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Gustav Klimt/Medicine

Gustav Klimt’s fame is associated withe the Nazis. Long after his death in 1918 to Spanish influenza, his characteristic swirling erotic paintings, frequently of auburn haired models, achieved a success and critical esteem denied to him in his lifetime. One picture of Adele Bloch-Bauer was recovered  from the Nazis, returned to the niece of the subject and fetched £106m in 2005.

A recent programme on Sky Arts examined another Nazi induced loss when a schloss was burned down by the retreating SS in 1945 with many art treasures including Klimt’s Medicine inside. It may be with a collector or in a vault but most likely destroyed.

Klimt was a successful court painter for Emperor Franz Josef and much in demand. In the 1890s he had a creative crisis and decided to break away to form the secessionist movement painting the bold erotic paintings I have described. The staid Viennese public could not deal with this. So his  series of murals for the university were rejected, one of which was Medicine. He had to return to portraiture principally for a rich Jewish clientele whose works of his were expropriated in the Anschluss. Interestingly another Austrian painter, one Adolf  Hitler, liked his art and did not label it degenerate. Klimt’s reputation and prices soared in more sexually liberated times.

This programme was one in a series on restoration of lost masterpieces by Arte Factum, a specialist restoring house based in Madrid, using digital techniques.

The technical nature of this was juxtaposed to actual female representations featuring the nudity of the models. This was important as Klimt was a highly-sexed man. He lived with his mother and sister and painted in his smock and nothing else.

Models were disported on the floor hence the horizontal style of his paintings and it is pretty clear that he would get down on the floor for sexual intercourse as he painted. The swirling intertwined bodies were clearly a representation of his thoughts at the time. His father was a goldsmith and no painter used the colour gold more effectively.

Does Klimt deserve the reputation he enjoys today as one of the masters of the twentieth century? I think not.

He never engaged new styles in a constant and challenging way like a Picasso or Matisse and he was not as good a colourist as Chagall.

Nonetheless he was a very important , intriguing and individual painter who, like so many, never enjoyed success or money in his lifetime for the works that are so sought and valued today.

About Alice Mansfield

A graduate of the Slade, Alice has painted and written about art all her life. With her children now having now grown up and departed the nest, she recently took up sculpture. More Posts