Klimt & Symbolism - Part 1

"Life Cycles" & "Love"

By Belvedere

Gustav Klimt (1917) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

On the Concept of Symbolism

Symbolism is defined as an artistic style that manifested itself above all in European and American painting between 1880 and 1910. Originating in France and Belgium, waves of Symbolism developed primarily in countries such as Germany, Austria, Italy and Switzerland, as well as Scandinavia. The central theme of Symbolist art is the visualization of aspects of human spiritual life; the conflict between feelings and passions such as joy, sorrow, fear, love, and eroticism. Often, the illustrations returned to a preformulated vocabulary via myths and poems and were created based on the repertoire of shapes and motifs found in Greek mythology and the Bible. Symbolist themes played an important role for Gustav Klimt, particularly between the years of 1895 and 1915.

Many of Klimt's pictorial motifs revolve around growth and decay in human life, experiences of love and happiness—especially involving women and their erotic aura—and finally, life-threatening, dark, sinister powers and death.

Death and Life (1910/15) by Gustav KlimtLeopold Museum

Life Cycles

One of the key messages in Klimt's works is the representation of the human life cycle. From procreation through to infancy and adolescence; from a man and a woman in the prime of their lives to the frail old man and the unsightly old woman, Klimt portrays the whole range of ages and stages of development. Klimt almost always presents his characters as passive, weak-willed subjects who are evidently giving themselves up willingly to fate.

He would also follow all the current trends that were popular in intellectual discourse in Vienna in the late 19th century. These were mainly the ideas of the German philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer. Nietzsche's philosophy on life regarded people less as independent individuals than as part of an almighty circle of life, to which people were forcibly committed.

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

The human life cycle is the central theme of the Faculty Paintings: giant—over 13 feet high—canvases, on which Klimt was commissioned to work by the University of Vienna from 1894 and which are now regarded as his masterpiece of Symbolist art. In the "Philosophy" and "Medicine" Faculty Paintings, in particular, Klimt poeticizes the unfolding of ages and generations as chains of human creation, which pass the observer by in a never-ending, willing stream. 

Klimt presents the naked body in all its sensual power and erotic character with great empathy, including old, unsightly bodies and heavily pregnant women.

Painting "The Three Ages of Woman" (1905) by Gustav Klimt (1908) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

The symbolic circle of life that Klimt illustrates in the Faculty Paintings was repeated in the "The Three Ages of Woman" painting he created in 1905. Klimt selects three figures as examples from the abundance created by the circle of life, namely a young mother, a baby, and an elderly woman, and presents them as individual figures. They are decorated with colorful, biomorphic details, which indicate the creation and evolution of human life. Klimt dramatically demonstrates the contrast between old and young and, by presenting them on such a monumental scale, forces the observer to contemplate the fragility of human life.

Baby (Cradle) (1917/1918) by Gustav KlimtNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

In one of the last paintings he finished before his sudden stroke, it is clear that Klimt devoted himself to the subject of the circle of life once more by making the single figure of a small child the subject of the painting. 

In a monumental fashion, the child lies on the point of a pyramid made of colorful textiles and looks out silently and blankly at the observer. The artist was possibly inspired to create this image by experiences from his personal life. From 1911, he was associated with the model Consuela Camilla Huber, who later gave him three children, the youngest of which was only born in 1915.

Love (1895) by Gustav KlimtWien Museum


Gustav Klimt is one of a number of Symbolist painters, who dedicated themselves primarily to the portrayal of positive emotions and moments of human happiness. Above all, in his portrayals of lovers shown in a close embrace, he repeatedly conveys through his works the feeling and experience of being in love, as expressed by an intimate embrace between a man and a woman.

The first time Klimt devoted himself to the subject of love was in 1895, when he painted "Love". The picture shows a couple kissing in front of a twilight background. Above them, visionary faces of young women, as well as fearsome old faces, appear out of a misty sphere. Executed by hand, this small-scale, almost miniature, canvas is tremendously precise and corresponds to the true realism that was characteristic of Klimt's early years.

Second Long Side Wall Beethoven Frieze "The Arts, Choir of Angels, Embracing Couple" (1901/02) by Gustav Klimt (1902) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

A few years later, Klimt presented a large-scale representation of a pair of embracing lovers, which became a recurring theme in his spectacular Beethoven Frieze. Klimt painted the frieze—around 100 feet long—on the wall of a side room in the Vienna Secession building, as a contribution to the 14th Secession exhibition, which took place from April through June 1902, and was to be in homage to Ludwig van Beethoven. 

The lovers illustrate Friedrich Schiller's words, "This kiss to the whole world", which form the ending of his poem, "Ode to Joy", which Beethoven set to music in the final chorus of his Ninth Symphony. Klimt opted to portray the lovers in the nude, choosing an aspect which showed off the athletic build of the man's whole body from behind, and concealed the woman's body, which was wrapped in his embrace, almost entirely from view.

Standing Naked Couple, Embracing. Study for “This Kiss to the Whole World” from the Beethoven Frieze (1901) by Gustav KlimtLeopold Museum

The definition in the male section seems to play to the previous episodes in the frieze, in which "Weak Humanity" turns to the "Strong Knight", in order to be freed from the evils and vices of the world. The lovers are placed before an ornamental flower meadow and are surrounded by the decorative golden shell of their space, which forms an imaginary sky, decorated with symbols of the sun and moon.

The Kiss (1908-1909) by Gustav KlimtBelvedere

The theme of embracing lovers returns in Klimt's famous painting, "The Kiss". This time, the lovers appear clothed in precious golden robes, and kneeling in a flower meadow. Through their intimate embrace, man and woman are brought together in unbreakable unity, their bodies unified by a single contour. The background of golden clouds is reminiscent of a star-studded sky. Man and woman are united symbolically with the Earth and cosmos. 

In this masterpiece, Klimt succeeded in transforming love into power in an artistic reality, permeating and holding together human life and the Earth and cosmos beyond it.

Gustav Klimt and Emilie Flöge (around 1909) by H. BöhlerAustrian National Library

In addition to this general level of existential, philosophical meaning in "The Kiss", Klimt could also have been referring to his specific personal experiences through his relationships with women. He was known to have constant companionship with the fashion designer Emilie Flöge, with whom he maintained a close relationship for many years until his death. Nonetheless, he was not married to her, had no children with her, and did not live with her.

Emilie Flöge, Gustav Klimt and Eleonore Zimpel in Litzlberg at the Attersee (1905)Belvedere

The closest they came to one another was during her summer vacations on Lake Attersee, which she took each year with her family. The image of "The Kiss" could well be seen as a self-portrait of Klimt with Emilie Flöge on the shore of Lake Attersee, with the golden shimmering background interpreted as the sun reflecting on the surface of the lake.

Credits: Story

Text: Österreichische Galerie Belvedere / Franz Smola
© Österreichische Galerie Belvedere


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