Upon the centennial of their deaths, Klimt & Rodin: An Artistic Encounter explores the dialogue between the work of French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) and Austrian painter Gustav Klimt (1862–1918) and examines their numerous connections, ranging from their mutual interest in the human form to their philosophical outlooks on the world. A comparison of these two artists reminds the contemporary viewer of the challenges each encountered and how their work pushed the story of modern art forward.
This exhibition allows the public to study, for the very first time on the West Coast, the full evolution of Klimt’s artistic output, ranging from his early and academically applauded work to his provocative and critically debated mature style, as seen here in The Virgin. Revered today as a pioneer of modernism in Vienna, Klimt produced only a very limited number of canvases over his career. Many of these canvases are deemed too fragile to travel, making a sizable display of his work a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
To every age its art. To every art its freedom.
At the turn of the century, the world was in constant flux. In 1900 the German writer and critic Hermann Bahr stated, “Common to all the people of this age is the fact that more is weighing on them than they can bear; no one is equal to his or her burden. Never before has life been so heavy for people; just to exist, they muster an effort that goes beyond their strength.” This was the environment that surrounded Auguste Rodin and Gustav Klimt. Through their art, these two men aspired to convey the psychological experience of being human, ranging from utter ecstasy to sheer torture. In doing so, they broke with traditions of art.
By 1900—after 30 years of creating groundbreaking work that often brought about adverse criticism and numerous scandals—Rodin, at the age of 60, was at last enjoying international acclaim. He was widely regarded as the greatest living sculptor, French or otherwise, of his age. He exhibited his sculpture throughout Europe and the United States, sharing his work with new audiences. Reviewing the first major display of Rodin’s work in Vienna, in 1898, the art critic Ludwig Hevesi went so far as to describe the artist as the “Parisian Michelangelo.”
By comparison, Gustav Klimt, at age 38 in 1900, although achieving financial success, continued to struggle with dogged critiques of his paintings. His city of Vienna was experiencing an economic upturn and an architectural rebirth. Nonetheless, as the capital of Austria-Hungary and the seat of its emperor and his court, Vienna was engaged with its great past and slow to adopt a modern aesthetic. The prevailing artistic style was historicist—an academic style based on the imitation of past masters, depicting scenes from mythology and history. Klimt had created many paintings in this style for the many new buildings springing up around Vienna but, starting in the 1890s, he shifted toward a more modern and challenging mode. He became the leader of modern art in Vienna and, thus, was a founding member and first president of the Viennese Secession, a group of artists that was looking both forward and further afield to the new artistic ideas emerging from Paris.
Klimt sent his painting Philosophy to the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, where Rodin was also exhibiting. This was one of three monumental canvases commissioned from Klimt in 1894 to decorate the Great Hall of the new Viennese University building. These compositions—referred to as the Faculty Paintings—had received virulent attacks from the university’s teaching staff for their departure from the academic painting tradition and their erotic excess. There were even parliamentary questions addressed to the head of the ministry responsible for commissioning Klimt’s work. Klimt's submission of the painting to a French jury was in part a counterattack—and it worked. Philosophy received acclaim in Paris and was awarded an honorable mention. Yet, the recognition had little to no impact in Vienna.
The 1900 Exposition Universelle was also significant for Rodin, who mounted a retrospective of his work in a pavilion on the Place de l’Alma. Of this effort, Rodin stated, “It’s the first time I’ve tried gathering all my work together. I’m convinced that by showing my sculpture . . . I will be doing the cause of art a service.” The display of 168 works included completed sculptures such as the full-scale plaster model of The Gates of Hell as well as composite sculptures and fragments.
Perhaps never before has an artist instilled such fanaticism in people. He has only mortal enemies or apostles.
It was not until June 5, 1902, that Auguste Rodin and Gustav Klimt met in person. Rodin traveled to Vienna, reportedly to visit the Viennese Secession, where he had been a corresponding member since the Secession’s inception. Founded in 1897, the Secession was formed by artists who rejected the pervasive conservatism of the Viennese Artist’s Union, which promoted historicism. Firmly delineating the group’s commitment to the present, the Secessionists took as their motto “To every age its art. To every art its freedom.” In addition to displaying the work of Viennese artists, the organization established an international profile by offering corresponding membership to other artists who would display their work alongside the Viennese Secessionists. Rodin’s support of the Secessionist group as a corresponding member bestowed extraordinary prestige and resulted in five exhibitions that included his work.
However, upon the occasion of Rodin’s visit, the artist came to see an exhibition that did not include his own work. Rather, in the spring of 1902, the Secession mounted an ambitious display of 21 artists. The aim was to subordinate all of the forms of art on display into a single, all-embracing idea. This concept was a tribute to the “nobly combative genius” of the German composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827). Designed as an example of Raumkunst—the idea that an exhibition’s design was no less important than the art itself—the installation reflected the group’s aspiration to create an interplay between sculpture and painting, unifying them into a single work of art.
