“All art is erotic” – Gustav Klimt
I don’t know if that’s true for guys like Monet or Gainsborough or Norman Rockwell, but for Klimt himself truer words were never spoken. Arguably one of Austria’s most formidable artistic figures, Gustav Klimt had, as they say, sex on the brain, and everywhere else no doubt When he wasn’t choking cats, he was creating lusty, seductive images of women in the throes of passion.
To some degree, Klimt’s life benefited from highly providential circumstances. He was in the right place at the right time in history. Vienna, at the turn of the century. A bona-fide cultural capital of Europe. While not quite as cutting-edge as Paris, Vienna still offered fertile ground for artistic expression. It was the city of Sigmund Freud and Arnold Schoenberg, theaters, cafes, music, nightclubs, literature, architecture. It glistened during that shining period of European history known as Belle Époque (“beautiful era”). An artist like Klimt couldn’t have asked for a more conducive milieu. If Klimt was in Paris, he might have been just another avante-gardist. But in Vienna he was THE avante-gardist. Better a big fish in a smaller tank, right?
But life didn’t start out so gloriously for Gustav Klimt. Born the second of seven children just outside Vienna in 1862, Klimt grew up in a poor, struggling family. His father, an engraver, had difficulty making ends meet. As a result the family frequently moved from place to place. Like it often does, art school presented a way out of obscurity, and the fourteen year old Klimt entered Vienna’s School of Arts and Crafts on a scholarship. There he immersed himself in the meticulous, decorative techniques of mosaic and fresco. Soon, commissions for public art projects around Vienna came flowing in.
Given Klimt’s propensity for overt sexual imagery, it was only a matter of time before he offended a client. In the 1890s, he was commissioned to create three large paintings on the wall of the University. He did, and was vehemently criticized for their perceived scandalous nature. Klimt was accused of creating “pornography” and using “excessive perversion”. Needless to say, Klimt had an epiphany as a result of the experience. He realized that public work assignments in the government’s employ would never afford him the artistic freedom he required. By 1900, he was out on his own. That meant female models. Nude female models. All day, every day. Let the fun begin!
The studio had the feel of a harem. Klimt’s models strolled around casually in the nude, lounging, napping, stretching, gossiping, each one ready at a moment’s notice to provide erotic poses and explicit sexuality for the intense Klimt. The man himself wore a long, loose-fitting robe and sandals. Mizzi Zimmerman was among those models, and she became pregnant with his child. In true Klimt form, he painted her in her pregnant state, erotically of course.
It’s not an accident that most of Klimt’s models are redheads. He had a thing for them. Here are a few, floating around in blissful, wanton surrender. Water in Motion from 1898:
Klimt became known as “Vienna’s painter prince” and he enjoyed the moniker. Many of the city’s socialites and upper class women approached him for commissioned portraits, friendship, or more. Klimt attempted to seduce every last one of them, with varying success. Among them was Friederike Maria Beer, daughter of a wealthy nightclub owner. Friederike described Klimt as having “animal magnetism”. Klimt also met and had a tempestuous affair with Alma Schindler, the future wife of composer Gustav Mahler. But without question, Klimt’s most famous “rich lady” friend and painting subject was Adele Bloch-Bauer, wife of a wealthy Viennese industrialist. Klimt’s renowned gold-embellished portrait of Adele hangs in the Neue Galerie here in New York. In 2006, Ronald Lauder’s purchase of that painting for $135 million generated such an insane level of hype in this city I have no words to describe the madness. It was nuts.
But it was Klimt’s studio models who were his most exciting and willing muses. Portraiture aside, no Vienna society lady would pose for – let alone pull off – something like this. One of my favorite paintings, this is Danae. If it reminds you of a sleepy, dreaming woman in an orgasmic state, then Klimt did his job well. Girl is feeling goood
Klimt did many drawings, some as preparation for paintings. This is Woman Semi-Nude. Nice view!
Klimt rarely, and I do mean RARELY, used male models. But he clearly needed one for this drawing, Recumbent Lovers. As a drawing it’s nothing spectacular, but I thought my blogosphere fellas would enjoy it. So here you go, guys. A little missionary action for ya’.
Let’s get horizontal again shall we? Only this time we’ll dispense of heterosexual love and explore homosexuality. For a man like Klimt that meant one thing: lesbians. This is his treatment (one of many) of lesbian eroticism. From 1907, Water Snakes II:
Klimt was a hypochondriac. Obsessive about his health, he lifted weights to stay in top physical condition and suffered paranoid fears of diseases, both of body and mind. But there was one disease that Klimt could not protect himself from, not even with the strictest health regimen: syphilis. He contracted it, inevitably, after years of promiscuity and countless affairs.
Comparisons are naturally drawn between Klimt and his Austrian compatriot Egon Schiele. Younger than Klimt by almost 30 years, Schiele reached out to Klimt and became his protege. Like his older mentor, Schiele created art that was considered by many as lewd and pornographic. But Schiele’s sexual imagery seems to have a repellant, debasing effect, while Klimt’s are more sensuous, vivid, and aesthetically engaging. (In my opinion, a parallel between Klimt and Rodin is a more apt comparison artistically).
When asked why he never painted a self-portrait, Klimt explained that “there is nothing special about me . . . whoever wants to know something about me ought to look carefully at my pictures”. That’s an honest, rather than evasive, answer. Look at the pictures, just like the man said. And if “a picture paints a thousands words”, we can safely say that we know Gustav Klimt pretty darn well. We know, above all else, that no subject inspired him more than the female form.
I take issue with this last image. It’s The Virgin from 1913, and I’m ashamed to admit that when I lost my virginity it neither looked nor felt anything remotely like this. What gives? I want a do-over! (too late for that). This is obviously an idealized male fantasy of what a girl’s “transformation” is like. But a gorgeous, decadent panting nonetheless. It glimmers and shimmers, in trademark Klimt style:
You can find more images and information about Klimt, and things I didn’t cover here – his participation in the Vienna Secession, the “Beethoven Frieze”, and his long term relationship with Emilie Flöge – on this excellent site. Beautifully designed, informative, and visually stunning, it was of great help to me organizing this post.
And as for Museworthy, our horny boy Klimt will be back for sure