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Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) was one of the most outstanding Austrian symbolist artists, who represented the Vienna Secession movement (Spretnak 62). Klimt’s artistic method was strongly affected by Japanese art through all the periods of his career. His works include allegories, portraits, landscapes, murals, sketches, and other art objects, the primary subject of which was the female body. While he gradually developed a highly personal approach to eroticism presentation as a part of his eclectic and fantastic style, his works were more and more often accused of pornography (Kim 28).
However, despite a lot of dispute and criticism surrounding his name, Klimt reached a peak of success during his so-called “Golden Phase”. The paper at hand is aimed to provide an in-depth analysis of the two most prominent works belonging to this period: The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I and The Kiss. Before passing on to the discussion of these works of art, a brief overview of the whole golden phase will also be provided.
Golden Phase: Overview
Gustav Klimt’s Golden Phase covers a period from 1899 to 1910 and, as it is evident from its name, was marked by the use of the gold leaf. Gustav Klimt’s passion for gold came from his early childhood as he had a chance to watch the work of his father who was a gold engraver. The precious metal continued to inspire him in his professional career. The first use of gold leaf can be discovered in his paintings even before the Golden Phase: in 1898, Klimt painted Pallas Athene borrowing the methods of classical myth iconography and emphasizing the divinity of the goddess by application of gold. Judith I, depicting a biblical femme fatale, was painted two years later, in 1901. Yet, the most well-known works associated with this period – The Kiss and The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I – appeared later, in 1907-1908 (Brooks 49).
The technique Klimt used during the Golden Phase was greatly influenced by mosaics that he occasionally inspected in Venice and Ravenna during his not infrequent visits. His interest in Byzantine imagery can be attributed to the same source (Kim 29).
During the same period, Klimt, among other artists, was commissioned to decorate the lavish Palais Stoclet (built by Josef Hoffman) and was completely absorbed by this work. The Palais belonged to a well-know Belgian industrialist, Adolphe Stoclet, and could be fairly referred to as one of the most luxurious private mansions of the century as well as listed among the greatest works of the Art Nouveau age. Klimt’s contribution to this work cannot be overestimated: both Fulfillment and Expectation, which he painted in the dining room, belong to his best pieces of ornament. The artist himself took pride in these art objects and admitted them to be his ultimate stage of mastery in decorative painting (Kotsimbos 858).
Although he mostly led a secluded life devoid of social contacts (except for his collaboration with the Secessionist Movement), Klimt still was greatly interested in society women: five portraits of women wrapped in fur were created between 1907 and 1909. This subject also indicates the artist’s love of costume (Kim 30).
Even though such details allow us to discern repetitive patterns in the Klimt’s paintings, his vision and methods remain rather obscure as he never made any comments on the topic. The only claim Klimt ever made was his denial of the attempts to paint a self-portrait, which was frequently attributed to him (Kotsimbos 858). Thus, the period should be primarily judged by the works belonging to it rather than by the artist’s description and attitude.
The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I
Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I is the first of the two portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer (1881-1925), the wife of a Viennese banker and a prominent member of the wealthy society of Vienne of that time. Initially, the painting bore the name of the woman; however, when it was seized from the family home by Nazi, the Jewish reference was concealed under the name of The Woman in Gold when the portrait was displayed in public. This masterpiece, created in 1907, is considered to be the finest paining of Klimt and is currently exhibited in the Neue Galerie in New York City (the biggest collection of the artist’s works in the US) (Russell 1).
The work on the portrait began much earlier than 1907: in 1903, Klimt was commissioned to paint Adele Bloch-Bauer by her husband, who planned to present the painting to Adele’s parents. The first sketches were made in 1903-1904 and were immediately purchased by the Bloch-Bauers among other works of the painter. A lot of preparatory steps were required to complete the portrait: Klimt visited Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna – he wanted to have a closer look at Byzantine gold mosaics of Justinian I and Empress Theodora – and, upon his return, tried to recreate the effect of magnificence and grandeur, which the mosaics produced upon him. It is worth noting that no other painting Klimt ever produced took so much time, effort, and preparation as The Woman in Gold (Brooks 50).
