The Art and Inspiration of Gustav Klimt

The splendor of Byzantine churches with their glinting gold mosaic domes and beautiful art work spread throughout the Mediterranean area, especially in Sicily, with Cathedrals like Monreale and Italy, with St Marks in Venice. The jewel colors of silk (whose production was a state secret in the Empire) combined with gold and enamels made Byzantine walls explosions of color. The Byzantines were aware of their effect on visitors and at times deliberately cultivated it, perhaps in the process causing the jealousy which brought about the fourth crusade and the Empire’s eventual decline.

Nowhere can the colorful golden influence of the Byzantine world be seen more clearly than in the work of celebrated artist Gustav Klimt, yet his subject matter was very different from his source of inspiration.

Where Byzantine art features two dimensional portraiture often of mythical and religious scenes, the art of Klimt is often described as erotic and almost entirely composed of female figures. The Byzantine influence is seen in the use of mosaic patterns and ornament, jewel colors and gold. Klimt’s father and brother were gold engravers, and perhaps that is the reason for the use of gold in so many his works. Although Klimt did not travel a great deal, he frequently visited both Ravenna and Venice and it seems likely that this is where he was exposed to Byzantine influences.

Klimt began work as a an architectural painter who worked with his brother and a friend to paint interior murals and ceilings. He received a medal for his work in 1888, but his style changed following the death of his father and brother. For 10 years from 1897 Klimt was a member (and at one time president) of the Wiener Sezession a group of artists who protested traditional teachings and hence seceded from the Association of Austrian Artists. Their aim was to provide exhibitions for unconventional artists and bring the best of foreign art to Vienna. They did not favor any particular style and received government support including a lease on some public land where they could build an exhibition hall.

Klimt’s own work did not fare well at first. Some of the paintings he was commissioned to create were rejected and regarded as ‘pornographic’. His later work was far better received, especially that of his ‘gold’ period where he incorporated a great deal of gold leaf. In 1911 Klimt won first prize in the world exhibitions in Rome, but he left little behind other than his art. His life was not filled with scandal, he made no self portraits and left no notes and no diary. He died in 1918 leaving many paintings unfinished.

Three of Klimt’s paintings received some of the highest prices ever paid for art with the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I selling for $135 million in 2006. At the time it was the highest price ever paid for a painting, though it has now been eclipsed by the $137 paid for Willem de Kooning’s Woman III and the $140 million paid for Jackson Pollocks No 5, 1948.

Few of us have the money to indulge in original art work, or even the right space in which to hang a good Klimt reproduction, however some of Klimt’s more famous works can now be enjoyed as sculptures, and as such they make interesting decorative pieces and useful gifts for art lovers or anyone who might enjoy a an art-inspired gift.