Gustav Klimt: The Three Ages

Le tre età (1905) by Gustav KlimtLa Galleria Nazionale

Gustav Klimt completed "The Three Ages of Woman" in 1905, the same year that it was presented at the second exhibition of the Deutscher Kunstlerbund (Association of German Artists) in Berlin. The work was also featured at the Venice Biennale in 1910, to resounding acclaim. The painting was then purchased for the International Exhibition in Rome in 1911, organized to mark the 50th anniversary of Italian unification (Risorgimento). Klimt entered and won the gold medal in the Austrian pavilion. The Italian state housed the work in the then newly established National Gallery of Modern Art (Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna) in Rome. In "The Three Ages of Woman," Klimt again used both allegory and symbolism—mechanisms masterfully illustrated in his paintings for the University of Vienna. He continued in that mold until the end of his days. It is one of the great allegorical paintings, and the artist found fame thanks to its refined elegance.

Klimt depicted the figure of the isolated old woman on the left in an incredibly realistic, expressive style, in stark contrast to the other two figures and the abstract background. The physical decay of the elderly woman is portrayed with cheerless accuracy and in the finest of detail, comparable to a medical observation. The imperfections on her aged body are represented with brutal severity: the bulging blue veins on her deformed hands—which also appear on her feet—make them look like claws. Her hair is gray and lifeless, stretching from her skull and hanging down to cover her face. Her withered skin, collarbones, and gnarled joints, combined with her hideous bloated belly, evoke the transformation from fertility to sterility. The old woman stands with her head bowed, covering her eyes with her left hand, perhaps crying in horror at the passage of time. Klimt's grotesque representation of the aged body and the figure's posture gripped by grief offer a distressing vision of the cruel fate of beauty, disfigured by time.

Beside the crone is a young woman wrapped in veil, her face expressing contentment and happiness in a kind of joyous state of abandonment, captured in gentle serenity. Her body is tall and slim, and her skin is fair. Red hair frames her angular face. Wrapped in transparent veil adorned with sensual arabesques, she embodies the figure of the seductive woman. Observing her beauty while her eyes are closed provokes mixed feelings of pleasure and embarrassment. The erotic position of Klimt's women, deliberately distanced from the classical ideal of beauty, often hides a disturbing subtext. The character of the young mother is heavily stylized; her wavy hair contrasts with the soft shapes and strong contours of her body.

In her arms, she holds a sleeping infant, who echoes her mother's sweet and virtuous inhibition; her little body is at one her mother's, who lovingly supports it. Her position suggests she has been lulled to sleep by the very heartbeat of her young mother.

The prominent color of the background is black, which is rare in Klimt's work. There is also a partially gold- and bronze-colored area, in which black is again conspicuous. The ornamental motifs around the two main figures surround them with alternate qualities. They reinforce the conflict between old age and death, represented by a reddish aura punctuated with large dark spots, and childhood and youth, characterized by softer, more delicate hues. The compositional layout and symbolism of the colors underline the contrast between the two conflicting principles. This is accentuated by a horizontal line clearly dividing the background into two distinct sections: one dark and the other light. The painting summons the full time span covering the beginning, flourishing, and declining of life. The silhouette of the elderly woman, like that of the mother with her child, supported in spite of themselves by an upward force, is encased by decorative bubbles or concentrically decorated disks, engulfing them in some places.

The decorative circles are reminiscent of cells, perhaps even ova, and undoubtedly representative symbols of life and energy, while the black void evokes silence and death.

There are also different colored triangles, spirals, and golden, silver, and copper layers, dotted with small beads, that make up the base of the painting, all enveloped within an organic-looking ornamental surface.

The figures and the decorative background make up a vertical composition with intense colors; this combines with the dark horizontal band across the upper part of the background to form a cross shape. This opaque, blackish-brown band lies on top of the lighter layer, where an irregular transparency concludes the unusually wide background—like a curtain of rain, a multitude of light dots descend against a backdrop of bronze, mimicking the effect of a trail of stars.

The embellishment in Klimt's work is a metaphor for primordial matter continuously and eternally mutating, developing, twirling, spiraling, winding, and twisting in a furious whirlwind, taking on any and all forms. The decoration reveals an ambivalence in symbolic meaning, irrespective of its historical source. Even the ornamental elements are ambivalent, and their general meaning is also ambiguous and indirect. The inherent power in its decorative symbolism thereby leaves a mark on the observer's unconscious. In a profusion of symbolic ornamentation, the meaning and memory of which are both lost, he develops the melodic rhythms of linearism, always ending up back at the beginning, finishing itself off. This is accompanied by the delicate, melancholy harmonies of dull, ashen, pearlescent colors, with fading flashes of gold, silver, and enamel.

The spiritual serenity of the young mother is contrasted by the despair of the old woman: a projection of the future and an image of the pain and terror of death. Klimt's allegorical vision is rooted in the relationship between erotic power and the fatality of death. Through his work, Klimt reveals his personal interpretation of the Eros and Thanatos concept. He was undoubtedly influenced by the iconographic tradition of the vanitas of the German and Flemish Renaissance, in which beautiful women often appeared alongside Death. Love and death are inextricably linked in this painting. Despite the allusion to her inevitable biological deterioration, the loving pose of the young mother, recalling a Botticellian Flora, and her quiet indifference seem to indicate that the only dream of immortality lies in the continuation of life and in hope for the future.

Credits: Story

Text by Barbara Tomassi

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