The portrait was finished in 1907 and put in a gold frame specifically designed by the architect Joseph Hoffman. The painting measures 140 by 140 cm; the artist composed it using an elaborate technique, applying oil paint as well as gold and silver leaf (yet, there were some decorative patterns in bas-relief using gesso and a special mixture of chalk and binder). Oil was needed to paint Adele’s hair, face, décolletage, and hands (which together make less than a tenth part of the whole canvas), whereas her garment and the starry background is created using gold and silver leaf (Russell 2).
In the painting, the sitter occupies a golden throne and wears the same jewelry as the artist painted before, in Judith. Her wealth and power are emphasized by precious metals and artifacts she is wearing; moreover, excessive use of gold suggests the woman’s detachment from the earthly plane making her aloof and superior at the same time. However, the woman does not seem arrogant or conceited – on the contrary, her fragile grasping hands, her melancholic eyes, and sensuality suggest that she is tender and vulnerable (Russell 2). There is a curious paradox that many critics notice in the portrait: while the artists brilliantly managed to show the character and of his sitter, those parts that are painted in oil and depict her unadorned body are the least expressive of all. In his Golden Phase, Klimt rarely attempted to provide location and context to his portraits and tended to omit all the details that he considered to be redundant, including peculiarities of the appearance. In this case, the best part of the canvas is occupied by ornament (hands and face are the only parts that allow judging the sitter’s appearance), which makes it the major conveyor of the artist’s message to the viewer (Brooks 51). We can find a lot of symbols suggestive of the influence of Byzantine, Egypt, Mycenae, and Greece: among the most commonly identified by art critics are triangles, eggs, almond shapes, and decorative patterns of the letter A. Naturalism of the face and hands is blended with the elaborate and unearthly decoration of the garment and the background, which creates the effect of mutilation (the head and the body seem to be disjoined) (Spretnak 63).
All this indicates Klimt’s desire to step away from depicted objects into a pure form – an abstraction that was typical of many artists of that time. Still, Klimt decided not to cross this boundary to step into the extreme – this is evident from his second portrait of Adele, in which her body was paid much more attention (Russell 3).
The painting was acquired by the Austrian State Gallery in Vienna in 1941, after having been seized by the Nazi. In 2000, Maria Altmann sued the state in the US Court for illegal ownership of the paintings belonging to her uncle. The gallery claimed that the pictures were to stay where they were as it was by the original will written by Adele Bloch-Bauer. However, in 2006, the case was solved in favor of the suitor, who obtained the legal ownership of five paintings by Klimt, including The Woman in Gold. In the same year, it was estimated at an unprecedented price ($135 million) and sold to Ronald Lauder to be displayed in Neue Gallery. The portrait continues to be regarded as the icon of Klimt’s heritage and is often likened to Mona Lisa in its splendor and influence (Russell 4).
Another high point of the Golden Phase, The Kiss, was painted between 1907 and 1908 when the gilded style already totally occupied the artist’s creative space. The painting, which is no less popular than Adele Bloch-Bauer I, is currently stored in the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere museum in the Belvedere palace, Vienna (Spretnak 65).
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Klimt began working on the painting after he had finished the series of Vienna Ceiling consisting of three pieces. Although the artist was widely criticized for pornography and perversity, he was not discouraged to proceed with his celebration of sexual love. Surprisingly, The Kiss received positive feedback and was immediately sold (Kim 70).
The painting is a perfect large square 180 by 180 cm, composed of oil paint with the application of gold leaf. It shows an embracing couple engulfed by a space of gold, the woman being absorbed by the man. Their entwined bodies in gorgeous garments are depicted against the night sky at the edge of a meadow with flowers – the couple is about to fall into the abyss. The patterns used for the decoration of their robes are typical of the Art Nouveau style. However, some elements are borrowed from the Arts and Crafts movement. Similar to Adele Bloch-Bauer I, representational forms are weak and much less striking as compared to the elaborate yet abstract golden shroud surrounding the couple (Kim 71). Rectangular, rigid forms (symbolizing masculinity) are juxtaposed to circular and fluid ones (standing for femininity). There is also an obvious conflict between the central figures and the shimmering flat pattern, in which they dissolve: three-dimensionality is contrasted with two-dimensionality – this was a common feature in works of modernists. Yet, the painting also shows the influence of numerous masterpieces and schools of the past: it uses a gold leaf as paintings and illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Age; spiral patterns and curves were borrowed from clothes of the Bronze Age, whereas simplified composition and the location of the man’s head (very close to the top of the picture, which violates European canons) is a clear reference to Japanese art (Kotsimbos 858).
