In the Best Bookstore in the World
As you all know from my last commentary I am in Love with Estonia. There are many reasons. One is that the best bookstore in the world is in Tallinn, and Sondra and I love to hang out there, have a coffee, peruse our favorite books (many in English, especially “Art Books”) and have a lofty experience of my favorite EU City.
On my last visit there I was not disappointed. Sondra was over in the English Books section, and I was immersed in the Art Books section, of course. Anyone with a passion for Art knows that TASCHEN publishing produces some incredible monograms of great artists at a very reasonable price. Usually some book pops up and gets my attention. This volume on Gustav Klimt, published only as recently as 2022, was only 19 EUROS. And….it was “smallish in size,” manageable in my carry-on, not weighing a ton or requiring a “coffee table” at home to make it into a clunky space mongering item. I am into “streamlined,” and this beautiful volume was THAT!
So I Bought the Thing
I pondered about it, “Not another ‘Art Book’ I think I need to have, then add it to the ‘stacks’ at home that go unexamined for years.” Because of its compact size, and inexpensive price tag (most quality Art Books are 60-100 Euros / Dollars), and because it said “The Complete Paintings,” and I liked the feel of the book in my hands, I bought the thing. Another attractive attribute was the quality of the paper, semi glossy, which makes for very clear and accurate color in the reproductions. The book itself was a “work of art.” I came out of my favorite book store with what was predestined to be one of my favorite Art Books. WOW—only in Estonia does this kind of magic happen.
There is a lot you fathom and digest with Klimt. I was ready to dig into it. We know mostly his famous “The Kiss.” We also know he painted mostly mysterious imagery of society women, some with whom he had affairs. And he wore solely a blue painter’s smock in the last years of his life. He also bridged the gap between the fine art of late 19th Century painting and the Art Nouveau period of crafts and architecture in the early 20th Century.
The Millefiori Bridge to the Heart
Klimt created a bridge to our heart through a very symbolic play of purely graphic figures of design and talismanic elements. His surfaces were built up with a millefiori of jewel-like mosaics, encrustations and arabesques, amidst a matrix of an interstellar Cosmic field. Gold Leaf is all over the place. Somehow this speaks of his upper class mythology of enriched Viennese clientele. His father was an engraver, so drawing was in his blood; and also gold and precious metals. Gustav received his formal training at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna from 1876-1883 out of which he inherited a very academic style. His brother Ernst went there as well, and upon graduation they worked together on collaborative art commissions. They were close.
You get the picture from this above painting by Klimt that he painted early in his career for one of the many cultural buildings in the fin de siècle Vienna. He began his professional life painting interior murals and ceilings in large public buildings, including a successful series of “Allegories and Emblems,” of which the work “Idylle” is one. It was not until after 1892, the year both his Father and brother Ernst died, that his soul searching led him to a more unique style of his own, for which he is recognized today. He began with Mythological Figures, such as Pallas Athena shown below. His commonly recognized style of using resplendent Gold and strong purely graphic elements began to emerge.
These explorations of more symbolic themes and strong elements of pure design began to infiltrate Klimt’s subject matter. But one thing was certain, he was obsessed with the female form. If anyone could say the Muse of Painting for the artist is the naked female body, that would be true of Klimt. Even adorned in the millefiori of decorative swirls, cubes, and gold totems of the artistic apparel of his subjects, there is always an implied nakedness underneath the embellished raiment of these Goddess-like women. His earlier murals in the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna embody this passion for the female nude body quite openly.
Very provocative, Klimt elevates the female form to Goddess status. He takes eroticism as far as it can go in the norms of late nineteenth century Vienna. Innovations and daring boundaries are about to be broken. He paints the Muse with all sensual elements except the obvious omission of the vaginal vulva. That would have been too much for the conservative Viennese Society that was “paying his bill.” But it does seem anatomically incorrect given the truth to form of everything else in Klimt’s passion for the female anatomy. Yet, he already pushed the edge of the envelop as far as it could go, and often was accused of being “pornographic” in his erotic liberties.
“All art is erotic” — Gustav Klimt
Klimt was very attached to his mother his whole life. He lived only 3 years after the year she died in 1915. He passed in 1918 of a stroke, and pneumonia. During his prominent painting career in Viennese High Society, he had “lovers,” or “friends with benefits,” as did many of the Viennese artistic intelligentia. Clothing and fashion designer, Emilie Louise Flöge, was his life long companion. He is said to have fathered 14 illegitimate children with various models and studio lovers, but none with Emilie—so it is doubtful that their relationship was consummated sexually. Emilie was also his sister-in-law’s sibling. With her sister as a partner, Emilie had a fashion house that catered to the High Society women of Vienna. There were strong ties between the Klimt family and the Flöge family. Often Gustav would paint the designs for Emilie’s fashions. This is a portrait of her in the design of a dress he painted. A sexually charged image, as often his portraits of women were, Klimt is quoted as saying, “All art is erotic.”
