Historicism and Early Symbolism in Klimt's Works (1882–92)

The works shown here were produced during the time from the last phase of Klimt's education at the Viennese School of Applied Arts, across the period of his success as a painter in the tradition of the Ringstrasse, until the crisis year of 1892

Portrait of Gustav Klimt in profile, standing facing right, in a pale suit, a straw hat in his hand (c. 1890) by UnknownWien Museum

In 1892 Klimt lost his younger brother and fellow painter Ernst as well as his father. The works demonstrate various aspects of his early drawings. His unmistakable identity manifests itself through the conciseness of the lines of his figure studies, which he used to meticulously prepare his decorative paintings.

The Realms of Nature (1882) by Gustav KlimtWien Museum

The Realms of Nature

Klimt drew the sheet "The Realms of Nature" for the series "Allegories and Emblems" in 1882, when he was still a student. With pictorial allegories, the young artist could showcase his exceptional ability in this field. In these works, the art of drawing was granted the status of a creative medium in its own right.

Composition Design for "The Realms of Nature" (1882) by Gustav KlimtAlbertina Museum

The basic elements of the final composition are already present in the draft sketch. The man enthroned above is at the highest level of the animal kingdom. The female figures sitting at his feet symbolize the kingdoms of plants and minerals.

The pseudo-architectural frame of the scene, connected with a slight view from below, is characteristic of historicism. Here, Klimt differentiates between the man's flesh tones painted in gray and the bright skin of the women.

Klimt would continue to employ this contrasting effect in his depictions of male and female pairs.

Burgtheater: Main EntranceBurgtheater

The Studies and Designs for the Burgtheater Series of Paintings

Klimt achieved a breakthrough in his development as a draftsman with his studies from around 1887 for the ceiling paintings in the stairwells of the Burgtheater. In these precisely executed sheets, he sensitively dealt with the human figure. The psychologing role of the line should be emphasized as one of his essential innovations

The ceiling panels of Burgtheater's state staircase Volksgartenseite (1886/1887)Burgtheater

"Shakespeare's Globe Theatre": Full-scale sketch (called cartoon) by Gustav KlimtBurgtheater

The most elaborate preparations were made for the painting "Shakespeare's Globe Theater," where the drama "Romeo and Juliet" is being performed.

Boy in Profil Perdu (Study for "Shakespeare's Globe Theatre", Burgtheater Vienna) (1886-1887) by Gustav KlimtAlbertina Museum

Klimt drew each individual figure with great intensity. In the studies shown here for the audience on the right, Klimt emphasizes their look of concentration toward the stage through concise profile contours.

Man with Cap in Profile (Study for "Shakespeare's Globe Theatre", Burgtheater Vienna) (1886-1887) by Gustav KlimtAlbertina Museum

Light and shadow are conveyed through powerful parallel hatching and white highlights.

Man with Beard with Cap in Profil Perdu (Study for "Shakespeare's Globe Theatre", Burgtheater Vienna) (1886-1887) by Gustav KlimtAlbertina Museum

Man in Three-Quarter View (Study for "Shakespeare's Globe Theatre", Burgtheater Vienna) (1886-1887) by Gustav KlimtAlbertina Museum

Reclining Girl (Juliet); Two Studies of Hands (Study for "Shakespeare's Globe Theatre", Burgtheater Vienna ) (1886-1887) by Gustav KlimtAlbertina Museum

One of the highlights of these drawings is the study for the apparently dead Juliet. The contrast between her dark-black, tangled hair and the ethereal pallor of her subtly outlined face is especially refined.

A young girl served as the model, whose address is noted down by Klimt on the left-hand side of the sheet.

Reclining Young Man (Romeo); Man in Profil Perdu (Studies for "Shakespeare's Globe Theatre", Burgtheater Vienna) (1886-1887) by Gustav KlimtAlbertina Museum

Klimt also effectively contrasted the pale skin with the dark hair in the study for the dead Romeo.

His white, open shirt collar sets a particular accent.

