This work has been requested for the forthcoming exhibition, Vienna 1900 - Klimt, Schiele and their Times, to be held at the Fondation Beyeler, Basel, from September 2010 to January 2011.
In 1912, beginning with his second portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, Gustav Klimt embarked on a new cycle of radiantly colourful and richly detailed full-length standing portraits of women that he would continue until his death in 1918. The most famous artist in Vienna and widely recognised as being one of the finest ever portrait painters of women, Klimt, in these later, more joyous, colourful and painterly portraits extended the Orientalist mood of his earlier Byzantine-inspired 'golden portraits' into a even more dramatic play between figuration, decoration and abstraction. Klimt took many months and sometimes even years to complete these large, extraordinarily sumptuous, painstakingly worked and almost fantastical paintings. With their unique way of embedding their female subjects like jewels or flowers into an almost abstract decorative parade of rich floral and oriental form and colour, they are among the artist's finest and most modern paintings.
Begun in 1917, and still in progress when Klimt died in February 1918, Frauenbildnis (Portrait of a Lady) is perhaps the very last of these great portraits. It belongs to a group of highly important and nearly-completed pictures that were left in the artist's studio at this time and which now provide a unique and fascinating insight into the extraordinary richness, subtlety and complexity of Klimt's unique working practice. The woman in this portrait is unknown, though it has for a long time been widely thought that it is the last of three paintings Klimt made between 1912 and 1918 of Maria Munk, the twenty-four-year old daughter of wealthy Viennese businessman Alexander Munk and his wife Aranka Pulitzer Munk. Daughter to Charlotte Pulitzer of the newspaper family, Aranka Munk was also the sister of Serena Lederer, Klimt's most important patron. Serena and her husband August Lederer owned the largest collection of Klimt's work and, as the most sought-after portrait painter in Vienna, Klimt had painted both Serena and her mother Charlotte. Even though he had also painted the family Munk alongside Serena Lederer and the Pulitzers in their theatre box in his 1887-1888 painting of the auditorium of the old Burgtheater, it seems likely that the commissioning of Klimt to paint 'Ria' Munk, as she was known, was arranged by Serena Lederer, as, in contrast to most his portraits, this work was to be a posthumous one.
At noon on the 28th December 1911, Ria Munk had taken her own life by shooting herself in the chest after a falling out with her lover, the writer Hans Heinz Ewers. The tragedy was recorded in the diary of the Viennese writer Arthur Schnitzler on New Year's Day 1912, but it caused little scandal. Like duelling, suicide was not an uncommon way out of an impasse in matters of love or honour in turn-of-the-century Vienna. Indeed, it seems to have been part of a widespread love of theatre and spectacle that as Stephan Zweig observed permeated all areas of society at this time. 'In Vienna,' he wrote, 'even funerals found enthusiastic audiences and it was the ambition of every true Viennese to have a lovely corpse, with a majestic procession and many followers; even his death converted the genuine Viennese into a spectacle for others. In this receptivity for all that was colourful festive and resounding, in this pleasure in the theatrical, whether it was on the stage or in reality, both as theatre and as a mirror of life, the whole city was at one' (Stephan Zweig, The World of Yesterday, London, 1943, p. 18).
In a similar vein, and as a part of the Viennese obsession with sex, death, music and spectacle, the death-mask portrait and the more illustrious death-bed portrait had also grown to become highly fashionable amongst the elite of the city, and so it was that, after the tragedy of Ria Munk's suicide, Klimt was commissioned to paint a death-bed portrait of her. This he did rendering her, as a kind of tragic heroine in the manner of Millais' Ophelia, reclining contentedly and at peace on a rich and colourful bed of flowers. Evidently, however, this portrait did not satisfy the Munk family as a suitable memento of their daughter and according to Erich Lederer (Serena's son), Klimt was again commissioned to paint a second portrait of Ria, this time as if made from life. Klimt appears to have set to work on a full-length portrait of Ria (though it may also possibly have been of her sister Lola) in 1913 in the manner of his new cycle of standing portraits. Soon afterwards, however, he abandoned it, complaining to his long-time friend and confidant Emilie Flöge that 'the Munk portrait... wouldn't come together! Can't make it a likeness!' (Gustav Klimt, 'Postcard to Emilie Flöge', 1913, quoted in Gustav Klimt, Modernism in the Making, exh. cat., p. 223).
It is widely thought that the painting that Klimt was having such trouble with is the one now known as Die Tänzerin, in the collection of the Neue Galerie in New York, and that this work - though originally a second portrait of Ria Munk - was subsequently altered by Klimt into its present more erotic, bare-breasted form as the portrait of a dancer - probably Johanna Jusl, a dancer with the Vienna Hofoper and a regular model of Klimt's. Because of the facial resemblance of the woman in Frauenbildnis to the first of Klimt's portraits of Ria Munk, and because the structure of its floral and oriental backdrop echoes the similar background of what was supposedly his second attempt -Die Tänzerin.
