The Golden Phase
The works Klimt produces during the Golden Phase, also known as the “Golden Period,” are the reason he achieves posterity. In modern times, The Kiss (1908) is an image ingrained in our collective psyche.
While we place his Golden Phase at the beginning of the 20th Century, Klimt, no doubt inspired by his father, the goldsmith, in fact begins using gold much earlier in his career. In the Portrait of Josef Pembaur (1890), gold appears in the form of a stylised zither in the background. In the Portrait of Josef Lewinsky (1895), gold leaves frame the canvas.
From the beginning of the Golden Phase, around 1900, critics are exhilarated by this new flamboyant style. For almost 10 years, the precious metal finds its way into Klimt’s works: along the bottom, in ornaments, clothes, jewels... And finally, to the point where he is nearly covering the entire canvas in gold. It is said that Klimt keeps 20-30 different types of gold and silver leaf in his studio.
In Judith I (1901), an early example from the Golden Period, the trees in the background are lavished with gold and it spills over on to the necklace and clothes worn by the subject. Through this technique, Klimt enhances the femme fatale image, evoking eroticism and danger. Parted lips and a lustful gaze give her the air of a seductress, and she holds in her hands the head of Holofernes, a reference to the Old Testament story. Gold radiates through the famous Beethoven Frieze, completed in 1902. Both the knight’s armour and the surface and decorative patterns surrounding the embracing couple are heavily gilded.
The transition into the Golden Phase is more and more evident from 1903, following numerous stays in Northern Italy. During his travels there, Klimt is so captivated by Saint Mark's Basilica in Venice and The Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna that he sets out to study them. He observes in the art in these basilicas how their lack of perspective and depth enhances their golden brilliance. This standard, typical of the medieval period, had fallen out of favour during the Renaissance, at the same time as attitudes towards Christianity’s role in society was evolving.
1907 marks the pinnacle of Klimt’s use of gold and shading in the extravagant portrait of the patron Adele Bloch-Bauer. As always, he begins by painting the portrait, the precious metal will dress, shroud and illuminate it at a later stage. The life like depiction of the hands and face of Adele, contrast remarkably with the rest of the canvas. They are disconnected from the orgy of gold enveloping the canvas and blending the other elements together to create a quasi-abstract portrait. Incidentally, Klimt's emblematic masterpiece sells for $135 million in 2006, making it the most expensive painting in the world.
The Kiss is another exemplary work from the Golden Period. Klimt displays it in 1908, even though the work is unfinished. This small fact does not deter the Austrian Federal Ministry for Education, Arts and Culture from acquiring the painting to exhibit in the Gallery of Modern Art. Klimt’s reputation has nothing left to prove.
The Stoclet Frieze, completed in 1911, marks the end of the artist’s Golden Phase. In the early 1910s, Klimt travels extensively and explores other avant-garde movements, one of which is Fauvism. He gradually abandons the use of gold leaf, in favour of color.