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Gustav Klimt

Gustav Klimt

Why is Klimt important? The golden era of art nouveau.

Defying the late 18th century academic realism by the use of abstract shapes and gold in his works, Gustav Klimt’s distinct style left him as one of the masters of symbolism and a prominent historical figure of modern art.


Gustav Klimt was born on June 14th - 1862, right before the fall of Austrian Empire. As the son of a struggling post-war gold engraver Earnst and his mother Anna, a unrealised musician, Klimt grew up in relative poverty.

Despite the situation, he displayed an evident talent in the field of arts and was offered a full scholarship (Kunstgewerbeschule) in the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts at the age of fourteen. A feat most likely achieved by his early interest in what little work his father received and the overall artistic background of his parents.

At the academy, Klimt specialized in architectural paintings and received a classical education focusing on what was the the norm of academical drawing. He won numerous awards for interior decorations, later becoming the foremost interior decorator in Austria.

The academic phase of his life culminated with the Auditorium of the Old Burgtheater. A painting, that remained in history as one of the greatest achievements in Naturalist works of art. Klimt then switched to portraits and became the leading artist in Austria.

Exactly during the peak of his academical art achievements, Gustav Klimt began to stray away from the traditional styles. His works involved many shapes, patterns and nudity, which was unliked by the academy. This drove Klimt to what was named the “Succession”, after becoming the president of the "Union of Austrian Painters".

The movement was created to question the rules of classical art, as it failed to describe what was beyond reality and more freedom was needed for artists to express themselves. A few years later, Gustav Klimt entered his “Golden Phase”, where his most famous paintings were created.

Gustav kept his personal life mostly a secret and despite being very sexually active, he never married. There was only one woman that had a significant impact in his life and that was Emilie Flöge.

The Flöge sisters were part of the Viennese bohemian circles and were very passionate about fashion. With time, their own salon was dressing the richest clients in Austria. From the moment Klimt’s younger brother Ernst Klimt married Helene Flöge in the early 1890s, Gustav and Emilie became lifetime companions.

Why is Klimt important?

Gustav Klimt used mythology and allegory to disguise and embed his deeply erotic nature into his art. His drawings often seem to express a purely sexual interest in women. However, it wasn’t only that.

He abandoned the then conservative views of the Viennese intellectuals and focused his work on symbolism rather than academic realism. The principles held by the art elite at the time viewed painting as only to be used in representing the three dimensional reality onto a canvas with utmost precision.

Klimt opposed that academic realism is not enough to describe the vastness of human emotion and imagination, emphasising on the need for more freedom in painting what does not truly exist. One of the main characteristics of Klimt’s art is his neglect towards perspective by overflowing the canvas with various decorative shapes and patterns.

These shapes and patterns, however were not random. They were all inspired by by his interest in biology of reproduction and international art history. He was greatly fascinated by the way human life evolves in women’s womb and that was heavily represented in his most famous works. If there were two things Klimt cared about during his time, it would be science and women.

The story of Danaë and Zeus is one of his finest representations of divine love and transcendence. A sensual and mythical conception that gave life to Perseus. By removing the rest of the details from the original story, Klimt based his entire composition on the feminine curves and the ornamental symbolism of golden rain. One of the most justified uses of the golden lief in his career, which transformed eros into an icon.

How did Klimt apply gold leaf?

If Klimt became the foremost artist in Austria because of his work during the years at the academy, then what he achieved during the period known as Klimt’s Golden Phase placed him in history. One might argue the origin of his style began after the very close deaths of both his father and brother.

So, why is it named Klimt’s Golden Phase? Well, mainly because of the fact that he used gold in some of his most famous paintings. It is also likely that he learned how to work with gold from his father at a young age. During his early years at the Viennese academy, Klimt was greatly inspired by the expressiveness of Byzantine Art and after his succession from the academy, years later, all this knowledge culminated with the idea of breaking reality by placing exceptionally thin leafs of compressed gold at the base of his canvas.

It is interesting to share that not all of Klimt’s paintings involved a golden leaf during those years. Starting 1904, Klimt became a frequent summer guest of the Flöge family, near Lake Attersee, where he painted a series of landscapes that portrayed flowers abundant on colors. It is hinted that these landscapes were somewhat inspired by impressionism of Vincent van Gogh whom Klimt had previously studied.

Of course, the creation of his artwork wasn’t that simple. After the deaths of his father and brother, Klimt closed off from society to work and study and there was only one place he allowed himself to experience during this period of exile. Italy. Or more precisely, locations like Verona and Ravenna where one can observe historical Roman mosaic pieces. It is hinted that exactly these visits allowed him to transfer his Byzantine inspiration onto the canvas. What followed next was history.

Although his most famous paintings were made after the end of the 18th century, Klimt’s golden phase began around 1898 with the creation of the Pallas Athena. This was the first time he had used golden leaf in a mosaic like manner. Shortly after, Judith I was painted in 1901. However the two paintings most commonly associated with his golden phase were the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I in 1907, sold for 135 million in June 2006, and The Kiss, again made in the period of 1907-1908.

Unlike most of his works marked by an unhidden eroticism, the first portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer is rather symbolic. Drowned in ornamental Byzantine gold, her languid face and hands are cold, tender and extremely realistic. At the same time, the scattered use of complementary blue brings out the luminance of the golden leaf even more. This almost minimalistic contrast and simplicity of the composition push Adele’s femininity and elegance closer to the viewer.

Gustav Klimt’s combination of lewdness and symbolism made him one of the most controversial figures of Viennese society and an integral part of the European rise of modernism. Even more impressive is the fact that Klimt’s use of gold has ensured the genuinity of his paintings to stand the tests of time, so that we, even now, can observe them in their original glory.