Gustav Klimt (1862–1918) was perhaps the most influential Austrian artist around 1900, but his legacy is often left only partly examined. Klimt is revered for his sensual and elegantly decorated depictions of the female form, but another genre also captured his interest: landscapes.
Klimt was a founding member of the Vienna Secession, a group formed in 1897 that sought to break from the binds of conservative organizations that dominated the Austrian art scene. The Vienna Secession believed that these prevailing organizations had become out of touch with the modern styles and art theories that had been circulating throughout Europe at the time. Klimt and his like-minded colleagues explored new aesthetic strategies not rooted in historicism but rather aimed at creating new styles that more aptly interpreted modern, industrial society. This mentality was characteristic of the broader movement of Art Nouveau.
Many of Gustav Klimt’s most remembered and celebrated works are those depicting women, particularly his “Golden Phase,” a period of paintings in which he employed delicate, gold leafing. Klimt is quoted saying, “There is no self-portrait of myself. I am not interested in my own person—more in other people, females.” In fact, the female muse became somewhat of an obsession of his. Klimt was prolific in his paintings and sketches of women. His sketches reveal nude female models in a host of erotic positions, often portrayed as objects of purely sexual interest. His paintings offer a more stylized, and masked expression of this sexuality. These paintings highlight a central female figure, usually enveloped in a highly ornamented drapery of collaged shapes and colors. Almost all sense of depth is lost, with the figure and her surroundings flattened into a single plane of interlocking forms.
But Klimt’s interest was not solely devoted to painting women. Beginning in the early 1890s, Klimt began taking annual summer trips to the shores of the Attersee Lake in upper Austria. It was here where Klimt developed a strong side interest in landscape painting, ultimately creating a body of work whose quantity and quality closely rivals that of his female portrait paintings. While Klimt’s landscape works stylistically draw more from impressionism and pointillism, much of the same detailed patterning and reduction of forms that characterize his paintings of women, is also evident in these more natural scenes. Klimt skillfully flattens the immense depth of the landscapes into a single surface of color, while intense flecks of paint create highly textured forms, reminiscent of the ornamented dress of his female figures. Often, this style distills the scene to a mood rather than an accurate depiction of the landscape.
The two somewhat disparate genres that commanded Gustav Klimt’s interest, portraits and landscapes, were united by his unique approach to space and his aesthetic technique of ornamentation. While his female portrait paintings have garnered much of contemporary attention, Klimt’s landscapes reveal his love of the outdoors and offer an alternative view of the artist, a view worth taking.
Eskilson, Stephen. Graphic Design: A New History. 2nd ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.