One of the founders of the Vienna Secession movement, who is often regarded as the greatest painter of the Art Nouveau period, Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) is also remembered as one of the most talented decorative painters of the twentieth century. A precise silhouette, Oriental tones and a bold use of gold are signature elements in his works. The female body was the main subject of his paintings, which have often been classified as provocative. His approach was inspired by the ethereal atmosphere of work by artists such as Aubrey Beardsley, and by some aspects of Impressionist technique; it was also eclectic, borrowing motifs from Byzantine, Greek and Egyptian art.
Gustav Klimt was born in Baumgarten, a suburb of Vienna, and he was the 2nd of 7 children. Together with his younger brothers Ernst and Georg, Gustav demonstrated art and craft skills while still at school. Trained at the Kunstgewerbeschule (the Viennese School of Applied Art), Klimt began his career in a traditional and historicist style, but quickly emerged as one Vienna’s most prominent artists, creating brilliant landscapes, striking portraits, and erotic drawings of women. Klimt was a key figure in Vienna’s art scene, and his artistic achievements and mentorship paved the way for painters Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka. Quite a rebel against orthodoxy, Klimt broke away from academic art. Being of the same generation as Edvard Munch, Wassily Kandinsky and Henri Matisse, who were at that time creating new artistic ground, Gustav Klimt began to experiment with style and form – painting numerous portraits of society women with an excessive and vibrant approach to colour and form.
A unique opportunity to see the exquisite collection of female portraits by Gustav Klimt was recently presented at the Neue Galerie New York (Museum for German and Austrian Art), as part of the exhibition “Klimt and the Women of Vienna’s Golden Age, 1900–1918”. Established in 2001, the Neue Galerie (1048 Fifth Avenue) is located on New York City’s famous Museum Mile. The museum was first conceived by Ronald S. Lauder (entrepreneur, philanthropist and art collector) and his friend Serge Sabarsky (art dealer and museum exhibition organizer). Both men were avid collectors of early twentieth-century German and Austrian art. Following Sabarsky’s death in 1996, Lauder decided to establish the Neue Galerie as a tribute to his friend and partner. The museum is housed in the former William Starr Miller House, built in 1914 by order of the industrialist in a Louis XIII/Beaux-Arts style.
“Klimt and the Women of Vienna’s Golden Age, 1900–1918” examines Klimt’s sensual portraits of women as the embodiment of fin-de-siècle Vienna. The show was organized by Klimt scholar Dr. Tobias G. Natter, author of numerous publications about Gustav Klimt and the art of Vienna in 1900. The exhibition included approximately 12 paintings, 40 drawings, 40 works of decorative art, and vintage photographs of Klimt, drawn from public and private collections worldwide. Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907) and Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II (1912) were displayed together for the first time in ten years. Ronald S. Lauder purchased Klimt’s first painting of Adele in 2006 from Maria Altmann, Adele’s niece, on behalf of the Neue Galerie. The press reported the price for the portrait at $135 million, making it the most expensive painting ever sold at the time. Adele Bloch-Bauer was an important Klimt patron and notably, the only subject the artist ever painted twice in full length. At the time of the acquisition, Ronald S. Lauder stated: “With this dazzling painting, Klimt created one of his greatest works of art.” The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I is considered by many to be Klimt’s finest work. The model is adorned with precious materials and ancient artifacts, suggesting her wealth and power. Her stare and grasping hands point to her fragility as a woman. Frank Whitford, Klimt’s biographer, described the painting as “the most elaborate example of the tyranny of the decorative” in the artist’s work.
Highlights of the show included some of Klimt’s most important society portraits: Portrait of Szerena Lederer (1899), which portrays the woman who built up the most important Klimt collection of her era; Portrait of Gertha Loew (1902); Portrait of Mäda Primavesi (1912); Portrait of Elisabeth Lederer (1914-16), daughter of Szerena Lederer; and the unfinished Portrait of Ria Munk III (1917). These major works cover the gamut of Klimt’s portrait style, from his early ethereal works influenced by Symbolism and the Pre-Raphaelite movement, to his so-called “golden style,” as well as his almost Fauvist depictions. Szerena Lederer (born Pulitzer), married to industrialist August Lederer, was a Grande Dame of Viennese society. The Lederers were one of the leading patrons of Klimt and Schiele. The white dress worn by the model reflects the modern and feminine style frequently worn by high-society women at the turn of the century in Vienna. Gertha Loew was the 19-year-old daughter of Anton Loew, a celebrated physician who ran a private sanatorium beside his home in Vienna, where his patients included the composer Gustav Mahler and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. The Portrait of Gertha Loew has been described by critics as “the most sweet scented poetry the palette is able to create”.
Mäda Primavesi was the daughter of the banker and industrialist Otto Primavesi, one of the financial bankers of the Wiener Werkstatte (Vienna Workshop), and the actress Eugenia Primavesi (born Butschek), whom Klimt also painted in 1913. A series of preliminary pencil sketches for Mäda’s portrait show how Klimt experimented with alternative poses and background motifs. Elisabeth Bachofen-Echt (born Lederer) was the daughter of August and Serena Lederer. Many knew her as the best-dressed woman in Vienna. Elisabeth was twenty years old in 1914, when Klimt began preparations for drawing her portrait. As in most of his later portraits, the painter chose a standing pose and divided the background into two planes. As in the Portrait of Mäda Primavesi, space is manipulated to enhance the sitter’s presence. The Portrait of Ria Munk III, which Klimt began around 1917, was one of the largest and greatest full-length female portraits by him. It was, like a number of Klimt’s later works found in his studio, unfinished, when he died in 1918. The woman in the painting, with her pink cheeks and dark eyes is standing sideways on but is turning to face the viewer. The background of this work consists of a multitude of flowers such as roses and tulips, floral patterns and oriental-looking designs.
The influence of fashion design among society women in fin-de-siècle Vienna also played a key role in the exhibition. Shanghai-based artist and designer Han Feng was commissioned to create three one-of-a-kind fashion ensembles inspired by prevailing styles of artistic reform dress and the designs of Emilie Flöge, an important Viennese fashion designer and Klimt’s muse. Special hats and style accessories by paper artist Brett McCormack also adorned full-scale mannequins located throughout the exhibition. The show included a unique historical reproduction (1951) of the mid-sixth century mosaic of Empress Theodora from the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, which provided Klimt with an important point of inspiration for the first portrait of his patron Adele Bloch-Bauer. Ronald S. Lauder, president and co-founder of the Neu Galerie New York, commented on this exhibition of Klimt’s portraits: “Oh, my God, or in our new high-speed world, OMG, refers to works of art that are unique, spectacular, and irreplaceable. The Oh, my Gods can be created by well-known artists or those less famous, but they are works that are viewed as masterpieces… Almost everything in this show is: Oh, my God.”
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