'The Kiss' and 'The Three Ages'

A comparison of two masterpieces by Gustav Klimt

Kunstschau 1908 (1908)Austrian National Library

In 1908, along with several of their comrades, Gustav Klimt and Josef Hoffmann organized a comprehensive exhibit entitled the Art Show. Hoffmann built the entire exhibition building in record time—it was originally intended as a temporary construction to be pulled down after two years.

Insight The Kunstschau 1908 (1908) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

Klimt exhibited 16 paintings at the show; all of which were gathered together spectacularly in 1 hall. Koloman Moser is credited with the striking, minimalist design of the hall, while Klimt himself is said to have hung the paintings. The two highlights of the exhibit were The Kiss (Lovers) (Der Kuss (Liebespaar)) and The Three Ages of Woman (Die drei Lebensalter der Frau).

Le tre età (1905) by Gustav KlimtLa Galleria Nazionale

Klimt placed the two pieces, which had the exact same dimensions, directly opposite one another so that they formed an axis. It was clearly his intent to emphasize these two paintings in particular. In the catalog for the 1908 Art Show, the paintings were entitled Three Ages (Drei Lebensalter) and Lovers (Liebespaar).

Klimt had already completed The Three Ages of Woman 3 years prior to the show, in 1905. The Kiss (Lovers), on the other hand, was fresh from Klimt's studio. It would seem he was not completely happy with the painting, however, because he made a few adjustments to its composition after the exhibition.

The Kiss (1908-1909) by Gustav KlimtBelvedere

Although it was clearly unfinished, the Ministry of Education purchased the painting for the exorbitant sum of 25,000 crowns while the exhibit was still ongoing. The painting ended up in Vienna's Moderne Galerie, which had been established in the Lower Belvedere just a few years before.

Le tre età (1905) by Gustav KlimtLa Galleria Nazionale

Klimt pursued similar themes in both paintings. They could be described as symbolic interpretations of the critical moments in human life. In Lovers, the two figures are both experiencing an emotional climax. Whereas in The Three Ages of Woman, Klimt contrasts the charm of young motherhood with the burden of old age—they are depicted as polar opposites.

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

Close correlations can be drawn between the motifs Klimt uses, particularly in The Three Ages, and his symbolic illustrations of the circle of life, which he depicts in all its conceivable nuances in the famous Faculty Paintings he created for the University of Vienna.

Hygieia, excerpt from the picture "Medicine" after Gustav Klimt, plate 10, Gustav Klimt - The gleanings (1931) by Gustav KlimtMAK – Museum of Applied Arts

A similar version of Klimt's striking illustration of a naked old woman in The Three Ages of Woman can be found prominently displayed in the lower half of the Medicine Faculty Painting, behind the figure of Hygieia.

Thankfully, a detailed color version of this exact section of the painting still exists. Out of all three Faculty Paintings, only this section was reproduced in color—the rest of the motifs are only recognizable from black and white images.

Jurisprudence (1898-1903, slightly revised until 1907) by Gustav KlimtBelvedere

In the Jurisprudence Faculty Painting, the demonstratively small figures of the three fearsome Furies are seen. 

The figure on the left is especially reminiscent of the young mother figure in The Three Ages of Woman, although in this case the expression of the figure has been completely transformed into one of blissful peace. 

Le tre età (1905) by Gustav KlimtLa Galleria Nazionale

Unusually, The Three Ages of Woman features magnificent red and gold colors.

Klimt had rarely used such a strong red up until that point—it appears vividly for the first time on Hygieia's clothing in the Medicine Faculty Painting. 

Jurisprudence (1898-1903, slightly revised until 1907) by Gustav KlimtBelvedere

It is presumed that the Jurisprudence Faculty Painting also featured a similar red shade. Klimt worked on the painting intensively from the summer of 1903 onwards. The poet Karl Kraus said of this monumental piece, which we have unfortunately only obtained as a black and white reproduction, that it exhibited the politically charged black, red, and gold colors of the royal coat of arms (Die Fackel, November 21, 1903).

This comment by Karl Kraus was one of the core reference points used to digitally recreate the Faculty Painting colors, as attempted for the first time as part of the Google Arts & Culture project.

Le tre età (1905) by Gustav KlimtLa Galleria Nazionale

After being displayed at the Vienna Art Show in 1908, The Three Ages of Woman made its next big appearance at the Venice Biennale in 1910, where it formed the focal point of a sensational special exhibit by Klimt, in which he displayed 22 of his works.

As with its previous appearances, the painting was listed in the Biennale catalog under the simple title of Three Ages.

Judith II Salomè (1909 - 1909) by Gustav KlimtCa' Pesaro - Galleria Internazionale d'Arte Moderna

The City of Venice bought Klimt's Judith II (Salome) painting at the time, which he created in 1909 and exhibited at the Biennale.

The Austrian Pavilion at the International Exhibition of Art in Rome 1911 (1911)Austrian National Library

Around the same time, it seems that The Three Ages of Woman also drew the attention of the Italian arts authorities. In fact, the former Italian Ministry of Education and Art acquired The Three Ages of Woman just one year later for the National Gallery of Modern Art (Galleria Nazionale d´arte moderna) in Rome. The purchase took place during the International Exhibition of Art (Internationale Kunstausstellung), which was held in Rome from April through December 1911.

Insight The Kunstschau 1908 (1908) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

Austria-Hungary was one of 27 participating countries in the vast International Exhibition of Art and invested in its own pavilion, which was constructed by Josef Hoffmann for the entire duration of the show. 

99th exhibition of the Vienna Secession (1928) by Handwerkliches Lichtbild Julius ScherbAustrian National Library

Yet another hall dedicated entirely to Klimt formed the center of the pavilion, in which he exhibited eight paintings.

The Kiss (1908-1909) by Gustav KlimtBelvedere

Dr. Friedrich Dörnhöffer, who had been Director of the Moderne Gallerie in the Lower Belvedere since 1909, was named curator of Austria's contribution. 

It is therefore not surprising that Klimt's Lovers painting, which had been owned by the Moderne Gallerie since 1908, was among those he exhibited in Rome. The painting was also referred to as Bacio (The Kiss) for the first time in the Italian version of the catalog for the 1911 International Exhibition of Art—a title that has remained with the painting to this day.

Le tre età (1905) by Gustav KlimtLa Galleria Nazionale

It is highly unlikely that The Three Ages of Woman was exhibited at the International Exhibition of Art in Rome. Its acquisition by the Italian ministry was, however, processed by the administrators of the International Exhibition of Art. The Italian ministry paid 16,900 lire for the painting. On top of this, Klimt was awarded a special prize worth 10,000 lire at the Rome exhibition.

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