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Gustav Klimt - His Work

Equally controversial and successful in his day, Gustav Klimt was one of the central figures of fin-de-siècle Vienna, the epoch that marked the beginning of Modernism.

Beethovenfries, Vienna Secession © Österreich Werbung/Trumler
His Early Work
After his artistic training Gustav Klimt began his career as a decorative painter during the Ringstrasse era. With his brother Ernst and Franz Matsch, he belonged to the large group of visual artists who with their art breathed life into the newly constructed monumental buildings of the "Gründerzeit". In this early period he created paintings for the stairwells of the Burgtheater and the Museum of Art History (Kunsthistorisches Museum). Klimt began to enjoy a degree of respect and financial security. But what he was striving for was the realization of his own formal language. At the age of thirty-four he became the head of the Secessionists, who aimed at bringing about a renewal of the arts and opening themselves up to international trends in modern art. The Secession building, designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich, became the venue for groundbreaking exhibitions accompanied by numerous scandals. Protesting Klimt's faculty paintings for Vienna University, one of the artist's adversaries said: "We are not fighting against naked art and not against free art, but against ugly art." But at the Paris World's Fair of 1900, Klimt was awarded the Grand Prix for his painting "Philosophy", from the series of faculty pictures. This honour made Klimt a celebrity all across Europe.

The Height of Success
An important artistic highlight of this period was the Fourteenth Secession Exhibition in 1902, dedicated to Beethoven. Here, the dream of a "Gesamtkunstwerk", a synthesis of the arts, was realized, to which Klimt contributed with his monumental "Beethoven Frieze", a work that today has been restored to its original location in the Secession. Years later Klimt - in close collaboration with Josef Hoffmann, a founder of the Wiener Werkstätte - would design the Stoclet House in Brussels, thus creating probably the most famous example of a "Gesamtkunstwerk" of the entire Jugendstil period.

The dominance of ornamentation and the increased use of gold, elements that characterized the "Beethoven Frieze", marked the beginning of Klimt's "Golden Phase", which culminated in The Kiss (1907/1908). With their robust symbolism and elaborate décor, Klimt's works of this period are a celebration of female sensuality. In his late works, the "Golden Phase" was supplanted by a return to a decorative-expressionist style, with its increased emphasis on colour.

Portraits and Drawings
Gustav Klimt was the painter of the upper-class society, whose female members he portrayed throughout his career. For several years the "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I" has been ranked as one of the world's most expensive paintings. Aside from portraits, drawing was an important focus of interest for Klimt. The sheer quantity of these works - some 3,000 drawings have survived, compared with approximately 250 paintings - attests to the importance of this genre in Klimt's oeuvre. Their exceptional quality puts these drawings among the greatest artistic legacies of their kind.

Klimt Exhibitions
Klimt's most important works are found in the Austrian Gallery Belvedere and in the Leopold Museum. The Vienna Secession displays the famous "Beethoven Frieze" at the very spot where it was first presented to the public. With its 400 specimens, the Wien Museum has the world's largest collection of Klimt drawings, spanning all of the artist's creative periods. Another extensive collection is to be found at Vienna's Albertina.