Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt in blue smock, 1913
In June 1902, Auguste Rodin was passing through Vienna, en route from Prague. While in town, he accepted an invitation to visit the current exhibition of the Vienna Secession movement, and to meet the artist whose monumental work, the Beethoven Frieze, was at the heart of the display: Gustav Klimt. The two artists - Rodin 62, and at the peak of his fame, Klimt just about to turn 40 - went to a café in the Prater garden. According to the art critic Berta Zuckerkandl, they sat down beside two remarkably beautiful young women at whom Rodin gazed enchantedly.
Gustav Klimt, Two Girlfriends, 1916
"That afternoon, slim and lovely vamps came buzzing around Klimt and Rodin, those two fiery lovers," Zuckerkandl recalled. "Rodin leaned over and to Klimt and said, 'I have never before experienced such an atmosphere - your tragic and magnificent Beethoven fresco, your unforgettable, temple-like exhibition, and now this garden, these women, this music. What is the reason for it all?' And Klimt slowly nodded his beautiful head, and answered only one word: 'Austria.'"
Gustav Klimt - Beethove Frieze, The Hostile Powers, 1902
In Klimt's Beethoven Frieze, it seems, that hostile powers - naked temptresses and a huge snarling ape - above all symbolised the disease syphilis of which he was terrified - and understandably, since he had contracted it at an early age. Thus, his frieze brought together the themes of music, death, love and sex - so fundamentally fascinating to the Vienna of Sigmund Freud and Arthur Schnitzler. That was perhaps what Klimt meant by his laconic answer to Rodin's question.
Madame d'Ora, Portrait of Gustav Klimt, 1908
A young woman named Frederike Beer-Monti rang on Klimt's doorbell in 1915, hoping he would paint her portrait (she had already posed for his younger rival, Schiele). She found him both taciturn and formidable. Klimt took her hand, looked at it, turned it over and for a long time, but said not a single word. Beer-Monti was finally allowed to enter. But, "it took a lot of talking to make him a little friendlier." Klimt eventually agreed to paint her. Though the result was a magnificent picture, Beer-Monti was ambivalent about the artist. "Klimt was exceptionally animal-like. His body exuded a peculiar odour. As a woman, one was really afraid of him."
Gustav Klimt, Friedericke Maria Beer-Monti, 1916.
Three models inhabited Klimt's studio, rather like his pet cats. When he was painting Frederike Beer-Monti, he took a break every hour and went into an adjacent room to relax and chat for a while with the models who were always there. Alma Schindler reported that he "would take them to the theatre or races, always slipped them a banknote." Alma Schindler herself - later Alma Mahler, and subsequently the lover of Oskar Kokoschka was one of Klimt's failed conquests. He pursued her to Italy in 1899, where she was on holiday with her family. He kissed her in a Genoese hotel room, but she, though wildly in love, was firm ("not without a ring on my finger").
Gustav Klimt, Lady with Hat and feather Boa, 1909
About the same time, Klimt fathered three sons by two other women, and began a long-lasting, though apparently open, relationship with a talented proprietor of a Viennese fashion salon, Emilie Flöge. The names of the models and other women in his life do not always survive, partly because Flöge burnt much of Klimt's correspondence after his death from a stroke in 1918. One who has been identified by chance recently was Hilde Roth, a beautiful Bohemian redhead from Budapest whose face can be seen in Lady with Hat and feather Boa (above).
Gustav Klimt, The Bride, 1918
When Klimt died, an unfinished painting entitled The Bride was left in his studio. The right half was dominated by a semi-naked female figure. The knees were bent and the legs splayed out to expose a carefully detailed pubic area on which the artist had leisurely begun to paint an overlay 'dress' of suggestive and symbolic ornamental shapes. Thus Klimt's own death revealed the sexual obsession that lay beneath his shimmering surfaces.