The World in Female Form
Vienna at the turn of the century was a city languid and exalted. Sigmund Freud's theories positing sexuality as a liberating force were highly influential, contributing to an overarching atmosphere of eroticism. Against this backdrop Klimt put the female form centre-stage, oscillating between the extremes of woman as immaculate virgin and sinful seductress.
Judith II (Salome) 1909 presents woman as femme fatale, here crouched in heightened sensuality. In Adam and Eve 1917-8 the female figure is cast in the dominant role, her feet hidden by anemones symbolising fertility. In The Three Ages of Life 1905 the three female figures represent the cycle of life, a recurring theme in Klimt's work, expressed through the child, the mother, and the aging body.
While Klimt's paintings create ambitious allegorical compositions around the representation of the female figure, his drawings, on view in the next gallery, record the artist's private investigation and explicit celebration of female sexuality. Many are studies for paintings which derive much of their impact from the exuberant range and obsessive thoroughness of Klimt's drawn preparations.
Lucian's Dialogues of the Courtesans, published in 1907, features some of Klimt's earliest surviving drawings of half-clothed models, some absorbed in auto-erotic reverie. A presentation of such drawings in 1910 led to public denunciations of Klimt as a 'pornographer', contributing to his resolve to withdraw from exhibiting publicly. Klimt's redoubled commitment to an emphatically private and all the more uninhibited exploration of the expressive possibilities of the female nude would eventually lead him to the radical stylistic transformation of his late drawings. Here, the continuity of bodily mass, form and contour is increasingly dissolved.