Klimt practically lived in a blue painter’s kaftan for the later years of his life. This photo is of Emilie and him in a playful moment for the camera in one of their many trips to Lake Attersee in the foothills of the Austrian Alps where she and Klimt spent their summers together.
A Mosaic of Millefiori
There is a glass blowing term “millefiori” that means a thousand flowers. The famous Murano Glassworks of Venice perfected this technique in which multicolored glass rods were cut into cross sections and then melted into a field of many. This “thousand flower” conglomerate reminds me of Klimt’s use of brightly colored shapes of geometric and organic cross sections to build a decorative field of patterning that transports us to another dimension of visual nirvana.
That Klimt was obsessed with long flowing robes, mosaics of colorful amalgams, and enigmatic women who formed his pantheon of mystery laden Muses is quite obvious. He created a world all his own. And this fantasy was so well executed that we have his works today that are coveted by the highest fine art elite.
Portrait Of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, that was confiscated by the Nazis in WWII, then acquired back by the Viennese Government after the war, went through a huge international legal case in which it was returned to the original Bauer family in New York from which the Nazis stole it. The painting was then sold for $135 Million USD at auction. Now it is housed in the Neue Gallery in New York City for public viewing.
Landscapes—the Final Phase
In the last years of Klimt’s life before the first world war, he would spend summers on Lake Attersee painting scenes of the lake, forests, and quaint small towns strung around the ring of the shoreline. These were free flowing works in the impressionist genre of brilliant color affected by the light of day. This is a group of my favorites, starting with the Birch Woods, a village scene on the waters edge, and an island out in the expanse of blue green waters adorned with an incredible field of turquoise ripples.
What I Gleaned In Looking at Klimt
Passion is the sustaining element of our inner life, just as air is the sustaining element of our outer life. Without air we would die in a few minutes. Without passion we would perish into a meaningless purgatory of empty existence. If “all art is erotic,” like Klimt was quoted as saying, then it would follow that the passion in life is greatly enhanced by the art that brings us to that realization. Klimt’s paintings can easily do this, as he was acutely guided in that passion, and Art Looking at his work puts us in the frequency that he maintained in their creation. Klimt painted his passion, as all great artists would do. The work and the passion are inseparable.
High society in Vienna was used to this passion. Mozart and Beethoven came out of here. Something hangs in the air. A kind of melodious transmission permeates the Austrian atmosphere, and the Being of Gustav Klimt was like a radio receiver that tuned into that frequency and applied it to paint. Given that he also drew forth the mysticism of the ancient ages, he could bring a presence long forgotten into the laboratory of his studio to usher forth newer and more magnificent works. He always pushed the edge of the envelope towards a melding of fine arts and decorative arts—insisting in the integration of painting and architecture—amidst the passion of ever present erotic overtones.
That all art is erotic is apparent in Klimt’s oeuvre. He was dedicated to his passion—be that as it may, in mostly the love of the female form. He wanted us to not only see that passion in him, in his works, but to arouse that passion in us, in our day to day lives. We probably do not move and breathe in the fantastic symbology and millefiori mosaics that form the conglomerate of Klimt’s artistic life. But we can walk away enhanced. We can admit a piece of our passion is even now greatly awakened by this eccentrically odd man’s determination to bring a bygone mythology and erotic paradigm to a modern-day awakening. There is something essential in a passionate life. The “Woman With Fan” just sold in auction in Europe on June 27th for over $108 million USD to a private collector in Hong Kong and perpetuates this human obsession with feminine beauty.
What I gleaned from looking at Klimt is that my own passions are alive. There is much in life to be aroused by, and this encounter with beauty is all around us. We can appreciate the refined figures of a kind of Klimt harem. We can marvel at their melding with an arabesque of millefiori blooms and spectral and symbolic tessera that encircle and enhance their mysterious allure. Klimt’s works go one step further. They take me to the edge of the orgasmic, in which life is made ecstatic and will continue to be made ecstatic. It is even immortal with Klimt, in the God-like halls of Beauty’s visual music ushering forth from the Vienna of our perpetually passionate desires.