Gustav Klimt's Lady with Fan (Dame mit Fächer)

Lady with Fan (1917/1918) by Gustav KlimtBelvedere

A young lady dressed in a Chinese robe stands before us. She wears makeup and her hair is pinned up. We encounter her in intimate circumstances—otherwise she would surely not show so much skin in front of a stranger. Her robe has slid down from her shoulder and her naked breast is only just concealed by a Chinese fan—the central motif to which the painting owes its title.

The identity of the woman is unknown. Shortly after its creation, the painting was also exhibited under the title of Dancer (Tänzerin). It is quite possible that the young lady was indeed one of Gustav Klimt's favorite ballet or music hall dancers. As well as conforming with Klimt's ideals in terms of beauty, these women were also used to presenting themselves confidently on stage, even when it required a touch of nudity.

Friends I (The Sisters) (1907) by Gustav KlimtKlimt Foundation

Alongside his commissions for portraits of wealthy women, Klimt engrossed himself in this theme of beautiful, seductive Viennese women time and again. 

In these paintings, he was less concerned with portraying the character and personality of his subject than he was with their pure feminine beauty and how he could stage this beauty in a way that did it justice. 

The friends after Gustav Klimt, plate 1, Gustav Klimt - The gleanings (1931) by Gustav KlimtMAK – Museum of Applied Arts

Klimt was especially concerned with the eroticism of veiling and unveiling in these works. Two paintings that were created around one year before Lady with Fan and later destroyed by fire, Portrait of Wally (Bildnis der Wally) and Girlfriends II (Freundinnen II), show how intensively Klimt strove to continuously uncover new variations and more successful solutions for this theme. The poses and outlines of the figures are often only slightly modified.

Klimt's late work after 1910 also engages intensively with Chinese art. The decorative motifs Klimt uses in the backgrounds of his paintings, especially symbols of luck such as the phoenix (Feng-hua), crane, and lotus flower, as well as illustrations of buildings, warriors, plants, and clouds are all inspired by Chinese porcelain paintings, robes, and other objects.

Lady with Fan (1917/1918) by Gustav KlimtBelvedere

Lady with Fan features a large flying phoenix (Feng-hua), ...

... a crane, ...

... a golden pheasant, ...

... lotus flowers, and other plants.

They form a scattered pattern on a yellow background. 

Schale mit Bodenmarke der Periode Daoguang (1821 - 1850)MAK – Museum of Applied Arts

Klimt adopts both the motif itself as a template, as well as the typical color combinations used in Chinese objets d'art. The yellow background in Lady with Fan is similar to the imperial yellow found in Chinese objets d'art. Klimt imitated the typical enamel colors used in Chinese porcelain paintings, such as chrome yellow, cobalt blue, red ocher, copper green, and pink.

Lady with Fan (1917/1918) by Gustav KlimtBelvedere

In addition to standing in front of a background that is fully inkeeping with the style of Chinese arts and crafts, the woman in Lady with Fan is also wearing a Chinese robe, which despite its sketchy execution is easily recognizable as such from the wave pattern on the sleeves. Klimt himself owned an extraordinary collection of East Asian robes, which was destroyed by a bomb attack in 1945.

Wien 13, Feldmühlgasse 11 (1918) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

A photograph by Moritz Nähr of the reception room in Klimt's workshop bears witness to Klimt's passion for East Asian art. It shows parts of his collection of East Asian objets d'art, only a few of which remain to this day. A Chinese painting can be seen on the wall and 10 Japanese colored woodcuts that are now missing, only 2 of which it has been possible to identify to date.

One of them is Utagawa Kunimaru's portrait of a courtesan with a letter. Portraits of beautiful courtesans such as this were highly influential to Klimt in developing his ornamental style, which was based on the formal aesthetic of lines and decorative patterns. These works of art are more lyrical than narrative in style and often follow poems, which also suited Klimt's poetic understanding of art.

喜多川歌麿画   「南国美人合」 此すミ|The Courtesan Konosumi, from the series “Beauties of the Southern Quarter”(Nangoku bijin awase) (ca. 1793–94) by Kitagawa UtamaroThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Widely distributed half-length portraits of beautiful courtesans such as this print by Kitagawa Utamaro served as reference works for Lady with Fan. Like the ukiyo-e masters, Klimt focused his portraits heavily on his models' white skin, pinned-up hairstyles, and clothing.

Gustav Klimt's studio at the Feldmühlgasse 11 (1918) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

Klimt left Lady with Fan unfinished when he died. He suffered a stroke on January 11, 1918, from which he eventually died on February 6, and the painting was still resting on his easel. A photograph by Moriz Nähr, which was probably taken just after his death, shows the work in his studio next to one of his masterpieces, The Bride (Die Braut).

Lady with Fan (1917/1918) by Gustav KlimtBelvedere

Although the picture seems perfect and complete at first sight, it reveals a rather sketchy, rapidly executed painting technique upon closer inspection.

There are also smaller areas that are clearly unfinished, such as a wide strip of unpainted canvas between the skin of the upper arm and the sketchily painted dress. Some of the background details are also unfinished. 

If the artist had not been torn away from his work as a result of his sudden death, he would surely have finished painting these details. Nevertheless, part of Klimt's established way of working was to exhibit or even sell pieces that were to a varying degree unfinished as soon as he was convinced of the overall impression of the piece. In that sense, Lady with Fan can be regarded as a finished painting that perfectly embodies the entire aesthetic and beauty of Klimt's late style.

Credits: Story

Markus Fellinger - Belvedere, Vienna

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