Gustav Klimt

The Fascination of his Drawings

Even 100 years after his death, we are still fascinated by the work of prominent Austrian painter, Gustav Klimt. His perspective on the human condition and time-transcending basic statements on humanity are impressive to young people in particular. It is precisely through his drawings that Klimt allows us to experience sensuality. Unimpressed by the conventions of the time, he shows that man is a creature without any special rights and illuminates the broad spectrum of sexual desire with his art. His work illustrates the reality of the body and explores the elementary stages of life: pregnancy, birth and death.

Klimt’s conception of man is influenced by the insights of Darwin, Freud’s psychoanalysis and his discussions with Vienna’s intellectuals in the salon of Berta Zuckerkandl. In his search for the “truth” in art, he became the champion of a new image of humanity. He called his programmatic work “Nuda Veritas”, which when translated means the “Naked Truth”.

While producing his works of art, he had to endure unbelievable hostility – the arch-conservatives of Vienna ridiculed him. Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, whose talent Klimt recognised early on and selflessly promoted, went on to develop his body-focused, psychoanalytical, specifically Viennese style of art in different ways. Together with Richard Gerstl, they formed the nucleus of an independent artistic development in Vienna. Klimt’s groundbreaking achievements and subsequently those of Schiele, Kokoschka and Gerstl are unique by international standards. These Austrian artists developed the first consistent expression of a psychoanalytical, body-based style of art.

This webpage is devoted to Klimt’s drawings. We regularly exhibit his works in our galleries, support museum exhibitions with loans and present our new acquisitions at international art fairs. We would like to take this opportunity to express our sincere thanks to Dr Marian Bisanz-Prakken from the Albertina in Vienna, whose academic work we greatly admire and who has been kind enough to support us with her expertise since the 1990s. Without you, this article would not have been possible.
Lui Wienerroither & Ebi Kohlbacher

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"An artist of incredible perfection, a man of rare profundity, his works are sacred."

Egon Schiele about Gustav Klimt

Klimt’s Drawings: The Magic of the Line

Author: Dr. Marian Bisanz-Prakken

Some basic thoughts

Gustav Klimt, pioneer of Viennese modernism around 1900, occupies a unique position not just through his golden and colourful paintings but also through his phenomenal drawings. As things stand today, his approximately 250 paintings are complemented by well over 4,000 works on paper, the original number of which was undoubtedly much higher.

His drawings centred on the human figure (especially the female figure) and his main medium was the line. These two constants run through his entire body of drawings, despite all the frequently dramatic changes in his style – from the linear precision of Historicism to the sweeping lines around 1900 and the geometric sharpness of his Golden Style to the nervous, expressive strokes of the later years.

Through his tireless study of countless models, Klimt internalised the figures of his allegorical paintings, in which modern life themes played a major role from around 1900. Time and again he explored psychological situations such as mourning, melancholy or inner contemplation. One enduring theme of his drawings were the nuances of women’s erotic moods. When you immerse yourself in his line art, it’s as if you’re caught in a magical field of tension. The figures drawn by Klimt seem sensual and transcendent in equal measure; their postures and gestures appear as if directed from above. At the same time, he had a keen eye for physical, especially erotic details, which he captured “with an incomprehensible ease of his stroke” (Hans Tietze, 1918). Whether it’s preparatory or an autonomous work – every page is a world of its own, every line an adventure of its own.

Beautifying the Ring Road

Klimt's permanent focus on the human figure in his drawings is rooted in his artistic beginnings. Between 1876 and 1883 he was trained at the School of Applied Arts as a painter of allegories and historical scenes that were to decorate the magnificent buildings of Vienna’s Ring Road. In these paintings, the human figure played a supporting role, serving architecture; this made drawing from the living model the focus of his studies. In the 1880s, the close connection between figure and architecture is evident in both his paintings and his vividly executed drawings, including various allegories, decorative designs and pages paying homage to Karl von Hasenauer, 1889

The Cycle of Life and the Modern Representation of Man

In the early years of the Vienna Secession, founded in 1897, Klimt worked intensively on two faculty paintings, Philosophy (1900-1907) and Medicine (1901-1907), which were intended as part of the decoration on the ceiling of the university auditorium. But the first president of the new association had moved far away from the positively influenced historicism during the course of the 1890s. As in a cosmic vision, a trance-like stream of naked people passing by symbolises the cycle of life, or rather the suffering of humanity. Here, for the first time, non-ideal nudity became the primordial state of inner isolation and vulnerability. The break from the official commissioners of the painting was unavoidable, but in terms of the modern life theme, Klimt set a milestone with these two monumental works.

