Celebrating Gustav Klimt: The Egyptian connection

Mohammed Elrazzaz, Sunday 15 Jul 2012

As the world joins Vienna in celebrating the 150th anniversary of Gustav Klimt, Egypt largely remains oblivious to the ‘Egyptian connection’ in his art works

Klimt, The Tree of Life, photo from a documentary about Klimt (YouTube)

Gustav Klimt (14 July 1862-6 February 1918) needs no introduction. Or maybe he does, especially in Egypt, a country whose ancient history and culture inspired some of Klimt’s most celebrated artworks. Before delving into the Egyptian imprint in his paintings, we should first examine his style, a style that would later place some of his works on the list of the most expensive paintings ever sold, with his 'Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I' selling for $135 million in 2006.

“All art is erotic” – Revelations in Vienna

Just one tour through Klimt’s works is enough to reveal the erotic quality that characterised his art. Works like ‘Nude Veritas,’ ‘Danae,' ‘Judith I’ and ‘Girlfriends’ are all examples, and one would think these works true to the zeitgeist dominated by the cheerful music of Johann Strauss II and the cultural scene in Vienna of the fin-de-siècle and the pre-World War I years. This is a logical but false conclusion, something that Michael Gibson touched on in his book entitled Symbolism (Taschen Art Books): “Far from being acknowledged as the representative artist of his age, Klimt was the target of violent criticism; his work was sometimes displayed behind a screen to avoid corrupting the sensibilities of the young.” One only has to remember the successive waves of criticism that scandalised the art of the impressionists, the cubists and the fauves to realise that Art Nouveau painters were no exception.

Klimt has been classified as an Art Nouveau master and a symbolist, but away from academic classifications, it would be more appropriate to approach his art within the framework of a movement that he himself founded: the Vienna Secession movement. The artists in this movement had different styles and inspirations, something that was premeditated in an attempt to break free from stylistic constraints. The essence of this spirit is best captured in a phrase inscribed above the entrance to the Secession Building in Vienna: “To every age its art. To art its freedom.”

Just like Picasso’s Blue and Rose Periods, Klimt had his own "Golden Phase." This phase, stretching over the first decade of the 20th century (approximately), corresponded to the rise of Vienna as the cultural capital of central Europe. The city was riding a feel good factor, and its booming population could enjoy a rich cultural scene where a multitude of dance rooms, music halls and culture cafes established Vienna as a centre of high culture. Klimt’s paintings would ‘glitter’ inasmuch as the city did. His heavy use of gold leaf (which gave the phase its name) came as no surprise for someone whose father was a gold engraver. Eventually, paintings like ‘The Kiss’ would mark the culmination of his decorative style, one in which he seems to suffer an acute horror vacui.  

From the Byzantine mosaics of Ravenna and the heroes of classical mythology, all the way to the exoticism of Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, Klimt’s eclectic style drew on many sources. His ‘Pallas Athena’ and his ‘Judith II’ are just two examples of paintings based on Mediterranean and Mesopotamian history respectively. How about Egypt?

The Egyptian connection

It is a dining room of a palace in Brussels; its walls are decorated with three panels depicting trees with swirling branches. We are at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Palais Stoclet, and the panels form the ‘Stoclet Frieze’ by Gustav Klimt. The panels are dominated by the Tree of Life in the background, adorned with unmistakable Egyptian symbols: the Eye of Horus, the Pharaonic falcon and the pyramid motif. What was Klimt thinking?

We can trace the answer back to several "encounters." First, there was Hans Makart, an Austrian artist that created several works featuring Ancient Egyptian figures and that influenced Klimt greatly. Then there was the work of Alois Riegl on the language of ornament in Egypt and other ancient civilisations, published in Klimt’s lifetime. Also contemporary to Klimt — and close to the Secession — was Theodor Graf, an art dealer famous for collecting several Fayyum Portraits and exhibiting them in Vienna.

Eventually, Klimt received a commission that provided the perfect context for him to finally put his fascination with Egypt into good use: he painted the spandrels of the stairwell of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Being a museum dedicated to the history of art, Klimt took Ancient Egypt as the starting point. In one of the spandrels, he depicted a Pharaonic woman holding the ankh with the stretched wing of Nechebt (the vulture goddess) behind her, while he filled other spandrels with Pharaonic deities.

Back to the ‘Stoclet Frieze,’ and in addition to the Tree of Life motif, two other motifs typical of Klimt’s works are present: the dancer (referred to as "Expectation," since it symbolises the loneliness and the yearning for love) and the two lovers embracing (referred to as "Fulfillment," as the desire to find love is fulfilled). An interesting interpretation comes from art historian Marjorie Elizabeth Warlick. In 1992 she published an article in the Art Bulletin, suggesting that the whole theme of the Frieze was based on the Ancient Egyptian myth of Isis and Osiris: “The Tree of Life recalls the Erica tree which encased the chest containing Osiris's body; the spiraling branches suggest moving water and the flooding Nile (…) In the Stoclet Frieze, the luxuriant growth of plants and flowers provides a backdrop for the embracing lovers (…) now identified as the goddess 'Isis' and her husband 'Osiris' at the moment when she resurrects him.”

A legacy little known

Why isn’t the legacy of Klimt celebrated in Egypt, given the presence of clear Egyptian and Oriental motifs in his paintings?

Prominent artist Adel El-Siwi has an answer: “No one is famous in Egypt except for Picasso. Visual art does not create celebrities in Egypt. We have no visual culture or knowledge of artists, other than Salvador Dali, Van Gogh, or Picasso. Egypt is not aware of international artists; they do not exist to people, intellectuals or artists.” He goes on to elaborate: “Personally, I like his work, but mine is nothing like it. Klimt, along with Egon Shiele and Oskar Kokoshka, captured the agony of a world falling apart. On the other hand, in my artwork I am celebrating human presence. It is like they are rendering death in their art, but my work has a vibrant Mediterranean feel.”

Art collector and owner of Safarkhan Art Gallery, Sherwet Shafie, appears to agree with El-Siwi: “Egyptian people are not knowledgeable and exposed to other nationalities of art, people only know French and Italian artists, and Picasso of course, but they are not aware of American, Dutch, or Viennese artists. People in Egypt lack knowledge and exposure to global artwork.”

Maybe now is a good time for this to change, and we have the perfect occasion: the anniversary of a legendary artist called Klimt.


Special thanks to Sara Elkamel for providing quotes from Adel El-Siwi and Sherwet Shafie

The writer holds an MA in Cultural Management (Universitat Internacional de Catalunya, Barcelona) and is currently a PhD candidate and a professor of “Tools for Managing Culture” at the same university. He also collaborates with the Andalusi Legacy Foundation (Granada) as a writer/researcher on history and culture.

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