Klimt and the Erotic

The painter's exploration of feminine beauty and eroticism

By Belvedere

Gustav Klimt (1908) by Atelier Madame d'OraAustrian National Library

During his lifetime, Gustav Klimt had a reputation of being the painter of feminine beauty and eroticism. He was also highly attractive himself. Klimt had a strong masculine charisma; his appearance revealed a rustic charm and simple origins. We know from contemporary accounts that women found him particularly attractive.

Sonja Knips (1897/1898) by Gustav KlimtBelvedere

Klimt undoubtedly admired beautiful women. There are many myths and much speculation as to whether Klimt perhaps had closer relations with the ladies of distinguished Viennese society he portrayed. This is often claimed in the cases of Sonja Knips and Adele Bloch-Bauer, for example. However, there is no concrete evidence or unambiguous statements from those involved.

Nowadays, Klimt is known in particular for his portrayal of nudity with an unprecedented openness and freedom. This frequently led to heated discussions and even uproar and outrage within Viennese society.

Nuda Veritas after Gustav Klimt, plate 5, The work of Gustav Klimt (1918)MAK – Museum of Applied Arts

"Nuda Veritas", 1899

Klimt caused a great outcry with his painting "Nuda Veritas", an almost life-sized depiction of a young naked woman. The work was first presented at the 4th Secession Exhibition in spring 1899. Although the picture is to be understood as an allegory of the truth, and the well-known quotation by Friedrich von Schiller is provided in the top half of the picture, the tremendous eroticism in this picture cannot be overlooked. One of the main reasons for this certainly lies in a detail that may not be consciously perceived at first glance, but must have had a revolutionary effect on the presentation of nudes at the time.

Klimt went so far as to portray the pubic hair of the woman in this nude depiction. He had certainly broken a taboo, as pubic hair had never before been seen in a female nude depiction. Women were always shown hairless.

Gustav Klimt's Painting "Philosophy" (um 1900) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

"Philosophy", 1898-1900, slightly revised until 1907

In 1900, Klimt presented his large-format allegorical picture "Philosophy" for the first time at the 7th Secession Exhibition. The painting was to be placed on the ceiling of the festival hall of the newly erected university building on the Vienna Ring Road, together with two further paintings which the master artist was still working on. However, "Philosophy" sparked much outrage among the public and press.

A central reason for this public reaction was certainly the fact that Klimt exclusively depicted naked people of a wide range of ages in this painting. It is worth noting that in addition to the general outrage, this exhibition also brought in a rush of visitors: 35,000 in total.

Judith (1901) by Gustav KlimtBelvedere

"Judith I", 1901

Klimt's painting "Judith" caused quite the sensation at the 10th Secession Exhibition in 1901. For this work, Klimt chose a theme corresponding to the sultry eroticism of the art of symbolism. The depiction of the biblical figure of Judith, who used her physical charm to seduce Assyrian commander Holofernes and finally chop his head off by her own hand to save her Jewish people through this heroic act, combined sexual desire and violence in a single theme. For Klimt and his contemporaries Judith embodied the femme fatale, who combined equal amounts of eroticism and danger.

Her erotic attraction is most certainly primarily due to the liberal rendition of her breasts. They are subtly hidden in part by transparent silk fabric decorated in gold, which only enhances their attractiveness.

But even Judith's facial features are a clear invitation to an erotic encounter. With her head slightly reclined, sensual half-open lips, and a sleepy look, Judith presents the same seductiveness she may have wanted to show Holofernes at the time.

Gustav Klimt's painting "Medicine" (nach 1901) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

"Medicine", 1898-1901, slightly revised until 1907

Klimt had already caused a stir among the public and press when he first presented the faculty painting "Philosophy" in 1900. But the faculty painting "Medicine", that was also first presented to the public at the 10th Secession Exhibition in 1901, caused an even greater one. This time, numerous politicians also intervened, attacking the Austrian Minister of Education for his support of Klimt and demanding his resignation. Again, it was primarily the revealing nude presentations that induced anger among the public.

It was the portrayal of attractive young female nudes in particular—some of whom invitingly flaunt their sensual assets—that offended Klimt's critics. For example, the figure shown alone in the left half of the picture is particularly flamboyant.

Two Studies of a Standing Nude (Study for the oil sketch for "Medicine") (1897-1898) by Gustav KlimtAlbertina Museum

Klimt studied and recorded her youthful body in numerous pencil studies. The public uproar grew so much that issues of the sixth edition of Secessionist magazine Ver Sacrum, in which pencil studies of the painting "Medicine" had been published, were confiscated on the grounds that they endangered public morality. However, this confiscation was stopped shortly thereafter.

