Gustav Klimt was born on 14 July 1862 in simple circumstances. A scholarship enabled him to study at the Vienna School of Applied Arts. Together with his brother Ernst Klimt, who attended the same school, and his colleague Franz Matsch, he worked diligently and rose rapidly. In addition to commissions for ceiling and theatre decorations, he became a portrait painter of the Jewish upper middle classes. He creates not only paintings, but also, in collaboration with architects, houses and villas as total works of art. In 1894 Gustav Klimt received a commission for three monumental ceiling paintings in the Aula Magna of the University of Vienna. The allegorical depictions of the three faculties of “jurisprudence”, “philosophy” and “medicine” become a scandal.
Klimt’s ceiling paintings shocked the Viennese
Klimt showed too much naked flesh for the prudish Vienna, says Alfred Weidinger: “He showed the Viennese how they themselves look, that was the problem.” He no longer showed the naked as goddesses, but as the neighbour next door, the Klimt expert says. “And so he showed them, in their beauty, but also in their ugliness.” And he did it in huge paintings on the ceiling of the conservative university. “That’s when the Viennese simply ran out of steam.”
That wasn’t a planned provocation, says art historian Weidinger, and stresses: “Klimt was very authentic. He simply wanted to paint what he enjoyed.” And the painter remained true to that, despite great financial losses. He later bought back the university paintings with the help of his patrons. They cost a fortune even then. Today’s art lovers can only view the works in photographs. The originals were destroyed in Immendorf Castle in Lower Austria when the National Socialists set fire to the castle at the end of the Second World War.
Painted arts and crafts
1907 saw the creation of one of Klimt’s most famous works, the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, the daughter of a Viennese banker. When it was sold to a US entrepreneur for 135 million dollars in 2006, it was the most expensive painting in the world. A portrait with a very realistic face and rich gold tones around it. The fact that some people find the frequent gold in Klimt’s pictures kitschy would certainly not have bothered the painter, says Weidinger: “Klimt was not an academic painter. He hadn’t attended the Academy of Fine Arts, but the School of Applied Arts. “Klimt’s work had nothing to do with classical painting. He used the variety of materials he had dealt with since his school days. That was painted arts and crafts,” Weidinger knows.
- It was these “material pictures” that made Klimt special, a niche into which no one had followed him.
- The decorative aspect and his “authentic” character also prevented Klimt from ever being offered a professorship. “Klimt was a decorative artist,” art historian Weidinger pointed out.
- But the way he painted material evokes reverence in people. He had observed this again and again.
A man who did what he enjoyed
Gustav Klimt and the women are a separate chapter in the history of art. Not only because he immortalized the opposite sex again and again in colors and forms. Nobody knows how many children Klimt actually has. 14 However, after his death they wanted to have some of the gold cake and made claims to the inheritance. Four are said to be officially recognized. The painter was never married. He lived his passion, without cuts, says Alfred Weidinger.
Klimt was also authentic in this, without affectation: “Otherwise one cannot explain that in May 1899, when he was still having an affair with his sister-in-law Helene Klimt, he began to have an affair with Alma Mahler-Werfel at the same time. At the same time, Marie Ucicky and Marie Zimmermann were pregnant by him, and he went to see Emilie Flöge. I don’t think we could live without anger and stress in such polygamy. This is evident from the numerous love letters that Klimt received. “He was a smart guy, if you look at the photos,” says Klimt expert Weidinger. Gustav Klimt died in Vienna on February 6, 1918 at the age of 55 after a stroke.