Gustav Klimt. Goldsmith of Dreams

Symbolism. The cradle of modern dreams.

Symbolism first appeared as a literary concept in the late 19th century, but very soon was identified with the artwork of a younger generation of painters who were similarly rejecting the conventions of Naturalism. Symbolist painters believed that art should reflect an emotion or idea rather than represent the natural world in the objective, quasi-scientific manner embodied by Realism and Impressionism.  In painting, Symbolism represents a synthesis of form and feeling, of reality and the artist’s inner subjectivity.

The symbolist painters used mythological and dream imagery. The symbols used by symbolism are not the familiar emblems of mainstream iconography but intensely personal, private, obscure, and ambiguous references. More a philosophy than an actual style of art. 

Their suggestive imagery established what would become the most pervasive themes in Symbolist art: love, fear, anguish, death, sexual awakening, and unrequited desire. Women became the favored symbol for the expression of these universal emotions, appearing alternately as wistful virgins and menacing femmes fatales.

Gustav Klimt and his cat

Austrian artist Gustav Klimt is one of the most celebrated Symbolist artists. During his career, he created academic paintings, life drawings, and even decorative art objects for several theatres of Austria. Still, he is most well-known for the collection of glistening, gilded works he produced during his so-called Golden Phase. This luminous period lasted about a decade, yet it has come to characterize Klimt’s style and has resulted in some of modern art‘s most well-known and valuable paintings. 

It’s important to mention, that his father was a metal enchaser (carver), who taught Gustav and his brother to draw and work with metal from an early age. Boys knew how to work with silver, copper, and gold. 

This fact is commonly unknown, that most of Klimt’s works he created, included the exclusive metal frames, either gilded or made out of copper.

Pallas Atheneis. Gustav Klimt

Pallas Atheneis often regarded as the earliest piece from Klimt’s Golden Phase. Completed in 1898, this oil painting depicts the Greek goddess Athena clad in armor and striking a defiant pose. While this piece still features the classical influence present in his early pieces, its bold use of gold and the presence of patterns hint toward Klimt’s coming work. Take a look at the metal frame, by the way.

Judith I. Gustav Klimt.

Another early example from this period is Judith I. Like many of his later pieces, this painting features a portrait of a woman (in this case, it is Judith, a biblical figure famous for slaying Holofernes, an invader) surrounded by decorative designs and set against a gold background. Similarly, Klimt also depicts the female figure with erotic undertones – an approach that would become intrinsic to his practice during this period.

In 1902, Klimt moved deeper into his Golden Phase with the Beethoven Frieze.  This massive fresco occupied three walls and was about 34 meters long and was created for the 14th Vienna Secessionist exhibition (The Vienna Secession – Austrian Modern Art Movement in the late 19-early 20 century)

It pays homage to the German composer and pianist Ludwig van Beethoven by offering a visual interpretation of his 9th Symphony. It also features the opulent planes, mystical motifs and figures, and ornamental accents that have come to characterize Klimt’s golden paintings. 

Longing for Happiness. Gustav Klimt.

The left wall of the composition “Longing for Happiness” depicts a golden knight marching to fight the forces of evil, he is accompanied by two female figures symbolizing the Victory (Glory) with the winner’s wreath and Compassion.

Detail of the “Beethoven Frieze,” 1902 (Photo via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)

The composition on the right wall of the Art, the Choir of the Angels of Paradise also consists of several details: the figures symbolizing Joy and God’s beautiful Sparks. And here we see for the first time the famous motif of a sweet embrace and a kiss surrounded by the luminous golden light.

Gustav Klimt, The Arts, Paradise Choir, and The Embrace (detail of Beethoven Frieze), 1902 Oesterreichische Galerie im Belvedere, Vienna, Austria © Belvedere, Vienna

In this mesmerizing work, Klimt is using the musical composition as a base for narration, architectural shapes, mosaics, deep philosophical symbolism, and outstanding craft in different techniques to crash the borderline between the real world of presence and the illusive world of perception.  Art and Interior Design will never be the same after the Beethoven Frieze. 

Gustav Klimt, Beethovenfries (Detail): Poesie
Gustav Klimt, Beethoven Frieze. Room view, Vienna Secession, Photo: Oliver Ottenschläger.