Jurisprudence (1898-1903, slightly revised until 1907) by Gustav KlimtBelvedere

"Jurisprudence", 1898-1903, slightly revised until 1907

Similarly lascivious female figures also emerge in the large-scale allegory "Jurisprudence" which presents the theme of the third faculty painting created by Klimt and commissioned by the University of Vienna. Around a naked old man shown from behind—the accused—gather three naked female figures who symbolize the Erinyes (or Eumenides), the goddesses of revenge, who uncover unjustice. Their expressive faces and poses convey erotic attraction and danger in equal measure.

The faculty painting "Jurisprudence" was first presented to the public at the Vienna Secession in 1903. This occasion was in fact Klimt's large solo exhibition, where the other two faculty paintings were also on display. The debate about the acceptability of the faculty paintings also continued during this show. This culminated in Klimt eventually dropping the commission granted by the University of Vienna and repaying the fee he had already received.

Judith II Salomè (1909) by Gustav KlimtCa' Pesaro - Galleria Internazionale d'Arte Moderna

"Judith II", 1909

Eight years after his sensational picture "Judith I", Klimt returned to this theme and also connected it with another biblical figure: Salome, daughter of Herodias, who was the second wife of King Herod. Salome performed her famous dance before Herod, which caused the king to prepare, at Salome's request, to have the prophet John beheaded. Klimt also seems to allude to Salome's dance in his depiction of Judith: he shows Judith in a dancer-like pose, charging forward.

Judith's bare breasts—which Klimt masterfully portrays in delicate pink and blue shades—are highly erotic.

The Virgin (1913/1913) by Gustav KlimtNational Gallery Prague

"The Virgin", 1913

In addition to the three faculty paintings for the University of Vienna, the painting "The Virgin" created by Klimt in 1913 is one of his largest-ever works.

In this painting which may be thought of as a vision of happiness of a young woman, Klimt presents her as someone who is passive and lost in her dreams.

The nudity of her companions is both concealed and exposed by richly patterned fabrics and garments. Here, Klimt outlandishly plays with the contrasts between sensual naked skin and boldly colored ornamental shapes.

Awaking, lolling girl (Study for "The Virgin") (1911-1912) by Gustav KlimtAlbertina Museum

For the painting "The Virgin," Klimt produced a variety of nude drawing studies. In these studies, Klimt often experimented with different posture possibilities, and in doing so frequently placed the model in explicitly erotic poses.

Nude with One Leg Propped Up, Seen from Behind, with Repetition on Left (Study for "The Virgin") (1911-1912) by Gustav KlimtAlbertina Museum

The public did not even get to see these painting studies for the most part because Klimt did not think they were worth exhibiting.

Reclining Seminude, Arms Crossed behind Her Head (Study for "The Virgin") (1911-1912) by Gustav KlimtAlbertina Museum

Klimt showed a variety of drawings at the "Internationale Schwarz-Weiß-Ausstellung" (International Black and White Exhibition), which took place from December 1913 to January 1914. There were over a hundred drawings that the master presented to the public—the largest collection ever. These also included works with explicitly erotic content which immediately called critics into action, promptly denouncing him as a pornographer. Klimt was so angry that he barely exhibited any more drawings in public from then on.

Reclining Nude with Leg Raised (1912-1913) by Gustav KlimtAlbertina Museum

Masturbating Nudes, Drawings

Klimt had already broken social taboos in earlier years through female nudity, such as the portrayal of heavily pregnant naked women or the detailed depiction of female pubic hair. Still, he did not shy away from breaking other taboos in his drawings: specifically, the depiction of women pleasuring themselves.

Seated Woman with Covered Face (Study for "The Bride") (c. 1917) by Gustav KlimtAlbertina Museum

In these depictions, Klimt was not concerned with documenting any voyeuristic desire. Instead, these intimate situations were his incentive to work these impressions into art of the highest standard.

Reclining Nude (c. 1913) by Gustav KlimtAlbertina Museum

Klimt always worked these depictions of such highly erotic themes into highly original compositions. For example, he often placed the nude figures diagonally on the page. Together with the vibrating pencil line, they convey the feeling of ecstasy with which the person appears to fall into the abyss emotionally.

Credits: Story

Text: Österreichische Galerie Belvedere / Franz Smola

© Österreichische Galerie Belvedere

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