In his drawings, he found a radically new approach to the human body. He tirelessly recorded his models: men and women, children and babies – young, old, beautiful, ugly, or decaying. Page by page, he studied their postures and gestures to penetrate the essence of a certain life situation or mood.

The concisely characterising outlines act as a psychological boundary between the inner life of the sitter and the virtually cosmic void of the paper surface. For Viennese Modernism, especially for Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, these works played a groundbreaking role. Klimt himself set the course for his own future through his innovative exploration of existential themes – Eros, love, procreation, birth, illness, life and death. The inexhaustible repertoire of motifs in the faculty pictures was to occupy him permanently in his paintings and most of all in his drawings.

Art, Love and Life

Klimt’s utopia of an ideal harmony between art, love and life found its unique expression in two major works: the Beethoven Frieze (1901-02) and the Mosaic Frieze (1908-1911) created for the Palais Stoclet in Brussels. The preparatory drawings are outstanding in both cases.

The Beethoven Frieze was created as part of the Beethoven Exhibition of the Vienna Secession, which opened in 1902. The figure of Beethoven was enthroned in the centre of this highly modern, temple-like total work of art by Max Klinger, who saw the composer as an artistic genius struggling and suffering for the people. Accordingly, Klimt designed his Beethoven Frieze as a human drama of struggle and overcoming, longing and redemption. The gleaming golden paradise scene, in the middle of which a standing naked couple embrace, becomes a triumphant fusion of art and love.

In terms of Klimt’s paintings and drawings, working on this monumental work represented a breakthrough. The geometrically accentuated positions and the distinct contours of his figures were the ingenious response to the purist interior design of Josef Hoffmann. In the large group of nude studies he developed a surprisingly new language of lines. Concisely stylised body outlines in black chalk express longing, courage, devotion, innocence, asceticism, empathy, sensual seduction, sorrow, meditation, ecstasy or sexual excitement. Klimt anchored the figures, which for the most part are standing, in the paper surface and let them become architecture themselves. All of the drawings have a monumental, cohesive character.

In the Stoclet Frieze (1908-1911), the longing and redemption themes of the Beethoven Frieze were condensed in the main figures of “Expectation” and “Fulfilment”. Klimt reached a peak in his drawings at around 1907/08 (in parallel with his main “golden” work, “The Kiss”); a few years earlier he replaced black chalk with the sharp and agile pencil, which was to remain his main medium to the end. His studies of female dancers for “Expectation” display a timeless elegance and a high degree of spirituality through the fragile gestures of their super-slender arms and hands. In the drawings for the standing pair of lovers in “Fulfilment”, dressed in long robes, monumental unity and linear subtlety meld into an exciting union. Klimt ingeniously plays the male figure’s tense energy and the female figure’s tender devotion off against each other.

Female Eroticism

Away from the serious and majestic mood of the great allegories of life, Klimt devoted himself in his paintings and most of all in his drawings to the light-hearted aspects of female eroticism. The main subject of paintings such as Moving Water (1898), Goldfish (1901/02) or Water Serpents (I and II, both 1904-07) is the easy flowing or sensual self-absorption of naked female water creatures, with multiple allusions to same-sex love. Later major works such as The Maiden (1913) and The Bride (1917/18) allegorise women’s sexual stages of consciousness. In his drawings, Klimt went far beyond his paintings, both quantitatively and motivically, especially in his overt depiction of the erotic.

The starting point for these pages was the direct observation of the models, whose outer appearance he subjected to a strict formal discipline while drawing. Again and again he explored the relationship between space and surface, between sensuality and abstraction. Even the snapshot drawn around 1905/06 of two or three naked models casually conversing with each other on a wide bed becomes a tense dialogue between sensuously animated contours and geometric severity, between densely overlapping forms and empty surfaces.
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In his later years Klimt arrived at extreme solutions such as the zigzag position of a reclining model, whose protruding buttocks and thighs shine out from a swirl of textiles. The depiction of the exposed genitalia and the closed eyes in a dream state seems almost compelling. In Klimt’s erotic nude drawings, this dialectic between bare naked exposure and psychological withdrawal is commonplace; the tightrope walk between eroticism and spirituality, between sensuality and metaphysics, determines the extraordinary character of these works. Behind the sublimating power of his lines was the search for the mystery of life, which he saw embodied in the endlessly differentiated appearance of the woman.

