Gustav Klimt

I’m not familiar with Gustav Klimt. Although I recognize the name and know a few of his works — such as Death and Life, painted in 1911 — I’ve never really gotten acquainted with Klimt and his art. That’s changing now as I learn more about symbolism in art. Klimt, you see, was part of the Symbolist Movement. Here is a concise definition of symbolism as employed in both art and literature:

As opposed to Impressionism, in which the emphasis was on the reality of the created paint surface itself, Symbolism was both an artistic and a literary movement that suggested ideas through symbols and emphasized the meaning behind the forms, lines, shapes, and colors. The works of some of its proponents exemplify the ending of the tradition of representational art coming from Classical times. Symbolism can also be seen as being at the forefront of modernism, in that it developed new and often abstract means to express psychological truth and the idea that behind the physical world lay a spiritual reality. Symbolists could take the ineffable, such as dreams and visions, and give it form. — From The Art Story

I don’t know about you, but I find this concept quite profound. Although, if asked, I would always associate myself and my landscape painting style with impressionist art, I’m currently exploring symbolism and modernism, and finding it utterly fascinating. The mention here of “forms, lines, shapes, and colors” echoes my own personal studies in recent days both in research and creative process. Yes, I’m captivated by the idea of symbolism in art, curious about precisely how symbolism is used, and, on occasion, a bit puzzled over what I see appearing in my own art.

I’ve never been a huge fan of modern art — but I’m beginning to appreciate it more now, learning to see it as expressing “psychological truth” and “the idea that behind the physical world” we find a meaningful spiritual reality. This has been a part of my personal search for meaning in my own art, and I feel that I’m beginning to find some of the answers I’ve been seeking as I learn more about symbolism, surrealism, and the artists who “could take the ineffable, such as dreams and visions, and give it form.”

Klimt was an Austrian painter and part of a group known as the Vienna Secession. In 1897, a number of artists, including Klimt, resigned from the Association of Austrian Artists because of the association’s support for classical, traditional themes and ideas in art. This founding group itself split within a decade, yet the Vienna Secession continues to function today and still holds regular exhibitions.

The subject most often connected to Klimt is the female form, and his works have been viewed as overly erotic, to the point of being pornographic. Wikipedia says:

Early in his artistic career, he was a successful painter of architectural decorations in a conventional manner. As he began to develop a more personal style, his work was the subject of controversy that culminated when the paintings he completed around 1900 for the ceiling of the Great Hall of the University of Vienna were criticized as pornographic. He subsequently accepted no more public commissions, but achieved a new success with the paintings of his “golden phase”, many of which include gold leaf. Klimt’s work was an important influence on his younger peer Egon Schiele.

As I browsed through information online and viewed a number of Klimt’s art works, I was surprised at how many different styles he embraced. As a landscape painter, of course my attention was caught by this scene he painted:

It is titled “Tranquil Pond” (Stiller Weiher) and was painted in 1899. Lovely, I suppose, but truly not a painting I would look upon with wonder. I don’t care for the colors. While the reflections are beautifully done, I come away with this feeling as if I’ve been cheated somehow. I want to see the land and the sky, not mere reflections and muddy colors.

Harsh criticism? Yes, I guess it is, and who am I to criticize such a great artist? In my defense I fall back upon the “eye of the beholder” belief. I simply don’t care much for this painting. To me it lacks any real emotion; it doesn’t have the mood and atmosphere that I’ve been striving to create in my own landscape art.

But then I turn to works like The Three Ages of Woman, and all I can do is gasp with incredulity. How can anyone create something so breath-taking in its scope and symbolism?

Here, his palette is quite similar to those of the landscape. I can enjoy the colors here. I can let my gaze wander all over this painting, seeing the symbols and grasping the meanings, and I come away with a deep respect for Klimt and his ability to express unseen things, his ability to share thoughts, feelings, and emotions, and even more, to spark those things in others.

Perhaps part of my current fascination with Klimt is my own exploration of femininity, womanhood, and sisterhood in art. I think I find it somewhat surprising that works like “The Three Ages of Woman” were created by a man. Is that sexist of me to say? Maybe so.

One interpretation of this painting says:

The Three Ages of Woman’ is a highly inventive painting. The more I look at it the more I am convinced that we are looking at the same woman in the three ages of her life as opposed to 3 generations of a family, and that they are meeting in this beautiful, spiritual place (possibly heaven) and reflecting on how age and the stages of life can alter us. This heavenly place is decorated with the most beautiful patterns as well as the blackest black (a reminder of the possibility of finality or the unknown in the afterlife?). For me this painting, through its incredible abstract design, celebrates the beauty of the strength and vulnerability of womanhood. This is a visual poem about womanhood that whitewashes nothing, to create a masterpiece that is so unapologetically and powerfully real. – From Jackson Art

The idea of creating visual poetry has long intrigued me. Every morning as I read posts from blogs I follow, I come across beautiful poetry, and I yearn to take words and translate them into art. But how? Even with my personal experience of Stories of a She-Tribe, I was unsure how to put words and art together. But Klimt seems to have done this, and indeed, The Three Ages of Woman could inspire many poems. If I listen closely as I look at the painting, I imagine music, too.

To me, even with my untrained eye and limited knowledge, this is indeed a work of art. In inspires. It sings. It speaks. It touches. It is alive with meaning.

And so I now add Gustav Klimt to my growing lists of artists I truly love. I want to get to know him better, to learn more about him and the Symbolist Movement. I want to study with him and discover what poetry and music I might express through visual art.


  1. Klimt created magical, dream-like art. And the quote from “The Art Story” does a good job of describing the background, especially “Symbolists could take the ineffable, such as dreams and visions, and give it form.” To have the ability to do that? Wow.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that “wow” was my exact reaction when I read those words. Until now Klimt was just a mostly unfamiliar figure in art history to me. Now I want to learn more about him. I also like Egon Schiele, so I definitely see the connections between the two. Art history is fun when it piques our interest and makes us eager to know more.

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  2. That is a very interesting painting of the 3 ages of woman. I like how the old lady is covering her eyes. I guess that means she’s seen enough already. Do you think that means something else? I’m not sure what he intended by it.

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    1. I see the older woman crying…covering her eyes to hide her sadness, or maybe it symbolizes that she can’t see what lies ahead. For me, there is a lot of emotion here. All the female forms are beautiful, but I am most drawn to the crone image, probably because of my own age.

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  3. Hi Judith, I haven’t seen this Klimt painting before, and yes, it’s the aged woman that draws me in too. There is a real feeling of tragedy, and she is more tonally rendered in her aging flesh – a kind of hyper-realism alongside the flatter figures and patterns. Very dark versus light too. Thank you for sharing and making Klimt stand out to me!

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