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First published at January 2004.

The Dark Beauty of Gustave Klimt (1862-1918)

By Michael Sones

Klimt, Gustav
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Gustav Klimt, the Austrian painter, was born on July 14, 2023 in the Viennese suburb of Baumgarten. He was the second of seven children. His father, Ernst Klimt, was a gold engraver and this is probably why so much gold and silver figured in Klimt's later paintings. His mother was Anna Finster. His father failed at his work and the family lived in absolute poverty in very dismal conditions.

Klimt finished formal schooling at the age of fourteen but was admitted to the School of Applied Arts in Vienna in 1876 where his obvious talent was soon recognized. He studied drawing and decorative painting and was supporting himself on commissions before he finished the course.

In 1883 he formed a decorative painting company with his brothers and did numerous murals and other decorative work in public buildings during the 1880's and 1890's. His painting was initially within what was the classical realist style but he became interested in Symbolist painting and literature and this soon began to inspire his paintings.

Klimt, Gustav
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This was 19th century fin-de-siecle Vienna. Freud was developing his psychoanalytic theory and writing The Interpretation of Dreams and his theories about the importance of infantile sexuality and its symbolic expression in adult life. Just as Freud was dogged by controversy so was Klimt's work. The strict academics did not like it because they could not understand the symbolism and the Catholic Church was annoyed by the eroticism and nudity.

Klimt was nominated for a Professorship at the Academy but this was vetoed by the Ministry of Culture and Education. Eventually Klimt stopped accepting commissions funded by the public purse so that he could paint with artistic freedom. He was a leading proponent of the Art Nouveau movement in Austria. He died in 1918 at the age of fifty-five after a stroke.

Apparently Klimt was interested in the more perverse aspects of human sexuality. Many of his paintings have a femme fatale motif or are darkly suggestive in other ambiguous ways. He clearly was attracted to the beauty of women and once said of himself that he was not an interesting person but that women were. However, there is a darker and more sinister side to women's beauty which can clearly be seen in Klimt's very elaborate paintings. This inviting, yet dark and also coldly distant, representation of women can be clearly seen in the above print named 'Judith.'

Yet it is not only women who have an ambiguity to them. If you look closely at 'The Kiss', the title of which suggests something romantic, the painting suggests something else. How willing is the woman? The expression on her face does not seem to be one of either erotic or romantic rapture but the covering wraps itself around them in a manner which binds them, the woman perhaps unwillingly, together.


Modernism in the Making

Biography of Klimt

Edward Lucie-Smith, Sexuality in Western Art, Thames and Hudson, 1997.

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