Taking the simple and oft-repeated format of all of Klimt's late full-length portraits of women, in this work Klimt presents Ria (if that is who she is) standing sideways and turning to face the viewer with a serene smile. As in his great portraits of other esteemed Viennese society women, Adele Bloch-Bauer (second portrait), Paula Zuckerkandl, Eugenia (Mäda) Primavesi, Elizabeth Lederer and Friederike Maria Beer for example, in this work Klimt envelops his subject in the painting's highly decorative background. Indeed, the unfinished state of this work, (virtually complete around the face and head and yet still to be designed with regards to the dress and floor), reveals how central this sense of the integration of the woman into background was to the artist. As in Die Tänzerin, the intensely patterned and decorative background is made up of flowers, floral patterns and oriental design.
The flowers are shown clustered around the face and figure of Ria gradually opening out onto floral patterns and the oriental designs of kilims and silk wall hangings. As in Die Tänzerin, with its awkward and in fact impossible background, the patterns presented in this work too are wholly artificial and belong to a wide range of sources that Klimt has seemingly collaged together into a radiant world of floral and decorative splendour, as if it were a fantasy landscape. The fact that the backgrounds of these two works are similarly impossible suggests also perhaps that they are related and were intended to be understood by the viewer as fantasy portraits.
Like the vast majority of Klimt's later portraits, this work both invokes and derives from the unique and heavy decorative Orientalism in which the artist, in his later years, had increasingly immersed himself. As a young Egon Schiele recalled of a visit to Klimt's Hietzing studio, the whole place was dominated by Far Eastern art and artefacts. In addition to an extensive collection of kimonos, Schiele recalled seeing 'Japanese woodblock prints and two large Chinese pictures... African sculptures... on the floor and, in the corner by the window, there was a black and red Japanese suit of armour.' Along another wall 'was a large built-in cupboard containing the most beautiful Chinese and Japanese costumes' (Egon Schiele, quoted in Whitford, Gustav Klimt, London, 1990, p. 120).
Klimt's evident passion for Far Eastern art, something which seems to have grown out of his earlier love for Byzantine art and the orientalism of the Middle East, informs not just the content and iconography of his late paintings, but also much of their structure and composition. In particular, the setting of his subjects in a full-length and predominantly frontal pose echoes closely the imperial portraiture of Chinese painting. Similarly, the strong vertical format in these works and the extensive use of almost stacked patterns of flat decorative backgrounds as a setting for his sitters also recalls Japanese 'pillar prints' and the decorative schemes of bijin-e, 'pictures of beautiful women'. The Viennese painter Anton Faistauer claimed in 1923 that such oriental elements were an intrinsic part of Klimt's nature, writing that, 'for Europeans Klimt is an outsider... (and) it would be better not to compare him at all to western ways. He is incomprehensible to the West, to the French and Germans, and his art, for now, is rejected there... He is conceivable only in Vienna, better still in Budapest or Constantinople. His spirit is entirely oriental. Eroticism plays a dominant role in his art, and his taste for women is rather Turkish... He is inspired by the decorations of Persian vases and oriental carpets, and especially delights in the gold and silver of his canvases' (Anton Faistauer, 'Neue Malerei in Osterreich', 1923, in Gustav Klimt, Modernism in the Making, exh. cat., Ottawa, 2001, p. 41).
Following the pattern of 'golden portraits' such as those of Fritza Riedler of 1906 and Adele Bloch Bauer of 1907, in which the background of the painting became as equally important as the sitter - if not indeed more so - in his later, even more sumptuously decorated portraits, Klimt allowed large areas of ornamental design to actually take precedent over their sitters. The substance of the figure in these works is now often dissolved into the decorative movement and rhythm of the paintings' glorious background patterns of oriental silk hangings and/or flowers. It is an almost heraldic integration of the figure into the decorative space of the painting that seems to set the 'modern' woman, like his famous 1907 portrait of a lone sunflower in a garden for example, into a suitably radiant, colourful and ultimately exotic setting. Another significant feature of portraits such as Frauenbildnis is that, in addition to the overt frontality of the pose with the figure looking straight out of the picture directly at the viewer, Klimt often adopted a low viewpoint. This has the effect of partially elevating the woman, raising her up and accentuating the natural sense of aura that is also conveyed by the intense colour and detail of the background. Like an apparition of the sitter's soul materialising behind them - a kind of spectacular kaleidoscopic aura filling the picture frame - the rhythms of colours and twisting decorative form all seem to articulate and give pictorial expression to the sensuality and innate eroticism of the female figure standing at its centre. In this way, as many scholars have observed, Klimt's portraits become not so much those of the individual women concerned as portraits of womanhood itself.
