Feature

Gustav Klimt: What Lies Beneath

A study for one of the artist’s final paintings, coming up for auction this month at Capsule, reveals multitudes about the artist's practice.

Words by
Sarah Knight
Published on
October 14, 2022
A detail of the subject's face, arms, and dress, the primary sources of movement in the dynamic drawing.
A detail of the subject's face, arms, and dress, the primary sources of movement in the dynamic drawing.
Capsule

When Gustav Klimt passed away suddenly in January of 1918, his Vienna studio remained replete with unfinished paintings. Photographer and friend Moritz Nähr visited the eerie scene-- canvases still perched on easels, ready to be returned to-- in the days following. One particularly famous photograph resulting from Nähr's documentation depicts two works which would remain forever unfinished: Lady with Fan and The Bride. The latter, a stunning kaleidoscopic composition depicting a smattering of female figures, has since been revered by scholars as a window into the artist's practice. A study for this work, coming up for auction in Capsule's American and European Art sale, pulls back the curtain even further on the Expressionist artist's methods of working. The drawing comes to Capsule from the estate of music executive Seymour Stein and once resided in the collection of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan.

Left: A photograph by Moritz Nähr, showing the artist's Vienna studio after his passing. "The Bride" is pictured to the left. Right: Klimt's "The Bride"
Left: A photograph by Moritz Nähr, showing the artist's Vienna studio after his passing. "The Bride" is pictured to the left. Right: Klimt's major unfinished work, The Bride.
Moritz Nähr; The Klimt Foundation

Klimt famously proclaimed that "all art is erotic," a sentiment that shines brightly through his oeuvre. The Bride is no exception: many interpret the three brides that anchor the painting's pyramid-like composition as representing different shades of female sensuality. The figure at the center right, gazing at the viewer with allure, evokes seduction. To her right, a sweetly smiling bride with closed eyes expresses innocence. The third figure bearing compositional weight, the unfinished bride on the far right, is more opaque in her symbolism. She is shrouded in mystery by her incomplete state.

Their unfinished state allows us to gain entry into Klimt's world; as he went, he left a door open for us.

It is this third figure that is the subject of the study. Untainted by the pure color that populates this and many of Klimt's other later works, the graphite drawing is intensely intimate. Unlike other studies of this painting, which feature undulating lines that give its forms the appearance of slowly disintegrating into the paper, the pencil strokes here are definite, bordering on sculptural. The ultimate flatness of the painted bride is absent here. Drawn in this way, she has weight, sharpness, presence. Interestingly, although overtly two-dimensional, The Bride prizes the relationship between the figures and the space they exist in. The work's highly geometrical composition, inspired in part by friend and fellow Austrian artist Egon Schiele, directly juxtaposes its metaphysical subject matter. Though the bride in the study lays in nothingness, she still expresses this deep interest in form and space.

The drawing in its entirety, showcasing the third bride in all of her exuberant eroticism.
The drawing in its entirety, showcasing the third bride in all of her exuberant eroticism.
Capsule

The study reveals a great deal about Klimt's artistic process, namely that he first conceptualized his figures in the nude. Though she is covered in the artist's iconic intricately-painted textiles in the eventual painting, her drawn self wears a dress pushed up to her chest, revealing the contours of her body. Concentrated areas of detail at the head, face, and, most notably, the pubic region, elevate the composition, giving it rhythm and texture. Legs bent at her sides, arms draped behind her head and along her hip, she exudes the exuberant sexuality that permeates The Bride. Though many of Klimt's earlier works knead darkness into their depictions of sensuality, The Bride and many other later paintings feel purely joyful in their eroticism.

As Klimt scholar Gilles Néret points out, the artist's studies and unfinished paintings, particularly those done at the end of his life, provide incredible insight into his process and his interests. In reference to these final paintings, he mused that “their unfinished state allows us to gain entry to Klimt’s world; as he went, he left a door open for us.”

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