Gustav Klimt is best known for his vividly coloured, subtly erotic portraits, illustrations and friezes. It is often forgotten that he also painted 54 landscapes – no less than a quarter of his entire output.
Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) was one of the most innovative and controversial artists of the early 20th century. The son of an engraver, he studied at the State School of Applied Arts in Vienna. In the 1880s and 1890s he produced murals for public buildings – including Vienna’s Burgtheater and new Kunsthistorisches Museum (Art History Museum). Klimt’s style grew increasingly experimental, however, and his murals for Vienna University, commissioned by the State in 1894, were publicly criticised for their fantastical imagery and their bold, decorative style.
It was partly in response to this reaction that, in 1897, Klimt helped form the Secession, a group of artists dedicated to challenging the conservative Academy of Fine Arts. Influenced by European avant-garde movements represented in the annual Secession exhibitions – and, in turn, influencing movements like Hungarian art nouveau – Klimt’s style combined rich surface patterning with complex symbolism and allegory.
The group earned considerable notoriety for its exhibition policy, which introduced the French Impressionists to the Viennese public. The 14th Secession exhibition, in 1902, dedicated to Ludwig van Beethoven, was especially famous. German Symbolist painter, sculptor, and printmaker Max Klinger created a statue of the composer enthroned before a cowering Hapsburgian eagle. For the exhibition Klimt painted a frieze evoking Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” used in the Ninth Symphony.
Klimt came to landscape painting late. His first dates from 1897 and, although he continued to paint landscapes until the end of his life, he did so only intermittently. Almost all are of scenes from the Salzkammergut, the picturesque area of mountains and lakes in western Austria. The artist regularly spent summer months on a lake called the Attersee, painting – sometimes from a boat – towns, villages, meadows, forests and the lake itself.
In 1915 Klimt painted Litzlberg on the Attersee. The painting (below) was originally owned by Austrian iron magnate Viktor Zuckerkandl, who passed on to his sister, Amalie Redlich when he died in 1927. She was deported by the Nazis in 1941 and never heard of again. Her art collection was seized by the Nazis and sold off. In July 2011 the painting was finally returned to Zuckerkandl’s grandson, Georges Jorisch, by Salzburg’s Museum of Modern Arts. At the beginning of November it was sold for $40.4m at Southeby’s in New York.
Klimt’s landscapes are unnatural, in the sense that they ignore the fleeting effects of light and atmosphere and concentrate instead on decorative patterns that provoke an intense emotional response to the beauty of the natural world. Klimt wrote very little about himself, but in his “Commentary on a non-existent self-portrait”, he said: “Whoever wants to know something about me – as an artist, the only notable thing – ought to look carefully at my pictures and try to see in them what I am and what I want to do.”