Klimt & Symbolism - Part 3

"Works of Fantasy" & "Symbolic Literary Themes"

By Belvedere

Friends (Water serpants) (1904/1907) by Gustav KlimtBelvedere

Works of Fantasy

Klimt developed a particular ingenuity for finding ways to effectively exhibit the sensual appeal of female nude models. Among his most original artistic creations are depictions of fairytale, water-dwelling, female beings, described by the artist as "mermaids" and "water serpents", which are revealed as dreamy, self-absorbed, passive beings through their flowing, floating movements.

An impressive example of this is found in the picture "Water Serpents I", which Klimt created in 1904 as an exquisite miniature on a small-scale parchment. Two rather slim female figures press up tenderly against one another, surrounded by numerous biomorphic ornamental shapes, which are directly derived from the animal and plant worlds.

Gustav Klimt's Painting "Water snakes II" (1906/1907) (1908) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

Klimt created another variation of the painting on the same subject but on a large scale, named "Water Serpents II". In this painting, female nudes glide past the observer with a dream-like gaze. Their red, nymph-like long hair is flecked with magically shimmering, floral creatures.

Reclining Woman (Study for "Water Snakes II", first version) (1904) by Gustav KlimtAlbertina Museum

A great number of nude sketches are associated with this image, which Klimt created as studies for the painting. Klimt was obsessed with capturing female nudes on paper.

Reclining Woman (Study for "Water Snakes II", first version) (1904) by Gustav KlimtAlbertina Museum

There are many studies of models from various years which can be associated with the reclining female figures in both variations of "Water Serpents". These drawings also show how Klimt was able to spend a long period of time working on the same theme.

Woman Reclining with Right Leg Raised (1904) by Gustav KlimtAlbertina Museum

In many of the drawings, the nude models assume recumbent poses and are often depicted as sleeping. Klimt carried these exact poses across to the two variations of "Water Serpents" paintings, in which the recumbent positions are reinterpreted as floating in water.

Silver Fish (Nymphs) (c. 1899) by Gustav KlimtAlbertina Museum

Klimt's depictions of nymphs and fairytale, water-dwelling creatures correspond to the general trend within Symbolism towards a secret deepwater world. In arts and crafts especially, and more specifically in glasswork, artists attempted to imitate the magical fluorescence of colors on the sea bed. Klimt also attempted to bring the mystery of this colorful world to light in his underwater pictures.

He achieved this brilliantly in his 1902/03 painting "Water Nymphs (Silverfish)", in which the artist played on the mysterious phosphorous light emitted by particular deep sea organisms.He used real gold and silver leaf to create the shimmering effect, achieving a precious work of art with an unusual craftsmanlike character to it.

Goldfish (1901/1902) by Gustav KlimtOriginal Source: Kunstmuseum Solothurn, Dübi-Müller-Stiftung

Similarly, in his earlier painting, "Goldfish", the golden-shimmering scales of a giant fish appear, as it swims up to the naked female figure.

With an astonishing lust for provocation, Klimt illustrates the erotic attraction of a female nude from behind, her roguish smile gazing out at the observer. The gaze was interpreted by his contemporaries as a jibe towards his critics and opponents.

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

Symbolic Literary Themes

Several of Klimt's Symbolist motifs refer back to specific, set illustrative themes. In the case of the Beethoven Frieze, the artist followed a picture story that Richard Wagner had already suggested as part of an interpretation of Beethoven's Eighth Symphony. In other cases, Klimt uses typical, well-known stories from art history and puts them in a new context without any more concrete commentary, so that the content of the piece remains a puzzle. Nonetheless, Klimt was a very original storyteller, who continually invented new ideas for pictures out of the blue, based on trusted, existing themes.

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

The painting "Nuda Veritas", created in 1899, has a noticeably programmatic character to it. Klimt placed the following quote by Friedrich Schiller prominently on a gold background at the top of the picture so that it formed an important part of the composition: "If you cannot please everyone with your deeds and your art, please a few. To please many is bad." In a similarly prominent fashion, the title of the piece, "Nuda Veritas", stands out from a gold background along the bottom edge of the picture. Klimt took the title of the picture literally and equated nakedness with truth. For this reason, he opted uncompromisingly to depict a fully naked, forward-facing female figure, standing before the observer.

Nevertheless, "Nuda Veritas" achieves a high level of realism, right down to the reproduction of the pubic hair—a novelty which no other painter had dared to produce until then. It was hardly surprising that the painting caused a huge sensation when it was first presented.

Pallas Athene (1898) by Gustav KlimtWien Museum

Klimt created a similarly naked female figure right before this, as a detail in the depiction of "Pallas Athene" in 1898, in which the miniature figure of a goddess of victory balances victory on a ball held in the hand of the Greek goddess.

Hardly any other of Klimt's works have such a programmatic character as the famous Beethoven Frieze, which the painter created for the 14th Secession exhibition, the so-called Beethoven exhibition.

The Beethoven Frieze (1901) by Gustav KlimtSecession

The frieze's significant themes and motifs refer to an essay written by Richard Wagner in 1846 on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, but not published until 1871. It was supposedly Alfred Roller—one of Klimt's artist friends and colleagues, who was a scenery painter at the Vienna State Opera—who made him aware of the text. A central theme for Wagner was the idea of a joyful soul, which has to defend itself against hostile forces—an idea that Wagner saw implemented in music in the very first stanza of the Beethoven Symphony.

The battle of the "Knight in Shining Armor"—a battle-ready hero in the spirit of the philosopher, Nietzsche—against the "hostile forces" reveals the basic tendency of a polarized world view, which boils down to a battle between good and evil.

Another central theme of the frieze, which is primarily expressed in the final chorus of the symphony, is the idea of human salvation, which Klimt brings to life in his painting "Choir of Angels from Paradise".

Life is a Struggle (Golden Rider) (1903) by Gustav KlimtAichi Prefectural Museum of Art

Klimt also bestows a programmatic character on several symbolic pieces, for which he chooses a common theme that is well known from art history. One example of this is his painting "Life is a Struggle (The Golden Knight)" from 1903.

The oil painting depicts a mounted rider, who gives the impression of an equestrian statue from the Early Renaissance in Venice and Florence. In fact, Klimt visited these two cities during his two trips to Italy the same year he created this painting, and marveled at the monuments he saw there. Dressed in full armor, a helmet on his head, and a lance in his hand, the golden knight seems to ride undeterred along a golden path.

However, his fate was to take a tragic turn. In the bottom left corner of the painting, an inconspicuous snake emerges. It is bound to injure the horse's foot, bringing it to the ground, along with the well-armored knight. In this painting, Klimt expresses a subtle message about the fragility and transience of power and strength.

Adam and Eve (1916/1917) by Gustav KlimtBelvedere

"Adam and Eve", a painting from Klimt's final creative year, places itself at the forefront of biblical iconography, yet it possesses a symbolic character, which goes far beyond the customary religious expression of the subject.

Characteristically, the snake responsible for seducing Eve is absent. Nevertheless, she is holding the apple, Eve's obligatory emblem, in her hand. This is only suggested, however, since the painting was not completely finished before Klimt's untimely death.

By using the figure of Eve, Klimt unmistakably created a symbolic allegorical interpretation of Woman as the source of life. She stands alone in the center of the composition, ruling the entire picture, while Adam—practically concealed by Eve—is depicted in a god-like sleep, which goes hand in hand with the birth of Eve according to biblical tradition.

Credits: Story

Text: Österreichische Galerie Belvedere / Franz Smola

© Österreichische Galerie Belvedere

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