Vienna was a city in turmoil at the end of the nineteenth century. Society was changing; women were beginning to gain power; art was changing. Gustav Klimt and his Vienna Secession played a great role in this modernization of Vienna. Klimt began as an academic painter; however, after both his father and brother died, his style began to change. He helped found the Vienna Secession, and he began to draw and paint nude models. He never married, but he had multiple affairs with his models. During the 1890s—due to all the changes in his life and the city around him—his lifestyle and therefore artistic style began to completely and radically change from heavily academic art to extremely scandalous, almost pornographic work. The rise of feminism and general empowerment of women in Vienna stimulated the Vienna Secession, specifically Gustav Klimt’s work, which also assisted the growth of feminist movements. Gustav Klimt and Viennese feminist movements had a symbiotic relationship, each helping and needing the other succeed.
Klimt was not a feminist; however, without the feminist movements of Vienna, he would not have been nearly as successful. He enjoyed the eroticization of women, and his work was rebellious in its portrayal of nude women. Even his work that did not actually depict nude women was still extremely sexual, and it was offensive due to its highly erotic and taboo nature. Klimt’s art astounded the Viennese population and became a scandal, making it more well-known. Much of his work was highly erotic, and it depicted women in a new way that people had never seen before. Historians often interpret Klimt’s oeuvre as having a feminist agenda, and his work was popularized by feminists in a way that made it more well-known than it could have been without feminism.
The first piece by Gustav Klimt shown above is a 1917 drawing called “Liegende Frau” or “Lying Woman,” and the second is a mural called “Ägyptische Kunst” or “Egyptian Art”, painted in 1890. These works both depict (mostly) naked women; however, the drawing is obviously more erotic than the painting. Klimt does not disfigure the women in these works, but he also does not overly beautify them; he portrays the women realistically but very positively. In “Lying Woman,” the woman’s face is visible, and although it is not the subject of painting, it is still drawn with detail, making the woman not appear to be objectified. The woman in “Egyptian Art” is similarly beautiful, and her entire body is painted realistically, including her facial features. In both these works—and in most of Klimt’s art in general—Klimt portrays his models objectively and realistically, but he does not objectify or disfigure them.
Gustav Klimt’s work also depicted women in new and original ways, showing them to be...