The Naked Truth

As the celebrations of revolutionary artist Gustav Klimt are in full swing, takes a look at why he has become one of the most adored rebels of our time

Klimt’s last studio in Feldmühlgasse, Vienna

Klimt’s last studio in Feldmühlgasse, Vienna

Gustav Klimt, one of the art world’s original rebels, is at the centre of global celebrations, as art lovers gather in their thousands to mark the master’s 150th anniversary from this summer until the end of the year. As a founding member and president of the Vienna Secession movement, he strived to shock the public with his overtly sexual, sinuous paintings. Klimt’s contribution to this radical movement was pivotal in inspiring a number of artists, including his protégé, Egon Shiele, to veer from the traditional and somewhat archaic style that dominated Austrian Art at that time.

Klimt’s work and achievements were such that they sent global shockwaves, as seen by a number of countries paying tribute to his legacy. In London, celebrations were out in full force, including “Klimt Illustrated”, which I had the pleasure of viewing.

Hosted by the Lazarides art gallery in Soho, the exhibition was made up of the works of nine internationally renowned street artists who produced Klimt-inspired pieces, in front of a live audience in London’s Grosvenor Gardens on the 21st of August. In the spirit of Vienna’s rich cultural diversity, the event was freely open to the public, with the aim of showcasing the city’s modern art scene and imperial heritage. The event was said by one London magazine to be a “superb parallel universe that would make you feel like flying straight to Vienna to see Klimt’s original paintings.”

Echoes of Klimt’s unique panache resonate in each of the works, often through the imitation of his outline shape of the figures depicted in “The Kiss”. The artists added something of themselves to their pieces, but held true to the “curves, spirals, mystical whirlpools and bright assorted shapes” of Klimt’s work, that one French art critic, Gilles Neret, dubbed as the rebel master’s artistic hook, with the purpose of “enticing the viewer towards the depths of the unconscious and the labyrinths of the mind”.

One piece even included a telescope piercing into a landscape painting, giving acknowledgement to Klimt’s own practice of viewing scenes through a telescope as his way of escaping the hectic city of Vienna and the turmoil of World War I. The showcase was an extraordinary testimony to Klimt’s bravery and determination to break down restricting societal norms through expressive Art, for which modern artists owe a great deal.

As well as the post humorous lessons he has been able to teach many a modern artist, during his lifetime, Klimt mentored a number of younger artists, with a great deal of his time focused on Shiele, who too had “had enough of censorship”, as put by Gilles Neret. Klimt and Shiele wanted to be free of state interference, wanting to escape the claustrophobic rigour of Vienna. In his support of Shiele, Klimt bought some of the young artist’s drawings, introduced him to potential patrons and brought him to the Wiener Werkstätte, the major art workshop connected with the Secession.

His guidance led Shiele to found the “New Art Group”, which connected other disillusioned students of the traditional Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. Klimt’s influence on Shiele’s life is typical of the encouragement that he gave to other artists like him, striving to deviate from the norm in a time where nothing but conformity was acceptable.

Quite naturally, Klimt’s artistic style was met with an icy reception by those who wanted to uphold the more orthodox pillars of Vienna’s art scene. Despite this, at the turn of the century, Klimt fell into a “Golden Phase” (1899-1910), where his work was positively received and most known for his use of gold leaf. During this period, he created “The Kiss” and was greatly inspired by his trips to Vienna and Ravenna.

Departing from the tortured artist cliché, Klimt lived a simple life, involving little more than a robe, sandals and a paintbrush. He avoided personal scandal and public affairs, advising anyone who wished to know anything about him to “look at [his] paintings”. One of his final paintings, “Death and Life”, created in 1911, won first prize at the world exhibitions in Rome, demonstrating the progression of his work as viewed by the public and his momentous impact on global artistry.

Klimt’s colourful artistic career is still celebrated 150 years on. The city of Vienna held various exhibitions and remembrances to demonstrate the influence that Klimt’s work continues to hold over modern day artists.

The Belvedere, home to the largest collection of Klimt’s paintings, is hosting “Masterpieces in Focus: 150 years of Gustav Klimt”, curated by Dr. Stephan Koja, author of Gustav Klimt Landscapes (2002). The exhibition explores each year of his life, including all negative and positive public receptions of his work.

At the turn of the century Klimt’s work has become much more than a mere visual medium. For the general public who secretly shared his desire to break away from structure and regimented order, his work stood for change and the possibility of social liberation.

The most recent insight into Klimt’s life and artwork can be found in his last standing studio in the 13th district of Vienna, Feldmühlgasse, which recently underwent renovation for the first time since 1918. The abandoned studio is where he created most of his works during the last six years of his life. It still contains two of his paintings, “The Bride” and “Lady with a fan”, just resting on their easels. A fascinating insight into some of the strange patterns in his paintings was realised on closer observation of some of the unusual gowns discovered around the room and curtains covering the northern facing windows.

Klimt’s studio has now been reopened, after almost 15 years of political struggle. Various plans including secret demolition schemes kept cropping up in order for the property to be sold to Russian developers.

Thankfully, in 2009, the property was declared a national monument, keeping Klimt’s last surviving studio safe from any plans of destruction. Dr. Felizitas Schreier, president of the Klimt Memorial Society, describes Klimt as a “star painter”, and thanks to the protection of a building that serves as a glimpse into the master’s artistic mind, “we may actually have more understanding of his work and life in Vienna”.

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