TEXT BY – Alice Verti



“Beethoven Frieze”, 1902

Around the pivot of life orbit

ecstasy and suffering with same blessing;

with overwhelming desire they show themselves,

men, one to the other against God!

Even if you stumble in corpses,

don’t fall back in horror!

Because, man, it’s a matter of achieving

unparalleled happiness.

Richard Dehmel, from Two people, 1903


This is what, in 1903, the poet Richard Dehmel, Klimt’s contemporary, contributor to Ver Sacrum, the official magazine of the Vienna Secession, wrote. It’s not by chance that in these lines it’s possible to see, at first glance, the echo of Klimt-style figures: scholars, painters and musicians living in Vienna between the end of the XIX century and the beginning of the XX century, among which were Dehmel and Klimt, drew from a common pool of influences. Ecstasy and pain, overwhelming desire, death (among which the one of God?) and an ultimate happiness exceeding the boundaries of life are part of an aesthetic that the school of thought of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Wagner have progressively formed.

A struggled between idealism and realism, the one endured by Klimt, metaphorized by his rigorously bi-dimensional surfaces (according to the canons of Flächenstil, the flat style, of certain secessionist paintings) and so immodestly true; a constant back and forth from the radiant past of a far-off Bisanzio, covered in  mosaics and shining in gold, recalled in a Ravenna, that Klimt falls in love with during his travels in 1903, exempted from time and caducity, and the angst of death, fate and the unrectifiable finiteness of our being that so well inherit the philosophical culture of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.

And if Klimt translates, from the first influence, the will to live as «blind moving force in an infinite cycle of procreation, love and death», in the allegory of Medicine for the Aula Magna of the University of Vienna, with its figures increasingly centrifugal, ever more chaotic and gradually isolated, caught in a deathly whirlwind, quotes from Nietzsche are, on the other hand, even  more blatant in the two allegories he dedicates to Music (1895 and 1898), where, respectively, a Sileno, Dioniso’s companion, and a female chorister maybe singing “Drunken Song” from Thus spoke Zarathustra, as hypothesized by the art historian C.E.Schorske, reveal the inspiring power that the painter had clearly found in this text and in The Birth of Tragedy.


“Medicine”, 1897


Klimt’s spirit did not yearn for pure metaphysics. His era was that of the  Lebensphilosophie, the philosophy of life, where especially in the German territory the need was felt to turn once more the attention to human existence, with no more roaming in the illusions of abstraction, religion and idealism. The Viennese artist is resoundingly infected by this, and thus, cannot ignore the issue of physical existence, of the limited persistence of the world, of human needs (let us be reminded of the “overwhelming desire” of our introduction), of the erotic theme, primary in his work, from whose womb the great power of the Woman and the obsession for a body that deforms itself and decays (just think of the outrageous depiction of a pregnant woman in Hope and of the drained, disheartening old age of the eldest figure in The three ages of woman) are spawned.


“The three ages of woman”, 1905

The coeval press did not spare Klimt from accusations of pornography and voyeurism: there was no form of idealization censoring the bluntness of his nudes, that, although covered in symbolism, were the real bodies of the real union between lovers, the true shells, awkward, irregular, at times shameless, caught in an indecent ecstasy and in sexual pleasure (Danae is certainly the most significant example).


“Danae”, 1907-1908

However Klimt’s men and women appear to be frozen, petrified even in love: the tragedy of the original separation between male and female has yet to be resolved, genders remain estranged to one another, their complete reunion is unattainable. Once more, it’s the romantic theme of androgyny, lost and desperately sought after, so fertile and irresolvable that it still persists in these works from the early 1900s (think about the feminine figures of Danae Leda, whose limbs appear to be molded in phallic shape, the Kiss,  and the uncompleted Adam and Eve  that ever so clearly bring the issue of the original One back).


“Adam and Eve”, 1917-1918


As in Dehmel’s lines, for Klimt as well happiness is beyond horror. And happiness, as well as horror, are equally sacred. By contrast, in decay we are finally able to seize the eternal, in the anguishing cyclic nature of time the imminence of ultimate peace is conceived, and the perfect standstill of this reality envisaged as out of time and matter, the artist living the setting of the XIX century knows that to him it is absolutely precluded. There’s no choice for us but to entrust the nietzschean exhortation to amor fati.


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