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Gustav Klimt: Erotic Drawings of Young Women


By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 27 June 2005—An exhibition of 120 of Gustav Klimt's lesser known erotic drawings was recently on view at the Maillol Museum in Paris.  Apart from his extraordinary landscapes, atmospheric and almost spiritual, which were primarily vacation work painted during summers spent on the Attersee, the Viennese artist's theme has always been La Femme. His women are often sumptuously attired and extravagantly decorated, or naked, sitting or standing coyly as are the three Gorgones from La frise Beethoven . However, in the Paris exhibition they were in various states of dress and undress, sprawled in armchairs and lying on the floor in every position both imaginable and unimaginable.

The drawings of women, either in couples or alone, are presented in a great variety of explicit erotic postures which have been quickly captured in simplified, caressing pencil strokes. The bodies have been given complete freedom and most unexpected angles have been found.  There is a distinct casual quality in their wandering disconnected lines, and as Caroline Messensee, the curator of the exhibition told me, many were probably dashed off in a matter of minutes. 

Klimt: Demi-nu allongé vers la gauche, 1916-1917
Crayon sur papier, 37,5 x 57 cm
Collection particulière
Courtesy Richard Nagy, London
Photo courtesy of Musée Maillol

"His models hardly had time to pose ", she said. "Klimt did not work on these drawings as he did on his paintings, but rather seized upon a given moment in time.  As soon as he had got what he wanted, he started on another. They are a hymn to the beauty of women."

"I went to an exhibition of Klimt's work a few years ago ", the curator continued, "and although it was superb, I was astonished not to find any of his nude drawings there. As women are the essence of his work, these drawings are not only an essential part of Klimt's reputation as a sensualist but also fundamental to any understanding of his art in general. Moreover, in Vienna, drawing was not considered a secondary art although sexuality was taboo, a fact which held its own appeal to him."
Caroline Messensee then set out to track down part of this large body of personal works, drawings which were never intended to be shown, which she found in museums all over the world as well as in the hands of private collectors. The help of auctioneers such as Sotheby's and Christies had been invaluable.

"The quality of the studies is exceptional and his genius is so evident", she told me. "Klimt is totally himself as he was drawing for his own pleasure without worrying about museum curators or art critics. The drawings shown give a glimpse of his intimate life where he is freed from all conventions and the only surprising fact is why an exhibition of them hasn't been shown before."

She commented that the exhibition threw light on the actual process of creation which came from the contact with the model who inspired him. The girls with their delicately etched faces and, for the most part, slim, graceful bodies are at the centre of works of genius which could not exist without them. Women were Klimt's whole life and she refuted any idea that the women had been turned into sex-objects or that such works were voyeuristic or obscene.

Nu recroquevillé, regardant au travers de sa chevelure, vers 1907
Crayon bleu sur papier, 37,2 x 56,5 cm
Wien Museum, Vienne
Cliché Fotostudio Otto, Vienne
© Direktion der Museen der Stadt Wien
Photo courtesy of Musée Maillol

And indeed, when one stands in front of these frankly very erotic drawings of young girls carried away by their own desire, eyes closed, lying on their backs with their legs wide apart and masturbating, they seem natural and are not at all embarrassing. Klimt's women are so pretty that what they are doing is almost irrelevant. They are beautiful in their abandon, lascivious, but fragile and vulnerable, and one senses that the artist was touched by what he saw. There is nothing perverse or humiliating, and several visitors I spoke to said that they felt uplifted because the images were somehow so pure and consequently most moving. 

"He has an incredible talent", said Caroline Messensee. "I find these works far superior in quality to his paintings because they are so alive. We can almost hear his model breathing whereas the woman practically disappears into all the decorative elements in his more rigid paintings such as "The Kiss". It is almost as if the artist had two distinct professional lives; that of the official painter who received commissions from the wealthy Viennese upper classes and that of an artist who caught moments of reality, pinning them down for eternity."

The drawings in the exhibition are not all masterpieces, but those that are show a refined and elegant eroticism. There is nothing vulgar about any of them. Neither did Klimt have any difficulty in finding models as most of the professional models who worked at the academy of Fine Arts fought to pose for him. Klimt was not only the most famous painter in Austria, he was also good-looking, well-to-do, generous and charismatic, and his fourteen illegitimate children bear witness to his many liaisons, despite the presence of his long-term lover, Emilie Floge ( whom he never married). The story goes, too, when a favourite model didn't arrive at his studio one day, knowing she needed money, he bade her to return, pregnant or not. Scandal or not!

Patricia Boccadoro is a member of the editorial board of

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