In 1894, a young, highly regarded Viennese painter won one of the most important commissions of his career – the decoration of the ceiling of the Great Hall at Vienna University. It would take ten years to complete, but the finished work would never be displayed in situ. When the first unfinished panel, Philosophy (1899-1907), was exhibited in 1900, it provoked public uproar. During the time it had taken to paint, Gustav Klimt had transformed himself from the darling of the Viennese establishment to the reviled leader of the radical avant-garde – a controversial innovator of erotically charged imagery brimming with Art Nouveau and Symbolist influence. Klimt was accused of perverting the youth of Austria. It was an event that ended his career as the leading light of the conservative establishment, yet marked the coming-of-age of one of the 20th century’s great masters.
Born in Vienna, Klimt studied at the Vienna Kunstgewerbeschule and achieved recognition quickly. Together with his brother, Ernst, and fellow artist, Franz von Matsch, he formed a studio that won important commissions for large, civic murals in Viennese institutions such as the Burgtheater and the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Tragedy struck in 1892 with Ernst’s death and, for a time, Klimt’s productivity declined. When he returned to work, he became increasingly influenced by Impressionism, Symbolism and the English artist, Aubrey Beardsley. By 1897 his ideas had culminated in an artistic revolution, and he led a group of 40 artists who broke with the conservative Viennese Artists’ Association of the Kunstlerhaus to found the Vienna Secession, a movement committed to saving culture from convention.
By the mid-1900s, all the elements of Klimt’s revolutionary fusion of Art Nouveau, Symbolism and Byzantine ornamentation were being beautifully exampled in iconic works such as Beethoven Frieze (1902), The Kiss (1907-8) and Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907). In 1905, Klimt broke with the Secession and, from 1909, his work became less ornate and decorative as he concentrated on landscapes and portraits, such as his beautiful depiction of Baroness Bachofen-Echt (1914-16). For a younger generation of artists including Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka and Wassily Kandinsky, Klimt would be a defining influence.
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