An artist that marked me: Gustav Klimt

By Natascha Ewert

A dive into the multisensory work of Gustav Klimt

Hospital stays form part of my life. Just recently, more than a year ago, I had a relapse and had to recover from my illness. Looking back, it was a confusing time for me. I was torn between feelings of contempt and sadness. What do you do when you have no control over your life and yet you try everything you can to stay healthy? Your brain is wired differently and cannot deal with stress very well. However, it was a build-up of experiences that overwhelmed my brain to the point that it couldn’t handle the stress anymore. When I was 17, I had a psychotic episode, and it has affected my whole life ever since. It is the reason I take medication and explains why I wake up every day groggy and unrested. But it never held me back doing the things I love in life. Despite the medication, I was fortunate that I was still able to pursue my artistic and academic pursuits: reading voraciously, acting, writing, dancing and making art. The first thing my mother gave me at the hospital was art supplies: a notebook and some pencil crayons. Like in September 2022, I picked up my art supplies and started creating. But it wasn’t the first time that I would turn my room into an art studio. This time I worked with acrylic and watercolours – but I added something.

Everything started in 2020 during lockdown, when I started experimenting with my artwork. I was particularly interested in using metallic colours for my paintings. Existing in different shades, they’re an interesting detail to add to work on paper or canvas. I owe my fascination to a Viennese artist whose painting The Kiss (1908-9) might ring a bell for you: Gustav Klimt. 

For someone who did their Erasmus+ exchange in Vienna, Klimt represents a world for me that I cannot access at this time. It is the world of numerous cafes, cultures, aesthetics and, most of all, the rich symbolism and mysticism found in his art – Klimt is an artist whose paintings must be experienced.

Gustav Klimt was born in 1862 in Baumgarten, Vienna, and was the founder of the Secession painting school. Several groups in Austria and Germany wanted to distance themselves from the more established and conservative artists in those circles, and this resulted in the formation of the Secession. They were more drawn towards Art Nouveau, known for its ornamental style which was different from the academicism around art at the time. 

Looking at Klimt’s artworks, one will find a lot of gold, embellishments, mythical or biblical figures, portraits, symbolism, and mainly, women. Like many artists, he was definitely inspired by women, either in real life or from literature. Women were his favourite subjects, and the way he depicted them tells us about how he saw them. One of his paintings is titled Judith and the Head of the Holofernes (1901), while another is Lady with a Fan (1917-18). We recognise strength and pride within Judith, just by the way she smiles at us after beheading an Assyrian general called Holofernes. The artist portrayed this moment of victory by avoiding the grotesque and focusing on the sensuality of the woman. On both sides, she is covered in gold leaves, looking at us with a grin that reminds us what empowerment means. In contrast, Lady with a Fan has more of an innocent nature and draws parallels to Japanese art through the birds and flowers in the background. 

My favourite painting by Klimt is The Tree of Life, Stoclet Frieze (1909), which measures 195 cm by 102 cm. This mural is the only existing landscape that was created during his golden period. The “tree of life” is a symbol that stands for the connection between heaven, earth and the underworld. I resonate with this painting strongly, mainly because of the visualisation of the woman. She resembles an Egyptian priestess who is close to approaching the “tree of life” and on the other side of the painting, you can see a couple sharing the same embrace as in The Kiss. The woman is at the threshold of experiencing something new, and fear can be felt in her body language. She hesitates, but she has to make that passage, which is the union of who she was and what she is about to become.

Gustav Klimt has developed an art form that allows me to express my love for myths, stories and the feminine. There is so much richness and symbolism in his work that I could spend days deciphering what everything means. Most of all, Klimt’s art speaks to me because he turns all women into Circes, Pythias and Venuses. Not one other artist comes into my mind who was able to do that.


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