Gustav Klimt

An expanded version of an article first published in "Austria" issue 180, Winter 2012 to mark Klimt's 150th anniversary.

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The Klimt Family Tree

Father: Ernst Klimt, a precious-metal engraver from Bohemia (? 1892)
Mother: Anna neé Finster, a usually-unemployed musician from Vienna
They had either 6 or 7 children. In birth order:

This article attempts to present Klimt's life in a much more orderly fashion than it really was. The illustrating stamps are mainly Austrian commemoratives and also "Personal Stamps" from the hard-cover booklets produced by the Austrian Post "Gustav Klimt" (both editions) and "Wiener Werkstätte".

Gustav Klimt was born at Baumgarten bei Wien on 14th July 1862, the son of a gold engraver originating from Bohemia. In 1876 Gustav Klimt was admitted to the newly-founded Vienna Academy of Industrial Art it gave him a broad training in a wide range of techniques (eg fresco and mosaic) and equipped him to earn a living sooner than an academic training would have. Brother Ernst followed him a year later on the 3-year course. Their evident ability procured for both brothers (and their colleague Franz Matsch) a 2-year scholarship for further studies. The silver wedding anniversary of Emperor Franz Joseph I and Empress Elisabeth in 1879 was marked by the organization of a lavish procession in Vienna featuring trades, professions, horses, floats, children and numerous marching bands. Under Hans Makart, the Klimts and Matsch were entrusted with the details of the "Makart style" medieval costumes etc. The event was commemorated in a special edition of the Neues Wiener Tagblatt dated 25 April (note the blue tax signet, used only on special editions)

In 1883 the Klimt brothers and Franz Matsch founded the Künstler-Compagnie. Makart died in 1884, and in 1885 the studio installed wall paintings based on his sketches at the Hermes Villa in Lainz, Vienna. 1885 is also notable as the first time the colour gold featured in one of Klimt's sketches. In 1886 the trio began 2 years work on the ceiling paintings in the stairwells of the Burgtheater [shown on the "200 years" block]. They then completed Makart's unfinished decoration of the grand stairs of the Kunsthistorisches Museum.

In 1891 Klimt became for a short time a member of the Viennese Künstlerhaus. The following year tragedy struck: his father died, and Klimt's brother Ernst who had married Helena Flöge in 1891 also died leaving a baby daughter Helene who became Gustav's ward. Klimt never married, living with his mother and siblings in a household run by the youngest, Hermine. However, his sister-in-law Emilie Flöge soon became his Significant Other. Interestingly, all Austrian writers take pains to assert that their relationship was indubitably platonic while all foreigners are certain it was anything but. The Flöge sisters opened a high-class dress shop in Mariahilferstrasse in 1904. Klimt had two recognised albeit uncherished mistresses, Mizzi Zimmermann and Maria Ucicky, and three children by them; after his death a further eleven children claimed him as father. His relationship with the society ladies he painted is unrecorded - Klimt hated writing except to friends. He kept private affairs private; his earnings subsidised his family, partners, and probably his children.

With the death of Ernst, the Künstler-Compagnie dissolved. These were times of unimaginable affluence for the nobility and successful industrialists; grinding poverty in the suburbs. Matsch went up-market, painted the aristocracy, and was himself ennobled as Franz Josef Karl Edler von Matsch in 1912 but he is best known for the Anker-Uhr giant clock in the Hohe Markt! Kunst developed his new style and picked the industrialists as patrons. He moved from photo-realism and historicism to symbolic and derivative modernism.

In 1894 Klimt (with Matsch) won a commission for the "faculty pictures" to decorate a new building of the University of Vienna; they expected traditional Makart-style pictures. Matsch painted "Theology", which is still in the University. Between 1900 and 1903 (ie after a fundamental style-change) Klimt painted three allegorical pictures of Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence. Some acclaimed the paintings for their extreme delicacy of touch. Others found their overt eroticism was too much, and loudly despised them as artistic pornography. Nobody with pretensions to cultural importance could avoid taking sides, and there was a huge and furious row. [The illustration is "Hygeia" from Medicine, all that survives in colour: see the end of this article.]

Although the paintings were exhibited and won a number of international prizes (eg the gold medal for foreign contributions at the 1900 World Expo in Paris), in 1905 Klimt wearied of the controversy, renounced his commission, borrowed 30,000 fl from his patron Lederer, repaid his advance - then sold Lederer the paintings.

Meanwhile in 1898 Klimt revolted against the Makart historicism style of painting [as shown in the "Makart block" of September 2011] and left the Künstlerhaus. He became a founder member and the first president of the Vienna Secession which he led until 1903, remaining a member until 1905.

During summer stays at Attersee and Wolfgangsee Klimt completed his first landscapes, in an impressionist style. A sheet of 20 of these was issued as a Meine Marke.