An enduring theme, which he had introduced in 1904 as part of Water Serpents II, were the numerous autonomous studies of nude figures lying horizontally, seemingly parallel along the surface of the image. Until the end of his life, he was to be preoccupied with the rhythmically contoured bodies of women, surrounded by flowing textiles. Klimt observed the models at close range and at eye level, which helped him to precisely convey intimate situations – even masturbation. The landscape format of these pages prompted him to test the tension between body and empty space, between seemingly endless flow and strict surface constraint from time to time.

Grief and Meditation

Since Klimt's groundbreaking work on the faculty paintings “Philosophy” and “Medicine”, death has been an omnipresent theme in his allegories of life. He associated the consciousness of death with moods of the soul such as mourning, pain, melancholy and meditation, which he had personified through men and women of all ages throughout his collection of works. Numerous studies bear witness to his constant search for the right fundamental attitude for every situation of the soul. For instance, the bent-over position of the naked human couple in his painting Death and Life (1910/11-1916) signals the melancholy reflection on transience. In one of the studies (1908/09) for this group of two, a man clad in a kimono bends protectively over his naked companion. Klimt empathetically emphasised the roundness of the male back, the outlines of the protective hands and the contours of the affectionate female body. The emotional core is formed by the two heads lowered in melancholy. Pages such as these have a distinctly autonomous character.

The Woman as a Mystery

Whether it’s as a noble lady, demoness, young girl, dreamy ideal figure or model in a state of supreme ecstasy – the woman remained a mysterious phenomenon for Klimt. There is also an air of mystery about the studies for his modern portrait paintings of Viennese ladies of high society. The subtle balance between courtly distance and almost tangible proximity is characteristic of these pages. From 1897 onwards, the series of sketches for the portraits of women bear witness to his never-ending search for the right body position and the most suitable clothing. The line dynamics of the materials often say more about the essence of the figures portrayed than the roughly drawn facial expressions.

The 1903 studies for the “golden” portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (1907), one of his stand-out drawings, are alive with the lyrical sweep of the broadly flowing lines of the finely pleated reform dress. The fixed point of all the pages is the forehead, which goes slightly outside of the upper edge of the paper – a symbolist device that brings the sensually accentuated mouth close and at the same time creates a barrier to the outside world. The immaterial, endlessly varied line flows of the clothing have a particularly mysterious effect. The pages in which the combination of black and yellow chalk foreshadows the future gold in the painting are a great rarity.

The Bloch-Bauer studies mark Klimt’s spectacular departure from the flowing waves of lines of Art Nouveau. He entered a completely new phase in his drawings shortly afterwards – parallel to the first paintings of his Golden Style. This can be seen in the 1904/05 studies for an unfinished portrait of Magda Mautner-Markhof, in which the woman seated at the front is embraced by the rhythmically structured layers of the geometrically structured frilled dress. As well as this, his novel interest in decorative details is noticeable.

Even in his late portrait studies, the laws of symmetry and surface constraint dominate. In the drawings for the portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl, the woman posing at the front and her broad seat grow together to form a monumental structure. However, touches of expressionism are evident in the vibrating lines and in the short, violent strokes of the luxuriantly flowing layers of clothing. Klimt’s receptivity to new impulses was renowned, and yet he always remained true to his unmistakable identity. This is especially true of his drawings – the area in which the introverted artist was most “with himself”.

About the Author

Dr Marian Bisanz-Prakken is an expert on the graphic oeuvre of Gustav Klimt, which she has been researching at the Albertina Vienna since the mid-1970s. Initially, she worked with Dr. Alice Strobl, who published the four-volume catalogue raisonné of Gustav Klimt's drawings between 1980 and 1989. In 1990 she was entrusted with this research project, which she continues as ex-curator of the Albertina. She has curated numerous exhibitions in Austria and abroad on Klimt and Vienna around 1900 and continues to publish and lecture extensively.

Publications for Wienerroither & Kohlbacher
• 2018: Klimt Drawings
• 2015: Gustav Klimt, 14 Drawings
• 2015: Adele Bloch Bauer I - Three Drawings
• 2012: Klimt Drawings
• 2011: George Minne and Viennese Modernism around 1900
• 2008: Gustav Klimt & Egon Schiele – with Contributions from Marian Bisanz-Prakken and Jane Kallir

In addition, there are numerous catalogue contributions and gallery talks on Gustav Klimt's drawings.