If you expect to see Klimt’s golden paintings like The Kiss or the Adèle Bloch-Bauer I at the exhibition Golden Boy Gustav Klimt at the Van Gogh Museum, you will be disappointed. There is only Judith !, which has already been in The Netherlands once, when shown in the Kunstmuseum in The Hague in 2016, and The Golden Knight. You will, however, not be disappointed by the rest of the exhibition. Yes, Klimt is famous for those golden paintings but he only made a handful of them between 1901 and 1909. But Klimt is so much more than that, as the exhibition proves.
Many people don’t know that Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) was pretty conservative on the one hand (he loved the outdoors) but was also considered a radical for wanting to introduce modern art in Vienna. Together with other avant-garde artists like Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, Klimt founded the Wiener Secession in order to break free from the conservative establishment.
The exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum starts with the beginning of Klimt’s career showing he painted in an academic, i.e. conservative way. You clearly see the influence in his work of Laurens Alma Tadema, a Friesian painter who became extremely successful in England with his lazy women in Greco-Roman settings. Slowly but steadily the avant-garde art which was shown in the Wiener Secession exhibitions influenced Klimt more and more but he only once travelled abroad, to Paris is 1909.
First, there is influence from Belgian artist Fernand Khnopff who is known for his mystical ladies with a lot of symbolism, resulting in a more diffused way of painting by Klimt. On the other hand, his portraits of the early 1890s are painting with such detail that they almost look like photographs. Later that decade the background of these women becomes more blurred after Klimt saw work of James Abbott McNeill Whistler. The symbolism of Khnopff and another famous Dutch painter, Jan Toorop, inspires Klimt to paint more mysterious scenes where you see nude women floating through space with long wavy red hair, which always reminds me of the Pre-Raphaelite women.
In this period Klimt also decorates the Wiener Secession’s building for a temporary exhibition. Knowing that this Beethoven Freeze will be removed after the show, he experiments with a collage technique which is inspired by the Glasgow artist Margaret Macdonald (better known as the wife of Charles Rennie Mackintosh).
For this freeze he makes numerous drawings, proving that he was an excellent draughtsman. A number of these are present at the exhibition showing his preference for depicting women. Some of them are pretty explicit which makes you wonder why women would like to pose for him in these positions. However, this is also the period of women liberating themselves, if it were only for the way they were dressed. Many of them, when posing fully dressed, wore the reform gowns made by his soul mate Emilie Flöge. Admittedly, when looking at the nude women they never look pornographic. They are clearly nudes and not naked women, he kept it respectful.
Unfortunately not everybody saw it that way, for he received a lot of criticism for his paintings commissioned by the Vienna University. He vowed never to take on any more public commissions and dedicated himself to painting portraits (even one of a girl on her deathbed) and landscapes. And that is where the Van Gogh influence shows up, the beautiful Pink Orchard hangs side by side with Klimt’s Avenue to Schloss Kammer and you recognize the thick blue contours Van Gogh also used.
All in all an exhibition worth seeing for it shows you Klimt is a Golden Boy in more than one way. Wendy Fossen 12th December 2022
GOLDEN BOY GUSTAV KLIMT continues at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam until 8th January