Meeting Klimt in Vienna

When I considered what to do with my time in Vienna, I was confronted by the fact that I had not been taking advantage of the many galleries and museums all around me in Europe.  The only exhibit I have seen since arriving here two-and-a-half months ago was the exhibit Kontroverze at the Galerie Rudolfinum in Prague.  It was an excellent  exhibit examining various ethical photography issues such as censorship, copyright, journalism, and photographer as spectator.  Having studied art in college, I felt that I ought to take advantage of the Belvedere in Vienna.  I knew that it contained many paintings by Gustav Klimt, and having never seen one of his paintings in person, I set out.

There I purchased a combination ticket, which gained me admittance into the Belvedere as well as a lower building (across the courtyard) which was housing a Josef Hoffman and Gustav Klimt exhibit as well as some contemporary art.  As I began my journey through the Belvedere, previously held hesitation and disinterest in looking at paintings quickly dissolved.  I enjoying both the paintings and the architecture of the building equally.  I had confessed myself a fan of Klimt (1862-1918) in the past, though I hadn’t much knowledge of him or his work.  Yet this Viennese institution held up their Austrian painter high, and I began to encounter the works of an artist of whom I had little knowledge.  Seeing such a large body of his work, I was able to ascertain progressions and patterns in his style.

By the time I encountered his most famous The Kiss, I had already changed my previous view of him and his work.  He was well loved for his depictions of females, and it was particularly these depictions that caused aversion within me.  Beginning with his Adam and Eve (1917-18--unfinished), I noted that when both male and female subjects existed within his paintings, each held an entirely different presence.  Within his Adam and Eve, Eve is of an unnaturally pale complexion.  Her features are exaggerated and rounded—her body void of any toned muscle.  Her neck curves in an impossible angle, characteristic of many of Klimt’s paintings.  Her face is devoid of any really tangible, believable human emotion.  Rather she is cradled like a doll in the echoing form of Adam who stands behind her and outside of her view.  Her pose and the swirling pattern around her legs hearken to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, yet Eve’s presence lacks all the power of Botticelli’s Venus.  Behind Eve, Adam’s skin bears darker tones, as if blood actually ran through his veins.  Moreover, his physique indicates the presence of a skeletal and muscular structure.  His facial expression contains true emotion, reinforced by body language that cranes after the form of Eve’s.

This motif continues throughout many of his later paintings.  The females are mostly decorative and limp dolls embraced by dominating male forms.  Or when there is more than a duo present, the females are typically hyper-eroticized.  There was one female depicted that seemed to have a bit more gumption, and that was Judith of Judith and Holofernes (1901).  She gazes frontally at the viewer but barely deigns to open her eyes. Her chin is slightly raised and her parted lips express her absolute distain and indifference.  The disembodied head of Holofernes is only partially shown in the picture plane.  She holds it lightly in her hands in the lower right corner.   Gazing at the painting, I believed that she could have done it, she could have killed Holofernes; however, I thought she was more likely to have done the deed with a small pistol than with a sword.  This was the most captivating of Klimt’s paintings in my experience.

Across from Judith and Holofernes, hung on a wall painted a throbbing red was Klimt’s The Kiss (1908).  I was amazed by the disconnect between the two figures.  They are intertwined and almost visually indistinguishable as the patterns of their clothing mesh into a field of gold.  However, the female looks acted upon rather than emotionally responsive.  Again, her skin tone is markedly lighter than the male’s and the male’s body language and gesture seems more powerful and more believable.

I continued over to the Hoffman-Klimt exhibit in building across the courtyard.  My opinions were reinforced, and I found that my original superficial love for the beauty of pattern and color in Klimt’s work had passed away due the emotional vacancy of the female portraits which were/are so popular.  By and large, it was the design pieces of Josef Hoffman that caught my admiration in the exhibit.  I appreciated the quality and thoroughness of his design and the wide span of his work.  Yet there was one more Klimt painting that held my gaze.  It was his portrait of Marie Breunig from 1894—relatively early in his painting career.  There were many styles in the career of Klimt, but I had never seen one of his realistic portraits before.  I almost had my nose in the painting before I was able to really see and believe that the jewelry on the female was really paint and not jewelry.  However, I don’t think I would have paid any mind to this standard portrait without having seen the late/final styles of Klimt.

I appreciate the mastery of motion, color, and pattern in Klimt’s work; however, standing before his paintings, I was repulsed by the emotional vacancy of the females and the eroticized compositions.  I will continue to appreciate and admire his prowess as a designer and painter; however, I think I’ll save the overpriced souvenir posters of his work for another tourist’s living room.

Adam and Eve, 1917-1918, unfinished
Judith and Holofernes, 1901   

The Kiss, 1908

Portrait of Marie Breunig, 1894


Post a Comment

Popular Posts