The Viennese artist Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), who was trained as a decorative artist, created murals in classical-realist style for public halls and theaters in Vienna before switching to portraiture.
In 1907 Klimt created two works now deemed the most famous paintings of his so-called Golden Style, The Kiss and Adele Bloch-Bauer I. Both of these Klimt paintings were inspired by the San Vitale mosaics in Ravenna, Italy, which Klimt had twice visited in 1903.
Let's explore both of these Klimt paintings.
Adele Bloch-Bauer I
Gustav Klimt was commissioned to paint this portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, a leading Viennese art patron and socialite, by her husband, the sugar magnate and industrialist Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. She has the distinction of being the only woman for whom Klimt made two portraits -- Adele Bloch-Bauer I was created when she was just 26 years of age, and Adele Bloch-Bauer II at age 31.
The influence of the San Vitale mosaics is unmistakeable: compare the head of Empress Theodoro (above left) with that of Adele Bloch-Bauer.
Gustave Klimt. Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907. Oil, silver and gold on canvas, 55 1/8" by 55 1/8". Neue Galerie, NY, Made possible in part through the generosity of the heirs of the Estates of Ferdinand and adele Bloch-Bauer.
But it's not just the San Vitale mosaics bearing upon Klimt here. Adele Bloch-Bauer I also reveals influences from:
- Egyptian art, seen in the hieroglyphic eyes and cuneiform-like shapes in Bloch-Bauer’s gown, and
- Russian icons, which similarly encased faces in beds of gold and metals.
But first, some history behind Adele Bloch-Bauer I.
After being “expropriated” (a/k/a stolen) by the Nazis in 1938, Adele Bloch-Bauer was restituted to the Bloch-Bauer family by the Austrian legal system. In 2006, Ronald S. Lauder purchased Adele Bloch-Bauer I for the alleged sum of $135 million, immediately becoming the focal point of Lauder’s New York art museum, the Neue Gallery.
It's a joy to see Adele Bloch-Bauer I in person - she's a riot of shimmering and undulating
textures. Her hands and torso from the chest up are intricately detailed - her face is nearly a photographic likeness - while the rest of her torso and gown are swirled together, and inseparable in the vast array of textures.
Don't make the mistake (as I did) of wondering whether the flatness of Adele Bloch-Bauer might come from mediocre drawing skills. Poke around more at the Neue Gallery, and you'll see that Gustav Klimt was a dazzling draughtsmen.
One of the most instantly recognizeable famous paintings in European art history, Klimt's The Kiss was one of a series exploring the subject of "the kiss".
In fact, "the kiss" was a popular theme at the turn of the century.
Klimt began his series of The Kiss in 1902, likely inspired by an 1897 Edvard Munch painting bearing the same title (right).
Munch, in turn, found inspiration in Rodin's sculpture, The Kiss.
Right. Edvard Munch, The Kiss. Oil on canvas, 1897. Approximately 32" by 39". Munch Museum, Oslo.
And the sculptor Constantin Brancusi began a sculpture series titled... The Kiss in 1907.
Left. Constantin Brancusi. The Kiss, 1907.
Regardless of the unoriginal title. Klimt's boxy, faceless male is wearing a black, white and golden robe, dull in comparison to his companion's attire. She sports a sumptous, dress adorned with circle and flower-like symbols whose flowing lines contrast with the rectangular-ness of the male.
At the very least, Klimt is portraying immutable differences between the genders. But what else?
Klimt's The Kiss has enjoyed an enduring legacy, and I suspect it's because, like so many famous paintings, its meaning is uncertain.
One school of thought is that The Kiss shows, according to "Janson's History of Art",
a faceless lustful male losing his identity as he is lured by passion and consumed by an enticing but indifferent femme fatale, who appears about to pull him over the edge into the abyss below. (1).
"Janson's" notes that The Kiss was created shortly after the start of the late 19th century feminist movement and the emergence of The New Woman, both of which endangered historical male dominance.
On the other hand, there is tremendous tension in The Kiss. The woman's head is cocked uncomfortably against her shoulder; the fingers of her right hand are clenched and not relaxed; and she is perilously close to the cliff. None of this suggests the appearance of a New Powerful Woman shaking traditional male dominance. Instead, she looks dominated.
What do you see here? Which do you feel is the more fitting interpretation? Do chime in!
1. Janson's History of Art: Western Tradition, 7th Edition, (c) 2007. Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, NJ.
Gustav Klimt. The Kiss, 1907-08. Oil on canvas, 5' 10 7/8" by 5' 10 7/8". Oesterreichische Galerie im Belvedere, Vienna.