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Gustav Klimt - Anecdotes

There are stories about most artists that move or amuse generation upon generation of followers. Have fun reading our selection of Gustav Klimt anecdotes.

Beethovenfries, Vienna Secession © Österreich Werbung/Trumler
"I paint my girl the way I like her, and that is that!"
Gustav Klimt's perfectionism and dissatisfaction with what he had created were legendary. He worked, for example, for three years, from 1914 to 1916, on the "Portrait of Elisabeth Bachofen-Echt". The commission for this work came from Elisabeth's mother, Serena Lederer, one of Klimt's important patrons. During the work on the portrait, Elisabeth had to sit for the painter for hours on end. Klimt sketched her in various poses, but was always dissatisfied with the results. Because Elisabeth, for her part, frequently criticized the poses as well as the clothing Klimt selected, there were soon arguments, and Klimt finally roared: "I paint my girl the way I like her, and that is that!" After three years Elisabeth Bachofen-Echt lost her patience. She went to Klimt's studio, removed the painting from the easel, and took it home with her. When Klimt later discovered it displayed in the Lederer family's salon, he said crossly: "Now that is most certainly not her." But Serena Lederer was not put off; she subsequently commissioned Klimt to paint a portrait of her mother, Charlotte Pulitzer.

A Key Portrait of Viennese Society in 1888
In 1886 the "Company of Artists", which Gustav Klimt operated along with his brother Ernst and Franz Matsch, received the commission to decorate the grand stairway of Vienna's newly constructed Burgtheater. The project paid well, but not well enough for the group to afford all of the models they required to execute their paintings. So they enlisted relatives and friends to assist them. Thus one can recognize Klimt's sisters Hermine and Johanna Klimt among the people depicted in the picture of Shakespeare's theatre, while their brother George stands in for the dying Romeo, and all three artists make an appearance as members of the Elizabethan audience. Klimt pictured himself wearing a broad ruff. This is the only extant self-portrait of Gustav Klimt. By 1888, when Klimt and Franz Matsch were commissioned to paint the old Burgtheater, the situation had changed completely; now the high society of Vienna was pushing and shoving to be portrayed in the painting. It was thus no longer a problem for Gustav Klimt to find models for the two hundred people in the painting. Nevertheless, he again included his sisters and their friends in the picture.

Against Klimt
"Against Klimt" was a collection of hostile reviews published by the Austrian writer and critic Hermann Bahr in 1903 to defend the artist against critics of the controversial faculty pictures Klimt created for Vienna University. One of the early sketches for his "Philosophy" painting from this series shows at its base a boy deep in thought. When the rector of the university saw this boy, surrounded by intertwined bodies, he commented that the youth was presumably reflecting less about philosophy than about where babies come from.

Threatened Hope
Klimt's inspiration to explore the motif of pregnant women in his pictures probably came from Mizzi Zimmermann, Klimt's model as well as lover, who gave birth to their first child in 1899. In 1903, during Klimt's work on "Hope I", which also explored this theme, his second child by Mizzi Zimmermann, the one-year-old Otto, died suddenly. This death led to a complete change in his conception of the picture. While the swath of blue cloth, interwoven with gold, behind the pregnant woman still symbolized the hope expressed in the title, there were now eerie figures populating the background: in addition to the giant Typhon, familiar from the "Beethoven Frieze", several imps can be seen gazing at the expectant mother. These characters could be related to the daughters of Typhon, symbolizing sickness, death, madness, lust, unchastity and grief. The owner of the painting, Fritz Waerndorfer, had a hinged shrine built for the picture, which he would open only for selected guests.

Klimt over Pearls
Friederike Maria Beer was a faithful devotee of the Viennese avant-garde and had in 1914 already commissioned Egon Schiele to paint a portrait of her. When her suitor, the painter and graphic designer Hans Böhler, promised her a pearl necklace, she told him she would rather have Gustav Klimt portray her. Klimt initially declined, pointing out that Schiele had already painted her, but finally gave in. Beer came to the sittings wearing a polecat jacket designed by the Wiener Werkstätte. Klimt asked her to reverse the jacket and wear it with the red silk lining out. And this is how he painted her. Presumably inspired by the decoration on a Korean vase, he added in the background a large number of Asian soldiers. When, after several months, Beer took a look at the painting, she judged it to be finished. Friends advised her to take it with her immediately before Klimt could change everything again.