The figures placed at the edge of a meadow are also contrasted to one another creating a kind of dichotomic unity. The man is clothed in a black robe with rectangular white decorum, arranged irregularly on a gold leaf; his head is crowned with a halo of the vine. The woman, on the contrary, is depicted with the use of curvy lines and oval motifs. She wears a tight-fitting dress with a flower pattern; her hair is also decorated with flowers making emphasis on her face. The flowers form a kind of necklace under the woman’s chin. Despite being so mild, gentle, and vulnerable, the woman is still the one who prevents the couple from falling from the edge into the unknown (Kotsimbos 859).
There exist numerous interpretations of the painting as well as versions of who served prototypes of the figures. According to a wide-spread explanation, the man with a beard is Klimt’s attempt to picture himself, which he rarely did. The woman is again Adele Block-Bauer. Other critics argue that the artist depicted Emilie Flöge, however, no written record could prove this supposition. There is another version that the sitter is very much similar to a famous model nicknamed Red Hilda. The subject of the painting also gives rise to a lot of interpretations. The most popular one is that the artist captured the moment of a kiss between Apollo and Daphne. Yet, Klimt himself never indicated any connection with Ovid’s narrative (Kim 73).
What can be stated for sure is that the whole work was inspired by the artist’s visit to Ravenna and the same mosaics of the Church of San Vitale, the golden radiance and loftiness of which he never ceased to admire. Yet, despite religious motifs underlying the painting, it is still believed to celebrate sensual pleasures and sexuality (Globig 34).
The Kiss was first displayed even before it was finished in 1908. The artist was paid a record sum of 25,000 crowns (which equals modern $240,000). Austria considers the painting a national treasure, which means that the Viennese museum is very unlikely to sell it even though it is expected to break the record. Austria, being so proud of Klimt’s work, released a 100 euro coin with the painting on the one side and the artist’s portrait on the other (Kim 73).
Gustav Klimt was a very controversial figure of the Vienna Secession. Although he was its first president and achieved success during his life, his direct influence on other painters was limited in comparison to the one his works exerted after his death. In his works of the Golden Phase, Klimt mostly tried to step away from realism and unite the natural with the fantastic, which would give the so-called total work of art. While most of his contemporaries did not believe in the artistic power of ornament, he continued attaching a great significance to symbols borrowed from Byzantine, Greek, and Egyptian art.
Brooks, Lily. “Visualizing the Modern Woman: Klimt’s Adele Bloch-Bauer I and Picasso’s Gertrude Stein.” Art Journal, vol. 1, 2016, pp. 47-52.
Globig, Aleksandra Diana. A New Method of Surface Ornamentation: Ludwig Hevesi’s” Malmosaik” in Gustav Klimt’s Faculty Paintings, “Beethoven Frieze” and” Stoclet Frieze”. University of Oregon, 2013.
Kim, Shun Young. The Illustrator’s Sketchbook: A study of the Creative Process through Drawing, Engraving and Printmaking. Fashion Institute of Technology, 2014.
Kotsimbos, Tom. “From the Museum: the Art of Thinking. Part Eight: Memory.” European Respiratory Journal, vol. 44, no. 4, 2014, pp. 858-859.
Russell, Jon. “Cover Art Commentary: Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer 1907 by Gustav Klimt, Austrian, 1862–1918.” Journal of Musculoskeletal Pain, vol. 22, no. 1, 2014, pp. 1-6.
Spretnak, Charlene. The Spiritual Dynamic in Modern Art: Art History Reconsidered, 1800 to the Present. Springer, 2014.