In his 'Women portraits' - the works for which he is perhaps, best known - Klimt's tendency to stage his sitters within an arranged and specifically exotic environment, has its roots in the full-length standing portraits of James Abbott McNeill Whistler. But, whereas, as in a portrait such as Whistler's Rose and Silver: The Princess from the Land of Porcelain of 1863-1864, Whistler has set his subject in front of a staged oriental setting of Japanese screens and carpets, Klimt actively embeds his figures within the abstract and floral patterning of such a background as if they too were decoration. His portrayal of women as illuminating but also decorative beings, reflects, in this respect, the close identification between women and flowers, that runs through all of Klimt's work from his women portraits to his landscape and flower paintings portraits. In many of the latter for example, Klimt tends to anthropomorphosize plants so that their forms are often suggestive of human figures, even, it has been observed, the forms of specific women he knew. Similarly, most of his portraits of women make a clear association between the sitter and the flowers or floral pattern with which she is surrounded. A short poem Klimt wrote towards the end of his life perhaps most clearly illustrates the almost total identification the artist seems to have made between women and flowers. 'The water lily grows in the lake. It is blossoming. In its soul it grieves over a handsome man' (Klimt 'Poem', May 1917, REF)
Klimt's associating of women with flowers, perhaps at its most poignant in this work in which he has evidently sought to portray his deceased subject as the most radiant bloom in a pictorial sea of flowers, also reveals much about the way he not only saw women but used them in his painting. As many people were quick to point out even during Klimt's lifetime, his portraits of women seem to 'clothe' the woman in a radiant and sensual environment. It was almost as if she were a naked flower that had to be set into a kind of floral arrangement of form and colour, in order for her inner nature to be best expressed, and it is in fact Klimt's last unfinished paintings that most accurately reveal this unique painterly practice of using his paintings to 'dress' the women he portrayed. In Die Braut (The Bride) for example, the unfinished state of the painting reveals how Klimt has actually painted the naked form of the woman on the right of the painting, before subsequently beginning to clothe her with a fantastically patterned dress painted directly over her naked figure. In Amalie Zuckerkandl, Johanna Staude, Damenbildnis in Weiss, and here in this work, Klimt has resolved and completed the main part of the work by establishing the central force and poetry of the picture, through an integration of each sitter's face with an appropriate background, but has yet to finalise the design of her clothes leaving them largely unworked. As Frank Whitford has pointed out, it was Klimt's practice to make many studies for every portrait, working out all the necessary combinations and design elements before painting, but here Frauenbildnis 'reveals that at this stage of his career at least, the process of exploration and comprehension through drawing continued on the canvas. He made marks, remade and corrected them in charcoal before establishing more definitive outlines in paint' (Frank Whitford, Klimt, London, 1990, p. 198).
For this work, possibly Klimt's last great female portrait, the artist made at least twenty sketches - both half and full-length studies. In spite of this, as the free painterly style and the sketching in charcoal directly onto the canvas reveals, the artist continued to pursue ideas impulsively while he worked on the painting. Fusing abstract form and colour with rich pattern and with closely observed figurative detail, this painting, with its free spontaneous brushstrokes and joyous coordination of elements, reflects not only the great pleasure that Klimt took in his art, but also the essential modernity of his late work. Drawing together the rich patterned backgrounds of Matisse's recent paintings (see Intérieur aux aubergines, for example) and the sumptuous expressive detail and heightened colour of Van Gogh and Gauguin, this painting, with its conventional 19th Century subject-matter, verges in some ways on the point of abstraction. Like Klimt's late landscape paintings, here the entire subject matter of the painting has been flattened into a joyous and open field of form and colour within which the artist has revelled. Mixing figurative, decorative and abstract detail into an almost hallucinatory tapestry of flowing arabesques and floral form, Klimt has created a unique painterly collage, an extraordinary fusion of East and West, of figuration and abstraction and of the traditional and the modern.
Frauenbildnis is thought to have been among the several intriguingly modern but also unfinished paintings that were left in Klimt's studio after his death. Soon afterwards, and presumably because it is the commissioned portrait of her daughter Ria, it came into the possession of Aranka Munk. The painting was then housed in Aranka Munk's lakeside villa in Aussee until 1941 when the villa and its contents were seized by the Gestapo and it passed into the hands of the collector and dealer William Gurlitt. In 1953, Frauenbildnis was among a number of important paintings that Gurlitt donated to the Neue Galerie der Stadt in Linz, which came to be known as the Lentos Museum. The painting subsequently remained in the Lentos Museum, Linz until June 2009, when it was restituted to Aranka Munk's heirs.