Gustav Klimt’s golden visions of the female form are about to go on show in Britain. 2012
Martin Gayford reports
In June 1902, the great French sculptor Auguste Rodin was passing through Vienna, en route from Prague.
While in town, he accepted an invitation to visit the current exhibition of the Vienna Secession movement, and to meet the artist whose monumental work, the Beethoven Frieze, was at the heart of the display: Gustav Klimt.
The two artists – Rodin 62, and at the peak of his fame, Klimt just about to turn 40 – went to a café in the Prater garden. According to the art critic, Berta Zuckerkandl, they sat down «beside two remarkably beautiful young women at whom Rodin gazed enchantedly.
«That afternoon, slim and lovely vamps came buzzing around Klimt and Rodin, those two fiery lovers,» Zuckerkandl recalled.
«Rodin leaned over and to Klimt and said, ‘I have never before experienced such an atmosphere – your tragic and magnificent Beethoven fresco, your unforgettable, temple-like exhibition, and now this garden, these women, this music. What is the reason for it all?’ And Klimt slowly nodded his beautiful head, and answered only one word: ‘Austria.'»
Rodin and Klimt, despite differences in nationality, age and medium, had a great deal in common, not least that both of them had created daring works with a single theme: a kiss between naked male and female figures. Indeed, the word «kiss» is a little euphemistic. The subject was sex.
Klimt’s kiss was the climactic moment of his monumental Beethoven Frieze, a recreation of which will be one of the highlights of the forthcoming exhibition at Tate Liverpool, Gustav Klimt: Painting, Design & Modern Life in Vienna 1900. 2012
This will be the first substantial exhibition of work by Klimt ever staged in Britain. It will present around 26 paintings and 30 drawings in the context of an equal number of pieces of furniture and objects by contemporaries such as the architect and designer Josef Hoffmann.
Among the Klimts will be several important works including Nuda Veritas (1899), the sensuous naked nymphs of Water Serpents I (1904-7) and a 34-metre replica of the Beethoven Frieze.
This huge work was based on Richard Wagner’s description of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which concludes, of course, with the singing of Schiller’s «Ode to Joy». Wagner had described this epic piece of music as «a struggle, conceived in the most grandiose manner, by the Spirit for joy against the weight of those hostile powers that stand between us and earthly happiness».
Klimt represented Schiller’s words, «Joy, beautiful sparks of the gods, this kiss for all the world», in the most earthy manner, with his naked, embracing lovers.
To Klimt, it seems, the hostile powers – naked temptresses and a huge snarling ape – above all symbolised the disease syphilis of which he was terrified – and understandably, since he had contracted it at an early age.
Thus, his frieze brought together the themes of music, death, love – or sex – so fundamentally fascinating to the Vienna of Sigmund Freud and Arthur Schnitzler. That was perhaps what Klimt meant by his laconic answer to Rodin’s question.
As this incident suggests, Klimt was a man of few words, but he made a forceful physical impression. Alfred Lichtwar, the director of the Hamburger Kunsthalle, described him as «a stocky man, more or less chubby» with «the cheerful, brusque manners of a nature boy, a sailor’s brown skin, strong cheekbones and little darting eyes. When he speaks, it is with a resounding voice and strong dialect.»
A young woman named Frederike Beer-Monti rang on Klimt’s doorbell in 1915, hoping he would paint her portrait (she had already posed for his younger rival, Schiele). She found him both taciturn and formidable.
«Klimt took her hand, looked at it, turned it over and for a long time, said not a single word.»
Beer-Monti was finally allowed to enter. But, «It took a lot of talking to make him a little friendlier.»
Klimt eventually agreed to paint her – an arduous business which took three sittings of three hours each per week for six months. Though the result was a magnificent picture, Beer-Monti was ambivalent about the artist.
«Klimt was exceptionally animal-like. His body exuded a peculiar odour. As a woman, one was really afraid of him.»
Born in 1862, Klimt was from a relatively humble background – the second of seven children, his father a gold engraver. There was something feral about him. In photographs he is often wearing a full-length smock, in which he resembles a classical faun dressed up as a biblical prophet.
His studio was filled, as was Rodin’s, with models who posed for endless drawings – often, again like Rodin’s, of a startling eroticism.
These models inhabited his studio, rather like his pet cats. When he was painting Frederike Beer-Monti, «He took a break every hour and went into an adjacent room to relax and chat for a while with the models who were always there.
Alma Schindler reported that he ‘would take them to the theatre or races, always slipped them a banknote’.» Alma Schindler herself – later Alma Mahler, and subsequently the lover of Oskar Kokoschka and the wife of the architect Walter Gropius – was one of Klimt’s failed conquests.
He pursued her to Italy in 1899, where she was on holiday with her family. He kissed her in a Genoese hotel room, embraced her on a bridge in Venice while they looked into the dark waters of the canal, but she, though wildly in love, was firm («not without a ring on my finger»).
About the same time, Klimt fathered three sons – one of whom went on to become a well-known film director – by two other women, and began a long-lasting, though apparently open, relationship with a talented proprietor of a Viennese fashion salon, Emilie Flöge.
The names of the models and other women in his life do not always survive, partly because Flöge burnt much of Klimt’s correspondence after his death from a stroke in 1918. One who has been identified by chance recently was Hilde Roth, a beautiful Bohemian redhead from Budapest whose face can be seen Lady with Hat and feather Boa (c1910), and voluptuous body – probably – in Goldfish (1901-02).
Although he was a delightful painter of landscapes, women were Klimt’s theme above all others.
Richard Muter, in a newspaper review of 1909, claimed that «the new Viennese woman, a specific sort of new Viennese woman – their grandmothers were Judith and Salome – has been invented or discovered by Klimt. She is delightfully vicious, charmingly sinful, fascinatingly perverse.»
Klimt was certainly able, like certain couturiers and fashion photographers, to make his sitters and models look extraordinarily glamorous. In his later portraits, the work for which above all he is famous, his strategy was to retain the academic realism of his earlier work for the face and figure of the subject.
But he dissolved the rest of the image in luxuriant decoration, derived from Byzantine mosaics, Celtic design, and the Oriental textiles and ceramics that filled his studio. The effect is sumptuous, sensual, near-abstract but not too dauntingly avant-garde.
That ornament, however, tended to be filled with meaning. When Klimt died, an unfinished painting entitled The Bride was left in his studio. The right half was dominated by a semi-naked female figure.
As the art historian Alessandra Comini described it, «The knees were bent and the legs splayed out to expose a carefully detailed pubic area on which the artist had leisurely begun to paint an overlay ‘dress’ of suggestive and symbolic ornamental shapes.»
Thus Klimt’s own death revealed the sexual obsession that lay beneath his shimmering surfaces.
Fuente: The Telegraph