The Golden Phase

To explore the collage, mosaic, and golden leaf technique deeper,  Klimt traveled to the Italian cities – Venice, Ravenna, and Florence in 1903. Byzantine mosaics of Ravenna and Venice, as well as Florentine paintings, had a tremendous impact on the artist. The golden shimmering background (that symbolizes the presence of God and the transcendent power of the moment) and mosaic decorativeness combined with realistically portrayed faces (that shows our mortality in this magical world, full of wonders), we can observe among Medieval European and Byzantine artwork.

Simone Martini Annunciation. Uffizi Galleries, 1333.
Saint Mark’s Cathedral, Venice.

The Golden Phase reached full fruition with three key works: Portrait of AdeleBloch-Bauer I, The Stoclet Frieze, and The Kiss. 

As a successful painter and prominent figure in Vienna’s contemporary art scene, Klimt was often commissioned to paint portraits of the capital city’s upper-class women. The most well-known of these depictions is Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907), a piece that features the wife of a wealthy Jewish banker. Though this piece portrays one of Klimt’s real-life contemporaries, its bold use of gold gives it an ethereal feel reminiscent of a Byzantine mosaic, illustrating the timeless quality of the “new Viennese woman.” 

“Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” 1907 (Photo: Neue Galerie via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)

Arguably Klimt’s most famous work, “The Kiss” was completed in 1908. It portrays a man and a woman as they peacefully embrace in a patch of shimmering flowers. The clothes’ contrasting patterns and predominantly composed of gilded forms have become Klimt’s decorative style significant feature.

“The Kiss,” ca. 1907-1908 (Photo: Google Arts & Culture via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)

Later Work. Psychedelic journey.

Around 1911, Klimt stopped decorating his canvases with gold leaf. Instead, he began incorporating intricate planes of kaleidoscopic color into his compositions, culminating in designs reminiscent of woven tapestries or inlay decoration.

We see more and more often the clustered human bodies on his paintings, with their eyes closed, obviously in some sleeping or dreaming state, especially female bodies. Most of the time the bodies are surrounded by some frightening or obscure creatures, having the mystical power over human beings.

Gustav Klimt described his painting Death and Life as his most important figurative work. Even so, he seems to suddenly no longer have been satisfied with this version in 1915, for he then began making changes to the painting – which had by that time long since been framed. The background, reportedly once gold-colored, was made grey, and both death and life were given further ornaments. How symbolic is that for an aging artist – to suddenly change the significant golden background to a deep grey one…

“Death and Life” is eerie. The artist tackles a topic that raises fear in many people. He has positioned each element in the painting carefully, directing the eyes from one subject to another as he tells his story.

The painting is divided into two halves and is designed as a reminder that Life is always being observed with a degree of malice. This is true for people of any age. Older and younger men and women are represented in the painting, seemingly unaware that at any moment, Death may strike.

“Death and Life,” ca. 11910-1915 (Photo: Google Arts & Culture via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)

Klimt has always utilized color for contrast in his paintings and his execution of “Death and Life” is no different. Death is portrayed in deep tones, wielding an object that can be used to strike down anyone. It contemplates people from different backgrounds, who are positioned to the viewer’s right.

As a Symbolist artist, Klimt suggests several ideas through his use of various symbols in “Death and Life” which are intermingled with the people. Death gazes at everything as a whole, assessing adults in their prime, children, and the hidden things represented through symbolism. All of these form Life and the shape of Life approximates a circle.

The pigments used to portray Life are bright and in one section, flowers seem to be freshly blooming. Other circular ornaments are found right around the circle of Life. They adorn it and speak of beauty which continues even after the roughest times. 

Klimt’s subjects in the circle are there as a reminder that even if Death strikes one, the rest will remain to continue living and thriving. The forms he has used are chilling. His colors are also symbolic as he does not hesitate in applying undiluted oils to the canvas. Death is bold and striking. Its intentions are not subtle or hidden.

Water Serpents II, 1908

Paintings of Gustav Klimt became a great inspiration for my latest film, The Daily Dreamer. Klimt’s visual language is very familiar to anyone who tries to find the entrance to the symbolic world of dreams. I believe that Sleep is a process of transformation and becoming in the infinite instinctive flow of life.

We are constantly surrounded by many substances and fantasies, but during sleep, we can feel that all of us are deeply connected by our lives, our desires, and memories. We are those creatures from Klimt’s paintings, holding each other in a warm embrace.

Fantasies are a huge part of our inner selves. The myth surrounds us like cabbage leaves surround the stalk, and no one can dispel it. It’s your personal choice either to search for your Pure Self or to remain surrounded by many layers of golden illusory covers.

Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt Im Blue robe, 1913 Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Further Reading