Klimt’s contribution to the Beethoven Exhibition is considered one of his most defining works. His program included the Beethoven Frieze, a painting that ran across three walls of the exhibition hall. The image below shows the third and final wall of the frieze. Using spare graphic lines and ornamental surface treatments, Klimt explored the theme of humanity’s desire for happiness and hope for salvation. Visited by 58,000 people, the Beethoven Exhibition was a popular success. Nonetheless, Klimt’s contribution, due to its new style and its ornamental composition, did not avoid controversy.
Gentlemen! Your artistic achievement will prove to be an asset not only to your own country; it will enrich the whole of Europe. In America, too, it will meet with keen response.
Following the visit to the Secession exhibition, Rodin attended a social gathering held in his honor at the Sacher-Garten. There he met Klimt. Accounts of the conversation included a discussion about the penchant for scandal within the art world and the “loneliness” of the artist. The adverse response to the Beethoven Frieze by journalists and critics supplied the conversation with a prime example of the challenges faced by artists who, in creating something new, simultaneously pushed the limits of their audiences.
Both Rodin and Klimt encountered numerous controversies throughout their careers. A common thread unites their first scandals: the depiction of a nude “living” body. In 1877 Rodin first exhibited his sculpture The Age of Bronze, which referenced the ancient Greek poet Hesiod’s Ages of Man. Rodin intended the sculpture to convey a lifelike impression representing the human condition. The intensely naturalistic and subtle impact of the sculpture led critics to accuse Rodin of taking casts directly from the model’s body. The effect of the controversy actually earned Rodin greater attention.
Scandal regularly plagued Klimt. In response—and as a challenge—to his critics, Klimt created the composition Nuda Veritas or “Naked Truth” in 1899 as a clear statement of his artistic credo. In treating the nude female form, Klimt shunned the tradition of the classically idealized nude in favor of a modern representation that conveyed a sense of shocking immediacy. Much like Rodin, Klimt showed viewers the nude form of the here and now. In her uplifted hand the figure grasps a mirror, which she holds up to her observing public. To underscore his point, Klimt included a line from the German poet Friedrich Schiller: “If you cannot please everyone with your actions and your art, then please a few. To please many is bad.” As a final touch, at the figure's feet, Klimt included two dandelions, the favored flower of the Secessionists.
When it came to the creative process, Rodin and Klimt were diametrically opposed. Rodin produced thousands of objects over his long career. He worked with up to 50 assistants at any given time and, by all accounts, easily endured visitors to his studio as well as photographers, happily answering questions. As a result we now have a valuable trove of photo documentation of the artist at work.
By comparison, after 1900, Klimt only produced a few paintings a year with a total lifetime output of 245 paintings. For Klimt, his studio was a private space visited only by close friends, models, and the sitters for his commissioned portraits. He refused visitors, did not work with assistants, and declined to take on any students. There is not a single known photograph of Klimt at work in his studio.
While Rodin and Klimt differed greatly in their working styles, their philosophical outlooks on life were closely aligned. Each artist’s disavowal of tradition took root in an exploration of human psychology and the physical experience of the body. As evidenced by Klimt’s The Virgin and Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais, these sensations ranged from blissful joy to deep despair. The output of both artists is marked by a sustained exploration of themes relating to life, love, and death.
Aside from their shared philosophical interests in the human experience, which regularly took shape in allegorical figures, Rodin and Klimt also shared a commitment to portraiture. While Rodin painted both men and women, from literary luminaries to business tycoons, Klimt’s sitters after 1900 were exclusively women. This aspect is significant since he was the highest-paid portrait painter in Vienna at the time. Although the women whom Klimt painted may have had access to wealth through their husbands, their actual stations were significantly limited. As with most other countries in the Western world at this date, women in Vienna could not vote and their educational opportunities were severely restricted.
Due to his untimely death from a stroke at age 55, Klimt left several unfinished canvases in his studio. This painting of Ria Munk is one of them. The underdrawing, variation in paint application, and detailed finish of the face gives us a glimpse into the artist’s working process. This is believed to be one of three attempts by Klimt to paint Munk after her suicide in 1911. One scholar has suggested a potential reading of the profusion of iconography that surrounds the figure. Click on the details to learn more.
Like Klimt’s rendering of Ria Munk surrounded by symbols, Rodin’s depiction of the British socialite Eve Fairfax melds her physical likeness with a symbolic theme. Fairfax’s fiancé commissioned a bust of her in celebration of their engagement. While the engagement did not last, Fairfax continued to sit for Rodin at his studio between 1901 and 1909. Rodin described his subject as “a woman who resembles in expression, as well as in form, one of the faces of Michelangelo.” Curiously, in Rodin’s sculpture, behind Fairfax’s head flow long shafts of wheat presumably aligning her with Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, hence the title “La Nature.”
