Sunday, January 27, 2008

Danae (1907-08)

Greek mythology has a lot to offer modern civilization, including acting as a primer for any swinging gadabouts (godabouts?) who’ve split Mount Olympus and are looking to score with some mortal chicks. Klimt depicted two such happenings, including this painting of Zeus having his way with Danae in the form of a shower of gold. This, of course, is the beginning of the story of Perseus, but that doesn’t concern us right now. In fact, Klimt places us so firmly in the moment that the rest of the story might as well not even exist.

This is, in my humble opinion, the most purely erotic piece in Klimt’s entire catalog (just beating out his assorted, highly sensual depictions of water maidens). He enjoyed baiting the people who chastised him for the sexuality he put on display; hence the use one of his favorite devices: the brazen, flowing red hair. The sleep/dream eroticism hinted at in The Kiss is in full effect here. And again, we have ornamentation, this time used to slightly humorous effect in its furtherance of Klimt’s emphasis on female sexuality. The round symbols on the cloth beneath Danae (likely taken directly from antiquity, although I couldn’t tell you which one; Greek would seem to be the obvious choice given the subject, but I can’t be sure) are obvious, but the male presence has become downright negligible, at least from a symbolic standpoint. Where the man was once resigned to merely turning his face from the viewer, he is now made of pure suggestion, including the one vestige of the male symbols that remains: a single, solitary black rectangle floating beneath the golden stream. Between Danae’s body, drawn up into itself, and the look of focused intensity on her face, one gets a sense that she is no longer even aware of the presence that is giving her such pleasure. Subsequently, the image becomes an expression of female sexual independence while still retaining the charge of male sexual fantasy of the story from which it was taken.

Next: The Faculty Paintings (1907)

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Kiss (1907-08)

Even if you think you’re unfamiliar with the work of Gustav Klimt, if you’ve spent any notable amount of time in a dorm that houses college age women, you’ve likely seen at least one of his paintings, indeed his most famous, The Kiss. Posters of this particular work are ubiquitous in the domestic collegiate arena, and young women seem to hold a particular affinity for it. And I’m sorry if that sounds sexist, but it is a romantic painting, the sort of thing a certain cross section of young women are apt to appreciate, and I doubt that the majority of them are full-blown Klimt enthusiasts, given the dark and frequently male sexual dynamic of a lot of his work.

The Kiss depicts a man and woman kneeling on a bed of flowers. Their bodies are pressed tightly together under blankets that envelope them. He holds her head in his hands as she bends it back to allow his lips access to her cheek. One of her hands clasps his while the other lays draped over the back of his neck. Her calves can be seen protruding from under her blanket and her feet stick out past the flowerbed, which ends at a place that almost seems to drop off into the void.

Klimt was a big fan of ornamentation, and each blanket is covered in its own particular symbol, long, shaft-like blocks on his, circular figures on hers. (Decidedly unsubtle in this post-post-post-Freudian world, but bear in mind that Freud himself was only just beginning to simmer his theories at the time this was painted, in the very same city no less.) Through the way her blanket lies you can see a clear indication of her body, and yet at the same time the very fact that his blanket melds right into hers, coupled with what little of their actual bodies are exposed, come together to suggest that they are united as one entity, an important factor in the painting’s inherent romanticism.

Some find a theme of male domination in the work: his grasp on her, his position somewhat looming above her, the slightly phallic aura that caps their heads. But to me the peaceful, pleasurable look on her face belies any negative connotation of this variety. Klimt’s portrayal of the female face was ever expressive (as opposed to his depiction of men, whose faces, except in specific portraits, tended to be turned away from the viewer), and in this piece, and even more so in Danae, painted around the same time, he achieves a mystical sense of sexual ecstasy that almost seems to suggest sleep, and subsequently dreaming.

Next: Danae (1907-08)


As indicated on the main page, this is all the work of a layman. I am not an art scholar; merely someone with an abiding interest who is attempting to learn as much as possible while sharing some of what I've learned. Also, since I'm basically commenting on works as the inspiration strikes me, these will not be presented in chronological order (hence, the hopping of the title).

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), b. Baumgarten, Austria

Gustav Klimt (c. 1908)
The artist, circa 1908.

Gustav Klimt is not an easy artist to classify. He is generally referred to as a member of the Art Nouveau, or Jugendstil as it was called in his neck of the woods, a movement characterized by paintings utilizing ornamental, decorative touches often inspired by nature, which is a fitting description of some of his work. But he was also known to incorporate elements of Impressionism from time to time, and he, like many Prussian artists of the era and the several decades that followed, is linked to Expressionism (a term itself difficult to define), both through select pieces from his own catalog and his friendship with and influence on the Expressionist Egon Schiele (who I hope to examine at some later point). And it would be unthinkable to examine Klimt’s work without considering the assorted antiquities that inspired him so.

This latter point was a big part of what led Klimt to co-form the Vienna Secession, a group of younger artists who broke away from their predecessors in a battle between Historicists and Modernists. This was an ideological difference between embracing the past and letting it lie, although which side was which may not be as easy to guess as one might think. The Historicists considered art to be an ever-evolving form that need never look back – in their view, once a particular period was over, it was over – whereas the Modernists wanted to be free to incorporate anything that had come before that stirred them. Indeed, to look at certain Klimt pieces, it is clear that he did not just wish to incorporate images from the past – he wanted to make them vibrant enough to seem to be things of the present. This included not shying away from their inherent eroticism when appropriate, a tendency that would cause him some trouble (though not as much as certain thematic approaches).

But while sex was an abiding element of much art from this period and the decades to follow, sometimes in forms more explicit than might be expected of the time, Klimt’s works have a vibrancy to them that makes the eroticism radiate out from the canvas. Klimt clearly loved painting women, and the lion’s share of his allegorical images would be expressed through their assorted forms and shapes, although to view them as merely symbolic is to miss out on part of the picture. Indeed, he seems, when painting mythological figures, to be attempting to transcend their stature as mythological figures, to humanize them, and sensualize them, in a way that will speak more to the viewer’s sense of themselves than their sense of history.

The Works:

The Kiss (1907-08)
Danae (1907-08)
The Faculty Paintings (1907)
Assorted water maidens (1889 through 1907)
Judith I (1901) & Judith II (1909)