You feel the lady’s gaze from the corner of your eye. Once she takes a hold, there’s no going back. You stare at her as she demands your attention and devotion. She stands tall as a goddess. She promises you love and passion in return for your devotion. She’s robed in color and opulence. Her dark hair is pulled back with ribbons made of gold. Her lips part as if she’s about to give you the secret to life. Her eyes laugh with knowledge of a treasure she will never share.
You visit her in this temple where she’s surrounded by others like her. They all expect their moment of adoration. They are the deities of beauty and desire, the ones who continued with Aphrodite’s work. They are as revered as the man who transformed them into immortal beings. They all love him in different ways: as a father, as a lover, or as a creator.
(End of Fiction)
We’ve all seen them, whether on canvas, keychain, t-shirt, or the coffee mug your dad brings you from his trip. As time goes by, we find comfort in these women who look at us with a stare full of determination. They are the women of Gustav Klimt’s paintings, the mysterious muses who seem to invite the viewer to come closer and admire them.
Perhaps the most famous one is the Woman in Gold herself, Adele Bloch-Bauer. This Viennese socialite of the early twentieth century has become synonymous with female strength and sensuality. Her stance seems to be unapologetic of the effect she has on the viewer. She doesn’t shy away or attempts to cover herself. Unlike other paintings where women are either presented as naked and challenging or bashful and quiet, Klimt’s muses appear as queens in their throne of flowers and taffeta. They become the first models of haute couture. They pose while not looking like mannequins. They sell an image of elegance and lust. They invite us into this gorgeous world of artists, trysts, and having cocktails on the balcony.
It’s no wonder that Klimt’s canvases look like the art design department of Vogue during the Belle Époque, considering how his partner and muse, Emilie Louise Flöge, was one of the first fashion designers. Her bohemian style, which is worn by the different women in the paintings, was revolutionary for several reasons. The most obvious were the fact that these were wide flowy dresses that only hanged from the model’s shoulders, not unlike what the women in the hippie communes of the sixties and seventies would end up wearing. Another groundbreaking element to the dresses she created was how these were worn without a corset, something unheard of at the time.
When we see these playful and voluminous dresses with daring colorful prints that fill the entire image, we see an editorial style we’re now used to seeing in fashion magazines. We’re presented with these fully clothed women, wearing outfits that are anything but body conscious, yet are full of provocative suggestion. They are sensual without needing to be over-the-top. Unlike other artists, Klimt chose to have the focus on his models’ faces rather than their bodies. What makes his images erotic is the freedom in the women’s gaze. They’re not telling you what they’ll do in the bedroom, but they’re inviting you to find out. The mystery is part of their power. They have an air of the unknown while still remaining open and honest.
Though the term “Understander of Women,” as Klimt is often referred to, sounds like a form of mansplaining, it can also imply how the artist allowed these women to be the main attraction. He took a step back, remaining as the auteur, but letting his muses take the praise. He knew he was only capturing their essence; they would become the carriers of his legacy, like the sculptures of Ancient Greek goddesses immortalized their sometimes unknown makers.
This moment in history, prior to the Second World War, when Vienna was the Mecca of art, seems to also be the forbearer of female empowerment in the twentieth century. It predicted how women would cease to be demure ladies sitting in their Tea Rooms in order to become the ones to choose what they’d wear, who they’d loved, or even when they’d get out of bed.
Klimt’s women are forever remembered as the emblems of the new era. While they might not have been able to enjoy all the freedoms they desired due to the constraints of their time, they have given future generations a smile of encouragement to break the boundaries of what current society believes is appropriate, beautiful, feminine, and sensual.