Monday, December 4, 2017

You Are What You Wear: How Klimt and Other Art Nouveau Artists Used Clothing In Portraiture

When faced with almost any piece by Gustav Klimt, the viewer is equally overwhelmed and intrigued by the abundant use of color, texture, and ornamentation. Klimt is aware of how his subject’s personality and presence can be transformed through what they are adorned with. Boccioni hailed him as  an “aristocratic innovator of style.” Most of the elaborate, beautiful gowns his sitters wore were not entirely imagined, but created by designers like Martha Alber, and primarily,  Emilie Louise Flöge. Klimt’s earlier work in history painting influenced his style, using elements drawn from Byzantine tradition, Japanese prints, and Chinese screens. Klimt’s portraits stood out against more traditionally styled portraits of the time, with the majority of his subjects wrapped in a stylized abstraction of ornamental garb, creating an ambiguous line between fabric and flesh.
Klimt, among a few other Art Nouveau artists of the time, began to challenge the boundary between art and craft through using clothing, a functional object, as a form of expression. Art Nouveau artists did not come up with this entirely, but looked to the past to see how previous creators used clothing as a focal point or as a means to show their sitter’s personality. Art Nouveau artists and artisans throughout Europe began to use historical motifs and techniques free from their original historical contexts and apply them to their own art, much like collage artists do now. Whether through distinct thick brush strokes, vast fields of bold color, or symbolic geometric shapes, the clothing of the subject is not simply stating status or vocation, but plays into the psyche and nature of the subject.

Gustav Klimt, Mäda Primavesi1913
Oil on Canvas, The Met Fifth Avenue. 64.148

The subject, Mäda Primavesi, is the young daughter of a Mr. and Mrs. Otto Primavesi, avid patrons of the Secession in Austria (Austrian Art Nouveau movement). Her white dress, shoes and tights project the presence of innocence onto the young girl, while the shape still gives the hint of a mature woman. Klimt contrasts this with bright playful flowers adorning her waist, and her hair bow flopping to the side. This commissioned piece was completed later in Klimt’s life, and although done in a more painterly approach, it is still equally intricate, using layers of brush strokes, instead of flat geometric shapes, producing a painting in which “the contrast between realistically rendered flesh and a more abstract, ornamental surround remained as pronounced as ever.”

Egon Schiele, Portrait of the Artist's Sister-in-Law, Adele Harms, 1917
black chalk, brush and gouache on japan paper, The Albertina, Vienna, Austria

Egon Schiele, who participated along with Klimt in the Vienna Secession Exhibition in 1918 is starkly different from Klimt, painting in a style that lacks the same opulence but looks to the human soul all the same. The sitter is Schiele’s sister-in-law, hunched forward in hostility, hands clutched, gaze turned aside in insolence. The long black lines, which look almost to be moving or even seething, echo the distraught nature of the sitter. They are spread out along the bottom, but come together at her shoulders, like accusing fingers of doubt and concern. Still marked by the Secession’s style and being enormously influenced by Klimt, his works still carry long elegant lines and patterns, although Schiele uses these in isolation, reinforcing the disconnected nature of the woman.

Gustav Klimt, The Dancer, 1916-1918
Oil on Canvas, The Albertina, Vienna, Austria, Privately Owned, New York

Klimt was fascinated with and drew especially on oriental culture, using as inspiration art like Japanese prints or Chinese silk screens. Created later in Klimt’s life, The Dancer portrays a woman whose stance is characteristic of Japanese women. Her body is turned frontwards, breasts exposed, while her head looks gently aside. The robes (“kimono” may even be appropriate) envelopes her, and rather than falling onto her existing body, it determines her shape. The chaotic yet unified pattern give a sense that she is one with the surrounding nature. She also wears the most fashionable shoes of the time, tying her in contextually. The flowing fabric and bright colors of the dress that the woman wears are linear yet almost swimming, communicating her pulchritudinous nature.

Utagawa Kokunimasa, Swimming at Ōiso, Distant View of Mount Fuji, 1893
Triptych of polychrome woodblock prints; ink and color on paper, The Met Fifth Avenue. JP3382a–c. 

This Japanese woodblock print depicts maybe a family at a beach, with three main women as the focal point, backed by the ocean waves and Mount Fuji in the distance. The long undulating lines of the ocean waves continue through the flowing lines of the kimonos which adorn these women. In fact, apart from the kimonos the likeness between the three women is so strong, that their adornment is the only thing making them unique. The identity of the women is woven into these garments like fabric. The central figure, carries a strong resemblance to Klimt’s The Dancer, mimicking the whiteness of the skin, and dark hair. The women really only exist while wearing their kimonos, and for that reason they carry an enormous weight; their beauty, grace, gentleness, boldness and complexity. 

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I1907
Oil on Canvas, Private Collection, Neue Galerie New York, New York City, US

This golden portrait portrays Adele Bloch-Bauer I, wife of a wealthy industrialist. Although it does have a fascinating history of surviving the German forces in WWII, it also captures the viewer's attention for its sheer amount of gold. Klimt, looking again to the past, drew inspiration from Byzantine tradition, with a vast field of shimmering gold, bold geometrical blocks and swirling jewel colored lines. While certainly there is the presence of decadence and royalty, her gold gown and the background also lend the viewer an understanding of the sitter’s elegance and intricacy. Jane Kallir states that “like his Symbolist predecessors he tried to reach beyond stale iconographic traditions to present universalized statements about the human condition.” This woman, like many of Klimt’s figures, teeters precariously between realism and abstraction. Her gown is as much a part of her identity as her face is; she is complex, and expansive.

Byzantine Tradition, The Empress Eirene (Mosaic of John Komnenos – Eirene – Alexios)13th century
Mosaic, Hagia Sophia | cathedral, Istanbul, Turkey 

This stylized and bejeweled portrait is just one of three figures in a panel situated at the south endpoint of Hagia Sophia, a cathedral built in the time of the Byzantine Empire. The figure is Empress Eirene, wife of Emperor John II Komnenos. Pale, with traces of blushed cheeks, the Empress carries a stable and sovereign expression. Her robe is “the long imperial divitission of heavy flaming red silk into which is woven with gold thread a profusion of curves, spirals, and flowering scrolls.” Her crown just as much a part of her as her robes, has the semblance of battlemented walls and gates.  In these robes, her title is not only apparent, but her dutiful ambitious nature is also. Klimt, among other artists, draws the flat stylization of gold and the use of graphic, solid forms from these Byzantine masterpieces.

Gustav Klimt, Bildnis der Eugenia Primavesi1913
Oil on Canvas, Privately owned

Klimt, greatly admired by the Primavesi family, was commissioned to complete a portrait of Eugenia, who was the mother of Mäda. The subject’s large robe, much like that of a kimono, envelops her, yet gives her a sense of power and tenacity. Pale, with blushed cheeks, she brings out the practically glowing hues with blocks of vibrant rose, swatches of creamy celadon green, and patches of warm purple. She faces the viewer against a surface of golden yellow, perhaps a point back at Byzantine tradition. Engulfed in so many vivid colors, her garment expresses her love of art and her individual support of the Viennese Secession. Being one of the few women that intimidated Klimt, her garment suggests the she has a commanding and bold nature, rather than meek or sensitive.

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