Life and Death: Gustav Klimt


Death and Life, Gustav Klimt
Death and Life by Gustav Klimt, Leopold Museum

Many artists have one piece that they feel is unfinished, a piece they are so obsessed with they are truly unable to let it go. For Gustav Klimt this work was Death and Life’ a painting he believed to be his most important figurative work but it was also a piece that he altered repeatedly a few years before his own death in 1918.

The Austrian artist was one of seven children born to Ernst and Anna Klimt – a gold smith and a musician, respectively. As immigrants from Bohemia, the economy and their immigrant status made it difficult for Ernest to find work. Gustav grew up in poverty. Perhaps this poverty influenced Gustav’s later artistic career that displayed his love of ornate decoration and costume – something he could only have dreamt of having as a poor child in the beautiful splendour of Vienna. Displaying an early interest in art, Gustav was accepted to the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts on a scholarship at just fourteen years old. With the gift of natural talent, he went on to garner a significant amount of success during his lifetime.

Italian Art (1891), Gustav Klimt. Kunsthistorisches Museum Wein
Italian Art (1891) by Gustav Klimt,  Kunsthistorisches Museum Wein

Klimt was originally trained as an architectural painter of interior murals. Many of his earliest works were done in large public buildings such as universities and museums. The Austrian Emperor Franz Josef I recognized the talent in his mural work, and in 1888 he was awarded the Golden Order of Merit. He later ventured into new artistic territory and developed his own, more personal, style. The aesthetic he developed in painting was unlike anything seen before with a mixture of artistic styles and mediums. Perhaps it was Gustav’s early exposure to his father’s gold engraving work that influenced his use of gold leaf in his ‘Golden Phase’ works, while it is possible that his mother’s music can be attributed as influencing the soft, flowing quality found in the sensuality of his female figures. Klimt’s trips to Venice and Ravenna are thought to have influenced his mosaic style, as the cities are well known for Byzantine imagery, their use of gold, and intricate mosaic designs.

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer by Gustav Klimt
Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer by Gustav Klimt

This new style was very provocative for its day, as new art always is, and was criticized for its overt sensuality – with some critics even calling it pornographic. Finding it difficult to promote his new art, Klimt became a founding member of the Wiener Sezession (Secession Movement) in 1897 that looked to promote young artists experimenting with a range of styles and techniques. He continued to work with this movement until 1908. It would only be during his ‘Golden Phase’ (1899-1910) that he would again receive praise in recognition for his work.

Painted in 1910 during his ‘Golden Phase’, ‘Death and Life’ won first prize at the 1911 world fair in Rome. The work represents a figurative look at life and death. The lone figure of death, resembling something akin to the grim reaper, gazes intently on the living. They are in a relaxed and dreamlike state – completely unaware that death eagerly awaits them. The people gather together, entangled in each other’s lives, while death is alone – perhaps indicating how Klimt viewed the afterlife. Interestingly, the figures of life are all of different sex, age and race successfully alluding to the fact that in the end no one escapes death. The background, now a dark grey, had previously been a bright gold. Klimt also embellished his signature style of patterned decorative detail both to the figures of life and death.

Gustav Klimt (seated second from the left) and the Secession Movement
Gustav Klimt (seated second from the left) and the Secession Movement

In 1915, Klimt suddenly became unhappy with the painting and decided to make alterations of the work while it was still framed. He continued to alter the work until his own death a few years later in 1918. But why the sudden need to alter the piece? Was it merely a morbid foreshadowing of his own death? Or was he influenced by the First World War and the new ways in which death sought out the living? If so, his work could only foreshadow what was to come when in 1939 many of his works were stolen from wealthy Jewish families in Vienna – none more famous today than that of the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.

One has to wonder why Klimt would choose to alter this painting so long after its apparent completion. Had he changed his mind about death for some reason? Klimt left little in the way of written clues since he did not keep a diary. In one of his rare written pieces he explained: “There is nothing special about me. I am a painter who paints day after day from morning to night…Whoever wants to know something about me… ought to look carefully at my pictures” . Then look we shall, but it can only ever be guesswork, hinting at Klimt’s intentions and state of mind.

Portrait of Gustav Klimt
Portrait of Gustav Klimt

Perhaps he felt that muting the background and adding decoration to ‘Death and Life’ would bring further attention to the figures, and thus, adding to the importance of life and the ultimate end that death brings. Maybe his alterations were done with the new knowledge of death’s horrors brought on by the First World War. It is possible that he felt that death did not deserve a gilded background – a sort of disenchantment with the idea of death. This would be rather fitting as many artistic movements, such as Dadaism (e.g. ‘Fountain’, Duchamp’s 1917 ready-made upside-down urinal), were born out of the need to rebel against the atrocities of war. Death was no longer glorious and honourable – fit to be bedecked with gold – but rather horrifying and greedy, a suffocating grey shroud.



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