‘To each age its art; to art, its freedom.’ – Ludvig Hevesi
And so Hevesi’s words read at the head of the entryway leading into the Art Nouveau gallery in Vienna: ‘Der Zeit ihre Kunst – der Kunst ihre Freiheit.’ As the motto of the Viennese Secession, it could not hold more true to the vision of artist Gustav Klimt and his fellow compatriots in the movement breaking away from Vienna’s art establishment at the turn of the twentieth century. The building (also adorned with the the Latin phrase ‘Ver Sacrum’ or ‘sacred springtime’, the title of the group’s monthly magazine to which Klimt frequently contributed) was a symbol of unity against Austria’s conservative, neo-classical Künstlerhaus society which deemed Secessionist work too taboo with its display of nudity and vibrant sensuality. Yet today, what was once seen as being vulgar and inappropriate is now seen as revolutionary; what once was unconventional is hailed as being a greatly appreciated and enjoyed creative style.
The first thing I did when I woke up at the start of this new year was write down the above words of the Secessionist motto (long story as to why I did that). As I constantly find that something reminiscent of Gustav Klimt is never very far away, there often is reason to post about him time and time again. The man was a brilliant artist whose life and work are something to be greatly considered throughout the evolution of art history. And though arguably his pieces are not to everyone’s liking (a friend of mine once characterized Klimt as being kitsch, a point with which Emperor Franz Joseph II would’ve greatly concurred), his contribution to the post-historicist period is monumental. If ever there was any doubt of his work’s merit or value, ‘Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I’ was sold for $135 million in 2006, making it the most expensive painting ever sold at that time.
Regardless of public attention, it fascinates me greatly that an artist such as he or any other can create such a distinct style that actual pattern types can be attributed to his magnificent technique of floral-pattern overlay with gold leaf and nymph-like silhouettes with flowing hair and porcelain skin. His ornamental, hyperrealistic take on Jugendstil infused with ancient Egyptian and Greek mythological symbology coupled with the exploration of female sexuality (very few males were ever displayed in his work, and provided more of a backdrop than anything else when they were) is unmistakable. His beech trees, line drawings and even poster-print font-style and personal signature all make for a repertoire that sets him apart even from his fellow Secessionist Egon Schiele, who was himself greatly influenced by Klimt’s work.
Today, Klimt is as prominent as ever as he seems to be undergoing a revival of sorts. His ‘The Kiss’ and ‘Fulfillment (The Embrace)’ are just as iconic as the Mona Lisa while appearing to be in one out of ten bedrooms worldwide. Though a rough estimation, I was reminded of this apparent statistic while watching the first part of the SVT drama series Om ett hjärta and noticed ‘Fulfillment’ over one of the characters’ beds. The same goes for many friends whose places I’ve been to, or the many model houses I’ve visited at newly-built property developments in the US Tri-State area. I too am the proud owner of a ‘Tree of Life’ print (the centrepiece of the ‘Stoclet Frieze’ of which ‘Fulfillment’ is also a part).
But apart from the usual to-scale replicas, his work can be seen recreated in real-life photo-format, turned into cartoon, woven into cushion covers, and painted onto Laskin guitars and bottles of wine. His name lends itself to pieces of jewellery and watches, while inspiring Missoni’s Spring 2008 ready-to-wear collection. The Australian Vogue’s February 2008 edition features make-up tips dubbed ‘Lush Life’, as inspired by ‘Gustav Klimt’s masterpieces’. There even exists ‘The Golden Tarot of Klimt’ for anyone who wants to add some Art Nouveau flare to their tarot readings. And after trying to pinpoint the inspiration for the dubstep group Various Production’s new album ‘The World Is Gone’ cover, I finally realized that it bears a striking resemblance to Klimt’s ‘Fish Blood’ (published print in Ver Sacrum). (See slideshow below)
Evidence of Klimt’s influence on the work of other artists beckons a question that always comes to mind regarding where one can draw the line between inspiration and imitation in the artist community. It is interesting to see how the old is often recycled into the new, and when it comes to historical figures whose work is now deemed trendy to admire, the end result of a new work is often described ‘in hommage’ or ‘a tribute’ to that individual. Otherwise, of course, one doesn’t find out about the origin of inspiration/imitation, e.g. native art of foreign cultures. This happens all too often in the music industry with sampling (watch the video ‘Timbaland rips off Arabic music’ for a host of examples).
But in Klimt’s case, royalty is given when it is indeed due. His name in itself has become an adjective: something can be so Klimt or Klimtesque. And to think a man who was so greatly shunned by the Austrian establishment could have so much resonance almost a century after his death further proves how powerful and lasting art is as an expressive medium. As Klimt was someone who did not like to be interviewed often, he once said ‘Whoever wants to know something about me–as an artist, the only notable thing–ought to look carefully at my pictures and try and see in them what I am and what I want to do.’ I think he would be happy to know that millions of people around the world now have plenty of opportunity to gain insight into who he was and what he wanted to do as an artist.
Sarah Badr © MMVIII
Gustav Klimt: Inspiration or imitation?