Known for the sensual lines of his paintings and innovative use of gold foil, Gustav Klimt is remembered for his often fantastical and dreamlike depictions of the female form. While he painted other subjects such as landscapes and allegories, women were by far Klimt’s greatest source of artistic inspiration. Klimt painted female subjects of all different ages and appearances in a variety of poses, themes and costume (or a lack thereof). His works depict women as lovers, friends, mothers, sisters, daughters, goddesses, or quasi-mystical beings who appear to float across the artistic medium. In his own time, Klimt was both celebrated for pushing the boundaries of erotic content in art and also accused of exploitation and pornography. His personal reputation as an eccentric artist who fathered fourteen children out of wedlock undoubtedly contributed to this latter criticism of his work. Today, with his paintings selling for outlandish prices at auction, most art scholars and patrons consider him a true pioneer of modern art. Yet as we reexamine the role of women in art as a whole, as well as the men who more often than not depicted them through a sexual gaze, should Klimt once again face charges of obscenity?
That Klimt had sexual relations with multiple women is undoubtedly true. Especially in his later years, Klimt carried on a lifestyle that defied most of the societal norms of his day. He wore nothing but a monk-like frock and would have been constantly surrounded by the beautiful young women who posed for his paintings. However, there is a distinct line between being abusive and not adhering to the Judeo-Christian standards of Western morality and monogamy. Klimt definitely considered himself among the avant garde who lived and worked outside the bounds of social conformity, and while contemporary observers may view him as pretentious and self-absorbed for this stance, it’s more difficult to claim that he mistreated women. His work, though definitely sexually suggestive and representative of a heterosexual male’s view of feminine beauty, actually portrayed women in a range of roles. He painted the feminist themed imagery of Judith with the head of Holofernes multiple times, and arguably empowered women by depicting them as goddesses and supernatural beings in the same way as contemporary feminist witch groups.
As Klimt himself said, “I have never painted a self-portrait. I am less interested in myself as a subject for painting than I am in other people, above all women. But other subjects interest me even more. I am convinced that I am not particularly interesting as a person. There is nothing special about me.”