Burgtheater: Ceiling panel of the State Staircase Landtmannseite (1886/1887) by Gustav and Ernst Klimt, Franz MatschBurgtheater

Head of a Reclining Man (Study for "Theater in Taomina", Burgtheater Vienna) (1886-1887) by Gustav KlimtAlbertina Museum

The softly lit head study for the recumbent Roman in the Taormina theater is a masterful characterization of a cynical hedonist.

"The Altar of Dionysos" (Gustav Klimt) by Gustav KlimtBurgtheater

Reclining Maenad (Study for "Altar of Dionysus", Burghteater Vienna) (1886-1887) by Gustav KlimtAlbertina Museum

The nude drawing for the maenad, casually lying down at the altar of Dionysus, who is exhausted by wild orgies, captivates through the sensuality of its outlines across the entire sheet and its carefully modeling white highlights.

Auditorium in the Old Burgtheater (1888/1898) by Gustav KlimtWien Museum

The Auditorium of the Old Burgtheater

Shortly before the old Burgtheater was torn down, Gustav Klimt and Franz Matsch were commissioned by the city of Vienna to paint the auditorium of the building from two different perspectives in opaque colors. Gustav Klimt depicted the auditorium from the perspective of the stage and represented some 150 persons of public life.

Two Sketches of a man with Opera Glass (Studies for "The Auditorium of the Old Burgtheater") (1888-1889) by Gustav KlimtAlbertina Museum

Klimt and Matsch studied the interior and theater scenes at the original location. For this purpose, they each received a permanent pass, which let them attend all performances and observe the interior as well as the visitors in detail.

Klimt drew several groups of figures. He tried to break up the monotony of the arranged portraits with the greatest possible variety of postures and light/dark contrasts.

He drew from two sides standing gentleman watching the audience through his opera glasses. Both the profile and back view were used for two anonymous figures in the final version.

Klimt captures the model through concise outlines and parallel hatching with strong shadows.

Using insular blank spaces and white highlights, Klimt conveys the light reflections. Their effect is enhanced by the greenish tone of the paper.

In these spontaneous studies, Klimt tried to fix the essential qualities of the poses and gestures of his figures. This was undoubtedly an important experience for him.

Allegory of Sculpture (1889) by Gustav KlimtMAK – Museum of Applied Arts

Allegory of Sculpture

The highly refined "Allegory of Sculpture" was created for a superb volume of illustrations in 1889, which was provided with original works by 40 professors, teachers, and (former) students of the Viennese School of Applied Arts. This work was dedicated to the protector of the school, Archduke Rainer, on the 25th anniversary of the Austrian Imperial Royal Museum of Art and Industry. For the painting, sculpture, and architecture chapters, the two Klimt brothers and Franz Matsch—famous alumni—each drew a full-page allegory with ancient themes.

Preliminary Drawing for "Allegory of Sculpture" (1889) by Gustav KlimtAlbertina Museum

Gustav Klimt's outstanding "Allegory of Sculpture" clearly shows his early change from historicism to symbolism. The slender, melancholy-looking main figure stands before a mysterious backdrop of freely arranged sculptures.

The boy with the thorn seated below is closest to the viewer.

Above him, the statue of Pallas Athena and the colossal front-facing head of Juno represent the world of the gods.

The figure frieze visible at the very top—a free interpretation of the Roman Muse sarcophagus in the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum—seems to refer to the higher planes of the mind and imagination.

Pallas Athena, the future guardian deity of the Vienna Secession, already plays a central role. She is present in both the statue of the sculpture framework and the triumphal figure held up by the main figure; this, in turn, shifts in front of the fully armored Pallas in the Muses relief.

Klimt also dealt with the combative function of the divine protector of the arts in two margin sketches in the nuanced preparatory work for the allegory.

He emphasized the contrast between the dead past and living present by carefully playing off the animate and inanimate substances against each other. The subtly accentuated gold jewelry, along with the bright empty spaces within the full right-angled frame, also hint at Klimt's modern style.

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The ALBERTINA Museum, Vienna

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