Gustav Klimt. Three Ages of Woman

This is a square oil painting on canvas, 180cm X 180cm, completed in 1905, when Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) was at his artistic peak. It won the gold medal at the International exhibition in Rome in 1911, then in 1912 was bought by the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna there. The picture is a combination of figurative elements (the two women and child) and purely decorative elements that owe something to the work of Margaret Macdonald (1864-1933), whose work had been at the eighth Vienna Secession exhibition in 1900. Another influence here would be the Byzantine mosaics of Ravenna, which Klimt visited twice in 1903.

The image is very colourful, the young woman and child are in a column of largely cold colours, the old woman in a column of largely warm colours. Inside the columns, surrounding the figures, are many seemingly abstract shapes, these could well be based on the works of Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) who used microscopes to find art forms in nature. To either side of the columns the bottom more than two thirds of the picture is made up of trails of what look like bubbles (or perhaps rain) in a brown liquid, above which is solid dark brown, except at the extreme left of the picture, where the bubbles extend to the top. There is no attempt at Brunelleschi’s mathematical perspective, which had dominated Western art for 450 years. Instead we see the clear influence and flatness of the Japanese ukiyo-e prints (for instance Hokusai and Hiroshige) that were flooding Europe at the time and which had influenced the Impressionists.

The subject matter reflects on the human condition and as such can be seen as a thematic continuation of The Beethoven Frieze of 1902. Most of Klimt’s work was of women and this picture depicts three. He loved women and he loved sex. He seduced many of his models, sired many illegitimate children, painted whilst naked except for a robe, made pornographic drawings, had paid models in attendance at his studio when he didn’t need them and he died of syphilis (complicated by ‘flu). In the eroticism of his work and his use of line he followed on from the English Art Nouveau illustrator Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898).

Klimt wasn’t the only member of the Viennese fin de siecle avant garde to put sex at the centre of everything. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was inventing psychoanalysis. He published Studies on Hysteria in 1895, The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899 and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life in 1901, amongst other works. Klimt also read Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), in 1872 Nietzsche published The Birth of Tragedy which Klimt interpreted visually in Schubert at the Piano (1899) and Music II (1898). So the latest thinking in both psychology and philosophy informed Klimt’s work. His insight into how we all work as sentient beings in society was at the cutting edge of human thought and a step change from what art had previously portrayed.

Klimt used both allegory and Symbolism. The daisies in the mother’s hair in Three Ages of Woman, are an allegory of spring, and pay respect to his long classical art education at the Kunstgewerbeschule. The Symbolism we can see here is in the emotional Wagnerian theme of decay and death and the road through life that leads there. The French Symbolists, Odilon Redon (1840-1916) and Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) were deeply psychological and their ambiguity delved deep into our psyche, Klimt had emulated this since his Philosophy painting of 1900 for the University of Vienna had created such a huge scandal. The abstract represented pictorially is central to Klimt’s work

The German composer Richard Wagner (1818-1833) was a great influence on the Vienna Secession and on Art Nouveau elsewhere with his concept of Gesamtkunstwerk (all embracing art form or synthesis of the arts) which he had explained in two essays in 1849. Wagner also inspired with his deep psychological and emotional insight and his portrayal of the human condition.

We see death and decay again in Klimt’s Procession of the Dead from 1903 (destroyed in 1945) and his Death and Life from 1910. The old woman In Three Ages of Woman is based on the Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) sculpture The Old Courtesan, which had been shown at the ninth Secession exhibition in 1901. Interestingly Rodin went on to make a sculpture version of Klimt’s The Kiss (1908). The woman is the only person in the picture whose feet we can see, so that we can observe in detailed realism her collapsing veins. These are repeated on her arms and hands. In addition her belly is distended, her breasts are sagging, her hair is grey, her shoulders are emaciated and her head is held in her left hand in despair and hopelessness. She has no strength left. The messages are clear, old age and decay are not nice, life is just transient, death is for ever.

The mother figure is unnaturally pale and unnaturally skinny, yet her face has rouged cheeks and closed eyes. It has the artificial beauty and luminescence that are so typical of Klimt and which provides a shocking contrast to the adjacent head of the old woman. The mother holds her sleeping child close and bends her head over it to further surround and protect it. All three figures are naked, baring their bodies and souls to the viewer to further emphasise the emotion of the composition and the contrasts in the cycle of life.

Klimt was the leader, both intellectually and in everyday reality of the Vienna Secession. He sought to create a new art, owing nothing to what had gone before, to go with the break from the past that came with the fin de siecle.  He had been gifted as an artist whilst very young, almost a child prodigy. He passed the entrance exam to the Kunstgewerbeschule with distinction in 1876 when he was fourteen. On graduation in 1883 he formed a highly successful partnership with his brother Ernst and with Franz Match which they called Kunstlercompagnie. They carved successful niches for themselves decorating theatres around the Austrian empire in the traditional style and illustrating allegorical part works. This led to civic commissions in Vienna until in 1892 Erns Klimt died. Then between 1893 and the first years of the new century, whilst very slowly undertaking the Vienna University commission, Klimt produced very little work.

In 1897 Klimt led a group of fellow minded artists to leave the Kunstlerhaus (artists association) to form the Secession with the motto: “To every age its art. To every art its freedom”. Klimt’s “Golden Phase” followed when his many famous works were produced and he remained the most famous artist in Austria until he died. Nobody knows what happened in those fallow years to flip Klimt from being a highly successful traditional artist to being the leader of a creative Art Nouveau revolution.

The first Secession exhibition of 1898 concentrated on foreign artists in an attempt to infuse new ideas into Viennese creative life. They succeeded and over a few short years Vienna went from being a traditionalist backwater to being right at the bleeding edge of European creative thought and production.

Klimt never really told us what he thought, unlike so many other great artists. When he died his correspondence was burned. The only insight is his “Commentary on a non-existent self portrait” this said: “I have never painted a self-portrait. I am less interested in myself as a subject for a painting than I am in other people, above all women… There is nothing special about me. I am a painter who paints day after day from morning to night… Who ever wants to know something about me… ought to look carefully at my pictures.”. So his motivation and inspiration remain a complete enigma. All we know is that he worked very hard and charged top prices for what he produced, he clearly understood his worth. He created opulent work for Vienna’s rich in a highly decorative style which combined abstraction with figurative work and which was the result of many different influences. In fact we could almost look on him as just a highly successful creator of what sold, as Canaletto was for an earlier age, if it weren’t that complete flip in the nature of what he painted.

We can see many of the influences; Margaret Macdonald, Byzantine art, Ernst Haeckel, ukiyo-e,  Aubrey Beardsley, Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche the French Symbolists and Richard Wagner and we can see the end results. But we can’t see what drove him to create his style, we have absolutely no idea whatsoever what the intellectual processes were and how he came to combine them in the way he did. Our picture, The Three Ages of Woman, is an amazing synthesis brought together by a genius at the peak of his powers.

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