Gustav Klimt

Dates1862 - 1918

Gustav Klimt is known for his sumptuous, ornate paintings in which the figures are nearly submerged in a mosaic of jewel-like color and gold. He was also a highly accomplished and prolific draftsman. For drawings, Klimt preferred to work in black chalk and pencil, monochrome media which draw attention to the extreme refinement and intensity of his line.

The son of an engraver, Klimt entered the Vienna Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Applied Arts) in 1876. His early work, often created in partnership with his brother Ernst and fellow student Franz von Matsch, was academic in character, freely mixing historical styles; it included several important commissions for the decoration of public buildings, such as the newly built Burgtheater. Because of the acclaim these frescoes garnered, the University of Vienna commissioned him in 1894 to paint three murals representing the disciplines of Medicine, Jurisprudence, and Philosophy. However, over the ten years he worked on the paintings, Klimt's style underwent dramatic changes. In 1897, he led a group of nineteen avant-garde artists that broke away from the conservative Künstlerhaus (Vienna's main exhibition venue for contemporary art) to form a new movement: the Vienna Secession. The Secession's motto, "To each age its art, to art its freedom," illustrated its aim to create a new art, unbounded by tradition, that reflected modern life. A key influence on the Secession's aesthetic was Symbolism, an international artistic movement of the late nineteenth century that advocated the representation of ideas, dreams and states of mind. This influence manifested itself in Klimt's work in a dreamlike atmosphere, elegant stylization, and an all-pervading eroticism. In fact, the eroticism and graphic nudity of the completed University murals so scandalized the faculty that in 1905, Klimt took them back and returned his payment. He never undertook a public commission again, devoting the rest of his career, up to his death in 1918, to glittering landscapes and portraits of women from Vienna's upper classes.

Klimt and the other members of the Secession and the Wiener Werkstätte--a group of fine and decorative artists with important links to the Secession--believed passionately in the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), in which several different art forms were combined to unified effect. This could be as all-encompassing as the interior of the Palais Stoclet in Brussels, in whose design Klimt was involved, but it could also be as basic as the frame for a painting or drawing--many of which he designed himself.

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