Klimt trained at the School of Arts and Crafts of the Austrian Museum of Art and History, a step followed by his brothers Ernst and Georg. In 1883, after having already decorated some Viennese palaces, the three brothers and their fellow student, Franz Matsch, founded the Künstlerkompagnie (Company of Artists). In 1886 they were given their first major commission: the decoration of the two staircases of the Viennese Burgtheater. Ernst Klimt and his father died in 1892, which not only led to the dissolution of the Künstlerkompagnie but also left Gustav in charge of his mother, an unmarried sister, his sister-in-law, and his niece.
Klimt’s style, which had followed the academic path commensurate with his training, became more and more individual. In 1894, the rector of the University of Vienna entrusted Matsch and Klimt with the paintings for the great hall. The three works by Klimt – Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence – were considered to be pornographic. In 1897, Klimt and other artists left the Vienna Association of Plastic Artists, whose artistic position they were critical of. The aim of this secession was to reformulate artistic life and internationalize Austrian art. Their exhibitions were held in the building designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich, over whose door an inscription read: “To every age its art; to every art, its freedom”. In 1898 the first issue of the Vienna Secession’s magazine, Ver Sacrum, was published. In 1902, an exhibition dedicated to Beethoven was held, in which the sculpture by Max Klinger was surrounded by the famous frieze painted by Klimt.
The human figure, and especially the female figure, occupied most of Klimt’s works, although he also painted landscapes during his summers at the Attersee with the family of the designer Emilie Flöge, his partner. At the beginning of the century, gold made its way into his paintings. His work on the decoration of the Stoclet Palace, between 1904 and 1911, is one of the most characteristic pieces from this period.
In 1905, Klimt resigned from the commission for the paintings for the university, returned all the money he had been paid, and got his paintings back to “return them to freedom”. That same year, a new group that had formed around Klimt, with a strong interest in the importance of craftsmanship, separated from the Vienna Secession, opposed to its sole aim of showing paintings in exhibitions. They organized their first exhibition in 1908 and their activities included support for emerging artists, such as Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele. In 1911, Klimt went to Rome, where he won first prize at the International Art Exhibition. In 1912 he became president of the Austrian Artists’ Federation, and in 1917 he was made an Honorary Member of the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna.
Noemi de Haro