top of page


Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907)

Gustav Klimt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In preparation for an upcoming trip to Vienna, I have been re-acquainting myself with my two of my favourite artists: Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. Both formed an important part of turn-of-the-century Austria's Jugendstil movement (also known as Art Nouveau).

As a teenager, I considered Klimt to be my favourite artist, but I suppose I couldn't really have articulated why that was. I was never particularly interested in researching my favourite artists, I always preferred to let the images stand alone in my mind. Because of this, I was slightly worried that I would find little else to Klimt's work than gold leaf, bold eroticism, and the problematic theme of the femme fatale.

However, reading about fin-de-siécle Vienna shows how revoluntionary Klimt, Schiele, and the other Jugendstil artists were. As Peter Vergo writes in his 1975 book, Art in Vienna 1898-1918, Viennese society was almost religiously devoted to science, progress, and the rational. However, this also meant that life had become staid and repressive. The art world was controlled by two relatively conservative bodies, and the emergence of the Jugendstil was only made possible by a group of artists breaking away to form their own society, the Vereinigung bildender Künstler Oesterreichs (Secession) (Vergo, 1975, pp.9-23).

At the time, Sigmund Freud was creating his theories of psychoanalysis, and Klimt's work has many similar themes. His art is marked by symbolism, allegory, sex, death, and a dream-like sense that eludes the rational or logical.

On the occasion of an exhibition of Klimt's work at the Tate Liverpool in 2008, Jonathan Jones wrote in the Guardian that 'the lost paintings he created for Vienna's university were the first great revoluntionary works of the 20th century'. These three paintings, Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence seemed to show the futility of those subjects. Influenced by Nietzsche, they champion a chaotic, pessimistic, and subjective view of the world. After the controversy caused by these paintings, Klimt terminated his contract and sold them to a Jewish art collector. During World War II, the university paintings and several others were plundered by the Nazis and stored in Immendorf Castle in Southern Austria. A retreating SS unit exploded the castle in 1945, possibly to stop Russian forces seizing the artwork. Jones writes, 'seen whole, with all his works redeemed from destruction, Klimt could never be dismissed as an artist of mere dazzle or surface beauty' (2008).

Philosophy (1899-1907)

Gustav Klimt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Although only sketches and a few photographs remain of the university paintings, another of Klimt's grand works, the Beethoven Frieze, can be seen in the basement of Vienna's Secession building. This video from the Khan Academy shows detailed views of the artwork, and a discussion of the allegory.

Klimt, cakes, and Austria's musical genius, Falco ... I hope Vienna lives up to expectations!


Jones, J. (2008) 'Dazzling Demons'. The Guardian, 7 May 2008, available at:

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
bottom of page