Bounching back: the recent resurgence in popularity of the artist Gustav Klimt

Jake Wood 24 January 2013

I reckon that the ground floor of Waterstones Piccadilly is a pretty good social commentator. You can normally tell what is popular, or at least stimulating the public consciousness, by the books they have on prominent display. Anticipating the film release of The Hobbit, the ground floor was crowded with copies of various Tolkien related books. This makes perfectly valid commercial sense, appealing to contemporary demands. By perusing the highlights you gain a reasonable summary of what is in fashion. Over the holidays, cocktails and seafood were up, Dickens made a late unexpected surge, whilst deserts and donkeys dominated the travel table. Too scared to check popular music, I marched past to the art section where they seemed to be heralding several golden bricks as the new thing. On closer inspection these glittering monoliths turned out to be catalogues containing the complete work of Austrian Expressionist Gustav Klimt, giant of the early 20th Century Art Noveau scene.

Leader of the Vienna Secession and prominent symbolist painter, Klimt’s paintings forge an unstable bridge between lofty escapism and anxiety-ridden social commentary. These features awkwardly characterise the expressionist movement, one of the least coherent periods in artistic history. To use horrible generalisations, his work fits between the freedom and light of French artists like Matisse and the fraught scribbly tension of the Northern Europeans like Otto Dix and Edvard Munch. He treads the hazy line between joie de vivre and fin de siecle malaise, if you will permit some pretentiousness.

It is natural that great artists make resurgence in popularity over the course of history, often, although seemingly not in this case, prompted by an exhibition. Klimt’s last bounce was during the 60’s. No doubt the hedonism implied in his orgasmic figures and euphoric golden dreamscapes greatly appealed to the rampant hippies of the day. However, despite seeming to pander to the extravagant taste of the wealthy elite, Klimt’s work is a lot more dark and sinister than we give him credit for. Working under a repressive right wing government, Klimt concealed revolutionary liberal messages of protest in his paint, particularly concerning the role of women in society.

I was initially worried that I had imagined Klimt’s revival or had read too much into his Waterstones positioning. But on closer inspection it does seem that more people know the name than ever before. Then, out of the blue, someone gave me a Klimt-themed calendar for Christmas. Irrefutable evidence.

It is possible that Waterstones may not be following trends but setting them, as a sinister sort of cultural arbiter. But I cannot shake the idea that this newfound interest is because Klimt’s art is, to summarise in one word and put it mildly, shiny. There are no two ways about it. It really is very shiny. It is genuinely difficult to overstate how shiny some of his paintings are. People like shiny things. It really could be that simple.

Jake Wood