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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 1 MAY 2013 — Gustav Klimt: The Complete Paintings  by Tobias G. Natter, an internationally acknowledged expert on Viennese art at the turn of the century, is less a book than a work of art in itself. Starting with its very appearance, with a jewel-like, gold embossed cover, the magnificent, fine quality reproductions on thick, heavy paper to the luxurious book-mark in soft beige satin, it is a labour of love far surpassing, in size and weight as well as quality, anything that has come before. A great deal of thought, time, and energy as well as a passion for the work of Klimt (1862 – 1918), an extraordinary creative genius, has gone into the making of this superlative work, published last year on the 150th anniversary of the artist’s birth.

To most people, Klimt is best known for his beautiful paintings of women, and The Kiss is one of the most famous images to be seen today on posters, birthday-cards, book marks, and even children’s books, despite its explicit sexuality. Besides being an intensely evocative image of perfect love, it is reminiscent of the mosaic technique the artist probably saw on a visit to the Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna and in Natter’s book it is superbly reproduced, so real is the gold metallic paint.

Nevertheless, it has been surpassed, if one can use that expression, by Natter’s two-dimensional, sumptuous reproductions of Klimt’s allegorical friezes, beginning with the Beethoven frieze, completed in 1902. To emphasise the beauty and splendour of the work, Natter has included large-sized fold-outs of details of them measuring 40 cm by 114 cm, friezes which on the walls of the Secession Building in Vienna, are 24 meters long in their original form and are inlaid with precious stones and mother-of-pearl. But it is less the size which astounds as, again, the quality of the reproduction. The work is an interpretation of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and at the inauguration there was a performance of the "Ode to Joy", conducted by Mahler himself, which echoed Klimt’s illustration of a choir of girls singing in a magical, rose-strewn garden.

Gustav Klimt: Water Serpents (Friends) II, C. 1907
Oil on canvas 80 x 145 cm..

Natter’s treatment of the extraordinary frieze in the dining-room of the Stoclet Palace in Brussels is even more spectacular. Here, there was no limit to the expense incurred in 1908, where the central motive is the Tree of Life containing "Expectation", a bejeweled Egyptian style dancer, inlaid with gold and precious stones which one feels one could reach out and hold, such again is the excellence of the reproduction. The story goes that Klimt refused to let anyone see the work, fearing derision, until it was completed. For it is no secret that Klimt was highly criticized in his lifetime. The question as to whether one was for or against his work now seems ludicrous, for he was not merely the greatest Viennese artist of the 20th century, but one of the greatest artists of his generation.

So what then, did Klimt’s contemporaries think of his work, a thought which immediately springs to mind when one looks at the painting of the smiling girl provocatively showing the viewer her bottom, a work originally entitled, To my Detractors, before friends pushed him into renaming it Goldfish?

To enlighten the reader, the book is organized around seven themes, each throwing light on how Klimt’s work was perceived in his lifetime. Much research has been done by different people to discover Klimt’s career through the eyes of his contemporaries, and for the first time all the painter’s known correspondence and various documents illustrating the atmosphere of the early 19th century have been published.

The first essay by Rainald Franz and Angelina Potschner begins in 1868 when the future artist was 6 years old, and then concentrates on his career from 1890, describing a successful artist regularly commissioned to decorate the walls and ceilings of museums and theatres, while a second essay by Christoph Grunenberg describes Klimt’s subsequent formation of the Viennese Secession, the group of avant-garde artists who marked the beginning of a new era in Vienna.

Anette Freytag has given an exceptional analysis of the Stoclet frieze, one of the masterpieces of Klimt’s ‘golden period’, which she describes as "an artificial garden within the palace" while the children who lived there at the time, referred to the work as having turned their home into "the enchanted house". She writes that while the Oriental influence was greatly admired at the time, it was the magnificence of the work, notwithstanding all the technical difficulties to fixing it onto the walls, encrusting it in marble, the sheer splendour of the precious stones, the gold, the pearls and the shimmering enamel which caused great astonishment because nothing similar had ever been done before. One rose alone had 200 leaves in enamel, each one in a different shade of green.

The chapter on Klimt’s women by Susanna Partsch is totally engrossing and possibly the most detailed essay written. She writes about both his luminous, commissioned portraits of  Vienna’s most beautiful women and his allegories, but pays small attention to the stories of the naked paintings that Klimt was suspected of making of his countless mistresses, for the unrepentant womanizer was known as, ‘the man of 100 women’.

Not least, the feature by Evelyn Benesch throws light on Klimt’s change of direction, when after reaching the age of 40, he began painting natural landscapes of inescapable beauty in which time seemed to be suspended, as well as magnificently decorated, more stylised ‘mosaic’ ones. Such was the haunting nature of many of these works that the artist was regarded by some as a philosopher, a modern poet.

Gustav Klimt: Houses at Unterach on the Attersee, C.1916

Colours burst forth from the pages of the book so stunning are Tobias Natter’s reproductions of Klimt’s flowers, trees and landscapes; pages and pages of vivid, iridescent oranges, reds, purples, and blue, each page more breath-taking than the next, with the written page often accompanied by postcards or by numerous photographs of Klimt himself, usually sporting a long caftan while strolling round the gardens of villas. There are also impressive full page illustrations of him with friends on the banks of the Attersee and snapshots of him in gallant company in a horse and carriage as well as pictures of his holiday home, all of which contribute to the atmosphere of the times.

In a final essay, the enormous scope of Gustave Klimt’s drawings is revealed, drawings and designs where he develops ideas already inherent in his work, on love, death, birth, nudity, and homosexuality. What could have been the effect in society of two naked women, wrapped up in each other’s arms and published in a magazine in 1903? Or the sketch of three semi-naked women, standing in a circle, their skirts around their ankles, completed in 1908?  More provocative again was the drawing of the woman, alone in bed, eyes closed, masturbating, dated 1916. None of them seem of this world.

Weighing in at 7 kilos and I00 grams, this is no coffee table book, nor one for your bedside table. Moreover, at 40 cm by 30 cm it fits onto no shelf! The ultimate reference book, containing a complete catalogue of all Klimt’s known works, as well as two months reading matter, it might at first glance be considered as book for specialists, which is far from the truth. At 200 dollars, it might also seem out of price range, but I can think of no better way to spend one’s money. It is a wonderful book, to buy for oneself, or to offer, not only to those who love the work of Klimt, but to all those who love art. Such an occasion rarely comes twice.

Headline image: Gustav Klimt: Judith II (Salome), (detail) 1909
Oil on canvas, 178 x 46 cm

Gustav Klimt: The Complete Paintings 
By Tobias G. Natter

Hardcover: 676 pages
Taschen (December 2012)
Dimensions: 15.6 x 3 x 11.4 inches
40 cm by 30 cm
ISBN-10: 3836527952
ISBN-13: 978-3836527958


Based in Paris, Patricia Boccadoro is a senior editor and member of the editorial board of Culturekiosque. She last wrote on the Bohèmes exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris.

Related Culturekiosque Archives

Gustav Klimt: Erotic Drawings of Young Women

Film Review: A Dangerous Method

Film Review: The Illusionist: Magic and Murder in Turn-of-the-Century Vienna

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