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Gustav Klimt and Women

With the exception of his early works, Gustav Klimt painted portraits only of women. These paintings, along with his drawings, show him to be one of the greatest masters of eroticism in the history of art.

Klimt, Portrait Emilie Flöge © Wien Museum
Gustav Klimt, who never married and lived with his mother until her death, only three years before his own, was the subject of countless rumours in Vienna at the turn of the century with regard to his affairs with his models and with the upper-class women who commissioned portraits from him. Although photographs of the artist - usually dressed in a painter's smock that resembled a monk's habit - often portray him as severe and distanced, Klimt is said to have fathered fourteen illegitimate children. Another enigma is his lifelong bond with Emilie Flöge. When their correspondence was discovered, decades after his death, it did not actually shed any light on their relationship; instead it seemed to be limited to the communication of routine, trivial information. But it nonetheless was the expression of a decades-long, deep attachment between Emilie Flöge and the painter.

Regardless of how much truth there was to the many rumours, however, there were times when events reached the point where Klimt himself, as he once admitted, was not entirely clear about his relationships. When he fled Venice and returned to Vienna after the altercation over his advances toward Alma Schindler, who later became Alma Mahler-Werfel, he did not forget to immediately telegraph Emilie Flöge to notify her of his arrival. He may have also recalled that two of his models were about to give birth to children he had fathered.

Portraits of Women
What is indisputable is that Klimt's work is nearly unrivalled in its celebration of the erotic. In their explicit depiction, his drawings anticipate to an astounding degree the erotic works of the younger Egon Scheele, whom Klimt held in very high esteem. Klimt, however, did not limit himself to nude portraits of young women; he depicted all forms of femininity, including pregnancy, aging and the loss of physical beauty. In accord with the attitudes of the time, Klimt viewed femininity as a phenomenon of nature, and he sought to express the natural cycle of development and decline in his portraits of women.

At the height of his creative powers, Klimt incorporated the female figures in his portraits into a system of ornamentation, which had a representational function, and which at the same time created distance between the viewer and the model through the painterly focus on the face and hands. Later this function was assumed by the element of colour, which in a way took on a life of its own in the portraits, underscoring - like the ornamentation that came before it - the two-dimensionality of the pictures. Despite Klimt's striving for distance, he in fact succeeded in creating a tension between the beholder and the portrayed women that is difficult to characterize, a tension that contributes to the special magnetism that has always distinguished these paintings.

The "Golden Adele"
The "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I" undoubtedly represents the culmination of Klimt's occupation with the portraiture of women. Inspired by the 6th century mosaics of Empress Theodora that he saw in Ravenna's Church of San Vitale, Klimt created a monument to the glorification of female beauty, expending all the time and effort befitting an empress. Klimt's extensive use of gold leaf - while largely foregoing colour - and a deep awareness of artistic tradition combine to create the inimitable aura that sets the Viennese Jugendstil apart from similar artistic trends in other European centres. At the same time the detailed and finely delineated face of Adele Bloch-Bauer prevents the subject from disappearing into anonymity behind the universality of the picture.