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A Web Magazine of Arts, Culture and Orthodox Christian Spirituality

Gustav Klimt, the Embodiment of the Expiring Empire's Splendour

Gustav Klimt, the king of decorative painting and of the female body. The embodiment of Vienna Secession, one of the most compelling artistic and cultural movements of the turn of the 20th century. On February 6th, the Austrian capital will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the great artist's untimely death.

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) was born in a town near Vienna called Baumgarten (Tree garden) in Austria-Hungary as the second of seven children—three boys and four girls. His mother, Anna Klimt (née Finster), had an unrealised ambition to be a musical performer. His father, Ernst Klimt the Elder, originally from Bohemia, was a gold engraver.

Klimt lived in poverty while attending the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts (Kunstgewerberschule), where he studied architectural painting until 1883. He began his professional career painting interior murals and ceilings in large public buildings on the Ringstrasse, including a successful series of "Allegories and Emblems". In 1888 Klimt received the Golden Order of Merit from Emperor Franz Joseph for the murals he painted in the Burgtheater in Vienna. Numerous tourists still enter the beautiful building today just to look at these impressive paintings.

In the early 1890s Klimt met Austrian fashion designer Emilie Louise Flöge, who was to remain his companion until the end of his life. The Kiss (1907-08), one of Klimt's most reproduced paintings, is thought to be an image of them as lovers. During this period the Viennese artist fathered at least fourteen children.

In 1897, Klimt became one of the founders and the first president of the Wiener Sezession, which published the celebrated periodical, Ver Sacrum ("Sacred Spring"). The goals of the group were to provide exhibitions for unconventional young artists, to bring the works of the best foreign artists to Vienna, and to publish the works of their artists in the magazine. Beside famous artists and sculptors, like Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, Klimt's famous protégé, there were several prominent architects who became associated with the movement, most notably Otto Wagner (1841-1918), "the pioneer of modernism," who contributed many landmark buildings in Vienna.

Klimt's "Golden Phase," in which he used gold leaf to decorate his paintings, was marked by positive critical reaction and financial success. The artist's fame brought patrons to his door. In his studio, he wore sandals and long robe with no undergarments.

Gustav Klimt died of pneumonia caused by a worldwide flu epidemic. He was buried at the Hietzinger Cemetery in Vienna. It is symbolic that both Egon Schiele and Otto Wagner also died in 1918, the year that saw the precipitous crumbling of the great Habsburg Empire.

Svetozar Postic

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