For both Rodin and Klimt, antiquity played an essential role in the development of their art. Rodin was a lifelong admirer of ancient sculptors. In fact, upon arriving in Vienna his first priority was to visit the exemplary collection of plaster casts of antiquities held at the Academy of Fine Arts. In an account of this visit, the journalist Ludwig Hevesi wrote, “He was veritably intoxicated by everything from Antiquity that was to be seen in Vienna: he spent hour after hour, indeed, in the cast collection at the Academy and at the University, and simply could not stop gazing.” In addition to studying plaster casts and the great collection of ancient sculptures at the Musée du Louvre, Paris, the artist began collecting antique fragments in the 1890s. For Rodin, the vigor of these pieces helped counter the “academicism” of visual art.
Klimt found stylistic inspiration especially in the work of the ancient Greeks. His own study of ancient objects is evidenced in numerous early works, such as the poster created for the first Secession exhibition, in 1898. In this design, Klimt borrowed from the flat planes and ornamentation seen on classical Greek vases.
Seeing the World through Drawing
For both Rodin and Klimt, drawing was an essential part of their artistic practice. However, the perception of drawing was viewed differently in Paris and Vienna. According to the Parisian academic tradition, drawing was a lesser art. Viennese audiences held draftsmanship in the highest regard; it provided the greatest ability to gain maximal effect with the most minimal of means.
Rodin generated a staggering number of drawings. Today 10,000 drawings are in existence. Drawing was as important to Rodin as it was for Klimt, who left approximately 5,000 works on paper. Rodin’s craft as a draftsman developed significantly over his career. His early drawings are defined by an academic adherence to reality. In his later work, which is widely acknowledged as important to the development of modernism, Rodin reduced his graphic tools to merely line and color washes, which he used to capture his increasing interest in movement. Of his drawings, Rodin once said, “It is very simple. My drawings are the key to my work.”
Unlike Rodin, who wrote and commented openly on his work, Klimt rarely addressed his creative process. His drawings, therefore, provide an invaluable opportunity to see how he developed his ideas. We know that Klimt drew on a daily basis and was rigidly committed to his materials, using the same size of paper throughout most of his career. In contrast to the public ridicule levied against some of Klimt’s painted canvases, critics universally celebrated his drawings, with one declaring, “Klimt is the supreme draftsman.”
Klimt’s drawing output contains a significant number of works dedicated to erotic subjects, including heterosexual coupling, lesbian love, and female self-pleasure. Although displayed only very rarely during the artist’s lifetime, these works were critiqued as pornographic and led the artist to once declare that he would never exhibit his work in Vienna again. For Klimt, Eros represented the core of his exploration of humanist themes, also including birth and death. In his erotic drawings we see Klimt’s facility as an artist, capturing a level of emotional vitality and rendering a stylized view of his subjects in fleeting moments.
Some works by Rodin and Klimt share affinities in the artists’ mutual obsessions with surface treatments. As a sculptor, Rodin demonstrated an interest in wide and varied materials ranging from clay to bronze. While his studies and maquettes generally show the artist working out a compositional idea, his completed works reveal a persistent interest in not only his subject but also the artistic medium. In this marble portrait of Victor Hugo, Rodin chose to retain the unrefined, rough stone of the marble bust, creating a sense of the subject’s emergence from the material that suggests the creative process.
Klimt developed a painting style in which the transformative power of ornamentation is revealed through contrasts between flat, spare surfaces and intricate embellishment. In the composition Allée at Schloss Kammer, the trees dominate the canvas, depicted in a profusion of patterning. These heavily worked areas are juxtaposed against his relatively flat depiction of the building and of the water to the left. Klimt’s paintings are defined by this quality of intense articulation of patterning and planar elements.
During the last two decades of his life, Klimt regularly vacationed along the banks of the Attersee (Lake Atter), a picturesque region of lakes and mountains easily reached from Vienna in only a few hours by train. For Klimt, these summers provided an increasingly needed respite from the pressures of his life as a portrait painter and the critical reception of his work. The beauty of this location inspired Klimt to begin painting landscapes. In a letter home, he described his activities.
“I get up early in the morning . . . if the weather is good I go into the nearby forest—there I paint a little beech wood (with the sun shining) mixed with some conifers . . . then breakfast, afterwards a dip in the lake, undertaken very cautiously—on top of that again a bit of painting, if the sun is shining, a lake picture, if the weather is overcast, a landscape from the window of my room—sometimes I don’t paint in the morning at all and study in my Japanese books instead—outdoors. That takes me up to midday, after lunch comes a brief nap or reading—until time for tea—before or after tea a second swim in the lake, not on a regular basis, but usually. After tea comes painting again—a large poplar at dusk with a storm brewing—now and then instead of painting in the evening comes a bit of bowling in a neighboring village—but seldom—dusk fall—the evening meal—then early to bed and again early to rise in the morning.”