Friday, 08 June 2012

The Kiss that changed the world

Written by Melonie Clarke
With Gustav Klimt's 150th anniversary this year, there is no better time to look at the work that changed art in Vienna and played a huge part in the success, albeit short-lived, of the Art Nouveau movement. His name and his most famous painting The Kiss stood for the beginning of a modern era for art in Vienna.

Gustav Klimt once said: "I am less interested in myself as a subject for a painting than I am in other people, above all women. . ." his love for women, not just in a sexual sense but as an art form are represented in the majority of his works. Full of eroticism and passion, Klimt's work was a million miles away from the traditional, conventional art forms that were popular in Vienna at the time and his works were dominated by an appreciation of female beauty.

590 klimtEmilie Flöge: 1902 Oil on Canvas

It wasn't until Klimt, along with other likeminded artists, created the Secessionist movement in Vienna that his popularity began to grow. Secessionists objected to Vienna's conservatism when it came to art. Unlike other art movements, the Vienna Secession was not represented by one style of art as their aim was to unite the work of all the more radical artists, which lead to the growth of the Art Nouveau movement. Klimt, Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffman and Max Kurzweil were pivotal within the movement. It is said that the Secessionist did more for Art Noveau than any other movement in Europe during the period.

This year Klimt would have celebrated his 150th birthday and his work is as popular as ever. Perhaps it's his radical spirit which could explain why once again Klimt is in vogue. "Everywhere you look, there's a Klimt. You can't escape him...He has very sensuous appeal and people respond to that almost instinctively. He pushes his paintings towards abstraction but how he does it is to fill a lot of them with patterns and this pattern-making has this kind of allure," said art critic Richard Cork.

590 klimt2Pallas Athene: 1898 Oil on Canvas

The decadence in Klimt's work is only too visible as your eyes move from one picture to another. The Kiss and Judith and the use of gold leaf in these pieces adds more passion and a hint of surrealism to his work, differing wildly from his sketches which are a documentation of true life, documenting the rise of middle class women- and normally women post coitus.

His love of women and the female form is a common feature in the majority of his works which did lead to some criticism, with some describing his work as "pornographic". On the contrary, many believe that his painting The Kiss is a self-portrait of himself with his lover, and live long companion Emilie Flöge. Flöge and Klimt spent many summers at her parents' home together after Klimt's brother married Flöge's younger sister. Flöge was fascinated by Klimt's art. As a revolutionary fashion designer (her dresses were worn with no corset), Klimt was able to introduce her to the many ladies of the upper echelons of Viennese society he was painting, providing a prosperous clientele. The couple never married but it is widely accepted that they were lovers. The picture depicts a couple clutched in a tender embrace, a far cry from the "pornography" that can be seen in many of his paintings. But despite the fact he was very sexually active, he avoided personal scandal by keeping his affairs discreet.

590 klimt3Judith: 1901 Oil on Canvas

Klimt was very discreet about all aspects of his life. He was devoted to his art, family, women and the Secessionist Movement. Despite the fact he lived mainly behind closed doors, his reputation brought patrons knocking in an attempt to commission a piece of work by him. But his name and reputation meant that he could afford to be highly selective when taking on work. In 1893, he began work on a commission for the University of Vienna. The paintings Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence were completed in 1903 and were criticized for their radical style. And as a result was the last public commission Klimt took.

When it came to the methods or inspiration for his paintings, there is little he has left as evidence. Never writing about them or writing a diary (the only writing he did was on postcards to Flöge) it has been left to our own imaginations to guess his inspirations. In a rare written document he states: "Whoever wants to know something about me... ought to look carefully at my pictures." And to look at his pictures and see the many women he painted and sketched, it is not difficult to make a guess as to his musings.

590 klimt4The Kiss: 1908 Oil on Canvas

Klimt and the Secessionists did more to enhance the popularity of Art Nouveau than any other group in Europe. Despite the public's love with the art form being short lived, Klimt had done enough to revolutionize the art of painting in Vienna.

Although the Art Noveau movement only saw a very brief period of popularity, today Klimt's paintings, which typify the movement, are amongst the most expensive in the world. A portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, which was looted during the Second World War (a number of Klimt's works were destroyed during the conflict) sold for £73 million in 2006, surpassing the figure paid for Picasso's Boy with a Pipe painting. His influence can be seen in other artists work including the Slovak artist Rudolf Fila, and there is not doubt that his works continue to fascinate to this day.

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