The Representation of Women in Klimt’s Oeuvres

The Representation of Women in Klimt’s Oeuvres

Klimt loves to surround himself with women. An eternal bachelor, he lives with his mother and sisters. Klimt bathes in the glow of the feminine presence and divides his time between his numerous mistresses (with whom he would father some fourteen children), his models and his bourgeois clientele. Fascinated by feminine beauty and the mystery enshrouding women, his artistic attention is fixated on these themes.

Most of his drawings and paintings represent women, or rather, they are devoted to every aspect of femininity: the pregnant woman, the mother, the femme fatale, the homosexual woman, the elderly woman, the female friends, the goddesses, the aquatic creatures... Klimt paints the female form, in women of all ages, with astonishing realism. He does not shy away from portraying pubic hair, an expectant mother's naked stomach or the withered skin of an elderly lady. In his era, this causes outrage. Klimt breaks the taboos again and again.

In Klimt’s works, woman is sensual, strong, sometimes even dangerous. The ambivalence that she represents is all the more imposing because of how realistic the work is. We are not observing an imaginary female figure. The women that Klimt paints are resolutely modern and anchored in the present, the reason being that these women exist in real life, in Klimt’s entourage. He integrates their faces into his allegorical works.

By way of his many representations of women, Klimt challenges the misogynistic climate in which turn of the century Vienna is immersed. In 1903, Austrian writer Otto Weininger publishes Sex and Character, a book in which he develops the idea of the woman as an inferior being. And his idea is largely accepted, even within intellectual circles.

But rather than subscribe to this belief, Klimt celebrates women. He will not reduce them to the roles that the patriarchal society has reserved for them: bearing children, going to church and cooking. In Klimt’s work, the woman is far removed from this preconception. The depiction of strong women is indeed one of the artists preferred themes. From the goddess Pallas Athena in armour, the emblem of the Secession to the biblical character Judith, with the Head of Holofernes in her hands, Klimt's female subjects are empowered.

Where man is virtually absent in his paintings, he does feature in the cadre of one fundamental theme: the union between man and woman. Klimt develops this theme allegorically in several of his works, beginning with Love in 1895, then Philosophy in 1900, with the depiction of a naked couple embracing, the final panel of the Beethoven Frieze in 1902, the Stoclet Frieze in 1911 and perhaps most notably in The Kiss (1908-1909).