In 1900 Klimt was awarded the Kaiser-Preis (400 Gulden) for his painting "Innenansicht des alten k.k. Hofburgtheaters" (Inside the old Imperial Court Theater). This had been painted in the "old style" and showed "everybody who was everybody" including Katharina Schratt.


Klimt played a critical role in the Viennese Secession, a progressive group of artists driven by a desire for innovation and renewal. They sought freedom of ideas and expression and wished to propagate through exhibitions their new ideas about art which have become known as Art Nouveau, Jugendstil or Secessionism. Their goal was "Gesamtkunstwerk", the concept of the Total Work Of Art. Membership rapidly rose to over 100. The Secession's philosophy embraced not only art but architecture, fashion and the decorative products of the Wiener Werkstätte (1903-1930)

The Viennese Secession produced a legendary magazine Ver Sacrum (1898 to 1903); Klimt created numerous pictures and illustrations for it. Their First and Second Exhibitions in 1898 featured Klimt's work, much of which drew stinging criticism. The profit helped the construction of a new building largely financed by the industrialist Karl Wittgenstein and designed by J M Olbrich. Above the entrance was inscribed the motto "Der Zeit ihre Kunst - der Kunst ihre Freiheit" ("To the time its art, to art its freedom"). It is shown on a 1998 stamp.

The Viennese Secession building, destroyed during WWII, was restored by the City of Vienna using the original plans. Exhibitions resumed, beginning with a Kokoschka retrospective, and the motto was replaced on the façade. To celebrate the reopening, a 3S multi-coloured stamp was issued on 5 June 1964 depicting a detail from Klimt's 1908 painting "The Kiss". The photo of the building was taken in about 2008 during a rare break in the traffic!

In 1901 Klimt produced "Judith and Holofernes", the design based on a story from the Deutero-canonical Book of Judith. The Jewish widow Judith saved her home town of Bethulia during a siege by beguiling Nebuchadnezzar's general Holofernes with her beauty. Having made him drunk, she cut off his head with his own sword. The painting hangs in the Belvedere Palace. "Judith II" is an almost-identical version, now in Ostrava; both were painted in 1901. The model was Adele Bloch-Bauer, wife of a wealthy merchant banker, and identifiable by the jewelled gold choker that her husband had given her. The stamp was issued on 10 October 2003 as a block, 4 inches high, with a Jugendstil special cancel; above and below the stamp are inscriptions in gold ink. A magnificent First Day Blatt was produced.

The design of the stamp is taken from the Belvedere version not the Ostrava, although the details are difficult to see in most reproductions of the paintings. The key distinction is the leaves to the left of Judith's hair: the Belvedere version does, the Ostrava does not, have a fruit on the frond nearest Judith's head.
Belvedere Ostrava

Klimt painted a portrait of Emilie Flöge in 1902 which she disliked! In 2009, "Austria-Japan Year" was marked by an elaborately-designed commemorative block, issued on 16 October "to commemorate their 140 years of friendly relationship". The Japanese painting is "Autumn clothing" by Uemura Shôen; the Austrian is Gustav Klimt's "Emilie Flöge" and the amphora-shaped vase from 1817 is from the Vienna Porcelain Factory. The flower arrangement was painted by Josef Nigg; the background is a 16th century lacquer tray with autumn grasses.

The Beethoven Frieze was created by Klimt for the fourteenth Secession exhibition in 1902 and is now permanently installed in the restored Secession building. The Frieze celebrates the unification of all arts painting, sculpture, architecture and music - and is a prime example of "Gesamtkunstwerk".

In May 1903, Josef Hoffmann, Koloman Moser and Fritz Wärndorfer founded the Wiener Werkstätte, a design enterprise that in time would be heavily influenced by Klimt. Some consider it as Vienna's response to the Charles Rennie and Margaret Mackintosh "Glasgow School" exhibition at the 1900 Secession. Klimt and Hoffmann strove to establish a harmony between the visual and the applied arts; they shared a common vision of an art that was meant to touch all spheres of life. Over two decades, they frequented the same circles, worked for the same clientele, and were both leading personalities in Vienna's newly emerging art scene.

Lamps; glassware; furniture; tea service; and cutlery!

The Wiener Werkstätte rapidly expanded, holding exhibitions and winning commissions to build new houses (palaces, almost) and refit interiors for extremely wealthy clients. The aim was the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art, where the exterior and interior design, the fittings, the ornaments, the cutlery and glasses, even the clothing of the occupants, were all designed to form a harmonious whole.

