What is ‘Klimt vs. Klimt’?

Discover the contradictions behind the artist who painted with gold

By Google Arts & Culture

Gustav Klimt, holding a cat in his arm (c. 1911) by Moriz NährWien Museum


Gustav Klimt lived and worked at the turn of the century, as the traditions of the 1800s gave way to the 1900s, an era of modernity and progress. Divided across these centuries, Klimt’s life and work was also split between various contradictions. Klimt vs. Klimt is a project exploring these contradictions.

Was Klimt obsessed with ancient myths and Byzantine traditions, or was he a forward-thinking innovator? Was he a proto-feminist, or do we need to re-think his treatment of women? Was he a promiscuous lover or a devoted friend? A famous artist who painted with gold or a humble craftsman? The answer, in most cases, is both. Scroll on to learn more.

Klimt vs. Klimt

Famous vs. Obscure

The Kiss is one of the most famous paintings in history, joining the Mona Lisa and The Scream in the pantheon of images which have become cultural icons in their own right, endlessly reproduced and parodied. Klimt, therefore, can be considered one of history’s most well-known artists.

Klimt vs. Klimt

But despite (in fact, maybe because of) The Kiss’s incredible fame, much of Klimt’s other works and styles remain less well known. In this sense, he’s both famous and obscure. It wasn’t always about painting with gold leaf. This sunflower feels earthly, pastoral, and natural, almost Van Gogh-inspired.

Klimt vs. Klimt

Empowering vs. Objectifying

When considering artists of the past, it’s important to view their work within changing contexts. Art history has often included the subjugation and objectification of women, and in some cases, Klimt was no exception.

Klimt vs. Klimt

In other ways, though, this contradictory man was an early champion of feminist empowerment, often painting stoic, powerful women as complex figures, subjects rather than objects.

Klimt vs. Klimt

Lover and Friend

Perhaps the defining relationship of Klimt’s life was his partnership with Emilie Flöge, a fashion designer and businesswoman from Vienna with whom he shared a deep connection. She posed as a model for some of his most striking portraits.

Klimt vs. Klimt

Klimt’s devotion to Flöge at times seemed like lifelong friendship, but at other times gave way to passionate romance. 

Klimt vs. Klimt

Historic vs. Modern

Klimt was a man obsessed with classical characters and symbols, digging back into ancient myth and Byzantine style to inspire his great works. Here’s a black and white photograph of his richly symbolic painting, ‘Jurisprudence’, one of three Faculty Paintings destroyed during WWII.

But, though influenced by the past, Klimt was also an innovator, using a collage of materials and styles which inspired later movements like Art Nouveau and even abstract expressionism.

Klimt vs. Klimt

Klimt’s forward-looking attitude inspired these newly re-colorized versions of the Faculty Paintings, made using machine learning and seen for the first time as part of the Klimt vs. Klimt project.

Click here to head back to Klimt vs. Klimt and learn more about this man of contradictions.

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Klimt vs. Klimt
From penniless unknown to the famous creator of The Kiss, get to know the contradictory life of Gustav Klimt
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