More "Blech" than Bloch
In 1908 the sixtieth anniversary of Emperor Francis Joseph's ascension to the throne was celebrated. The tract of land on which the new Konzerthaus was to be built was vacant and provided the ideal location for erecting an enormous exhibition area. Klimt - who, along with Josef Hoffmann, Otto Wagner, Kolo Moser, and Carl Moll, had resigned from the Secession in 1905 - was one of the project's primary organizers and even delivered a speech (something very unusual for him) to open the show, called "Kunstschau 1908". Klimt himself was represented at the exhibit with a number of works, including his magnum opus The Kiss which was immediately purchased by the Austrian Gallery. Nonetheless, Klimt and his painting were once again roundly disparaged. One critic wrote of his "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I", today one of the world's most expensive paintings, that, thanks to its extensive application of gold leaf, the portrait was "more Blech than Bloch"; "Blech" being the German word for tin. But the full-blown scandal of the exhibition was caused by Oskar Kokoschka, whom Klimt - calling Kokoschka "the greatest talent of the younger generation" - invited to present his works to the public for the first time at the "Kunstschau". After the show was over, the artists sat in the coffeehouse on the exhibition grounds and discussed what should be done in view of the harsh criticism they faced. They ultimately decided to do nothing. "There is no point," as the writer and critic Ludwig Hevesi put it. "But in twenty years we will be proved right."

"There are only two painters: Velázquez and I."
While Gustav Klimt travelled a great deal, he did not enjoy it. He was happiest at home in Vienna and on Attersee, one of the Salzkammergut bathing lakes, where he spent each summer. The year 1903 again found him travelling, this time in Italy. Klimt, who once was so frustrated with formulating his thoughts in a letter to Emilie Flöge that he cried "To hell with words!", was again very terse in his description of his impressions of Italy in a letter to her. In view of this, the sentence "... there is much that is pathetic in Ravenna - the mosaics are tremendously splendid ..." can be regarded as one of the most enthusiastic statements about art ever made by Klimt. His encounter with the figures of Byzantine mosaics was followed only a few days later by a viewing of medieval masterpieces in Florence. In his letters, Klimt's comments on these works were limited to: "Art very impressive". It was to be several more years before Klimt was able to articulate these impressions in a language of which he had a complete mastery: painting.

But Klimt did not even have to travel to draw inspiration from the old masters. He only had to study the unbelievable wealth of portraits by Diego Velázquez in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum. That he was impressed by these works is revealed by the ironic remark he once made about the great Spanish painter: "There are only two painters: Velázquez and I." In his portrait of Fritza Riedler he finally combined these two influences, creating his first painting to be dominated by a unified gold surface. This marked the beginning of the "Golden Phase" in his work, which reached its zenith with the painting The Kiss.

"I know only one thing for certain - that I'm a poor fool."
Vienna was full of rumours about Klimt's affairs with his models and female patrons from the "haute bourgeoisie". In 1897, when Klimt was accompanying Alma Schindler (later to become Alma Mahler-Werfel), her mother Anna, and Alma's stepfather Carl Moll on a journey through Italy, Klimt made advances toward the eighteen-year-old Alma, which the young lady reciprocated. An altercation between Klimt and Moll was the result. Klimt hastily departed from Venice and returned to Vienna, later expressing his remorse about the incident in a long letter to Moll, which was presumably intended to explain everything but actually explained nothing. "The girl," wrote the artist, referring to Alma, "must have heard much about me and my relationships - some of which is true and some false. I myself am not completely clear about my relationships. I know only one thing for certain - that I'm a poor fool." In short, with this letter, which was undoubtedly not easy for the artist to write, the incident was resolved between the two men, and Klimt and Carl Moll made peace with each other. Alma was the only one who remained irreconcilable, feeling that "the first great love" of her life had gone behind her back. She marked the day of reconciliation between her stepfather and Klimt in her diary with a cross, writing, "He gave me up without a fight; he betrayed me."