In 1904 Josef Hoffmann won the contract to build the Palais Stoclet in Brussels for Adolphe Stoclet, an extremely rich Belgian coal mine owner. This building, still private, is the only remaining Wiener Werkstätte Gesamtkunstwerk. Klimt designed the frieze in the dining room ►

In 1905 Klimt decided jointly with some of his colleagues to leave the Viennese Secession because of a dispute over others" naturalistic style. His own style, described as "symbolic and derivative modernism", led to several new series of works. One was the so-called "square portraits" of society ladies. He also began his "Golden Phase"; the picture of Fritza Riedler painted in 1906 is the first. The illustration shows this portrait on the stamp commemorating the 150th birth anniversary of Gustav Klimt, correctly issued on 14/7/2012./


◄In 1907 Klimt painted the first formal portrait of his patron, "Adele Bloch-Bauer I", the so-called Gold Portrait. It is now one of the most expensive pictures in the world: see Wikipedia!.

Following the disagreement within the Secession and the departure of the "Klimt-Group", the "Der Zeit ihre Kunst - der Kunst ihre Freiheit" was removed from its doors in 1907 and made the motto of the Kunstschau 1908. This exhibition was staged on land awaiting the construction of the Konzerthaus; in a few months Hoffmann, Klimt, and others built and furnished exhibition rooms, gardens, and a country house. Painting, sculpture, and design were combined to create a Gesamtkunstwerk. Klimt presented "The Kiss" at this event.

◄ Klimt's picture "Death and Life", begun in 1908, was awarded the first prize at the 1911 International Exhibition of Art in Rome; at that date the background was painted in gold. Later Klimt overpainted it in the murky colours shown here in the 1916 state. While holidaying in Emilie Flöge's summer house on the Attersee, Klimt painted his interpretation of an alley in the park of Schloss Kammer in 1912. ►

In 1913 the Wiener Werkstätte began work in two houses of the Primavesi banking family; this portrait of Eugenia Primavesi was painted by Klimt in 1913-14.

In 1914 the Primavesi bought a third of the shares in the Wiener Werkstätte which was relaunched as a private company instead of a co-operative. Otto Primavesi became managing director in 1915. In the 1920s the affluent customers the business required began to disappear. In 1926 Otto Primavesi died, his bank collapsed, and the Wiener Werkstätte became a public company; it was closed and liquidated in 1932.

Klimt suffered a severe stroke in the autumn of 1917, paralysing his right side. Confined to hospital in Vienna, he caught flu followed by pneumonia and died there on 6 Feb 1918, according to legend summoning Emilie Flöge to his deathbed. He is buried in Hietzing cemetery. Klimt's art lives on internationally, in the most expensive salerooms as well as in the kitsch-market of chocolate boxes and carrier bags. Paintings allegedly by Klimt keep turning up in improbable places. Reproductions of his works don't do them justice you need to join the hordes standing before the canvas, dodge the selfie-takers, close your ears, and open your mind.


In 1932, Austria issued a set of surcharged stamps depicting "Artists"; Klimt is on the 64 groschen value looking improbably tidy in a suit.

By the 1930s many of Klimt's works were owned by Jewish families, especially the Bloch-Bauer and Lederer. There was a Bloch-Bauer family dispute over Adele's inheritance. Lederer's collection was confiscated by the Nazis and sent (with much more similar work) to Schloss Immendorf, which was set on fire in 1945 by the retreating SS troops to prevent the advancing Russians getting it. Tales of salvaged works abound.

The story resumed in 2006, with a newspaper report that "Five paintings by Gustav Klimt, long held by the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna, have been awarded by a panel of Austrian judges to Maria Altmann, the 90-year-old Los Angeles niece of a Viennese Jew from whom the paintings were stolen in 1938. She subsequently sold the pictures, one of them the famed Gold Portrait of her aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer, for over 100 million."

The "artistic heirs" of the Wiener Werkstätte continue to appeal to shoppers to this day. "Wien Products" is an association of Viennese businesses with the most exacting quality standards. Members include Österreichische Werkstätten who offer designer jewellery, glass and fashion accessories.

Many people from Sigmund Freud onwards have speculated about Klimt's relationship with women. Did he idolise the unattainable while taking advantage of what one reference book (see "Further Reading" below, page 23) coyly describes as "sweet young girls from the Viennese suburbs"? Did the repression of natural desires lead to an enhanced artistic expression? What is the symbolism of the square patterns on some dresses in portraits and of the circular patterns on others? If any of these questions have meaningful answers, they do not come from philately!

Further reading: (a) Vienna Modernism 1890 1910 Published by the Austrian Federal Press Service in 1999.
(b) The Wikipedia article on Klimt (and its links).

There are many - perhaps too many - books about Klimt. The British Library catalogue lists 174 books and 51 articles; even North Yorkshire Libraries have 9. Among the several Klimt-productions of the Austrian Post Office are an A5 hardback book "Gustav Klimt - Sein Leben, seine Bilder, seine Zeit" and a booklet with 8 postcard reproductions of Klimt works, 8 Meine Marke in the same designs to stick on them, and brief but useful background essays. Their covers are shown below.


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