Gustav Klimt is known for his Symbolist portraits with burnished gold, but his landscapes also played a significant role in the development of 'the Modern.' He was an innovative landscape painter who studied the rhythms and balances in nature that appealed to the human eye and soul, similar to Dutch painter Piet Mondrian's early tree paintings. Klimt's landscapes explored the sculpturally complex yet calming forms of trees, which he believed had a positive effect on the human experience.
‘A Forest of Firs’ (c.1902) by Gustav Klimt
Klimt's paintings of deep pine forests, with their cool shade and pin-points of sunlight, have the ability to stir the spirit just as much as a grand cathedral. He includes symbolism in his paintings of tall, straight fir trees by using repeated trunks to guide the viewer's eye upward towards the unseen canopy and the heavens above, representing the spiritual and transcendence, similar to Van Gogh's representation of trees. Klimt also believed that the artist's task was to find, analyze, and capture the essence of natural beauty and harmony, whether in the human form, wild landscapes, or gardens.
Gustav Klimt painted these studies of the ‘Beech Grove’ around 1903
As a painter, he was interested in arranging patterns on canvas and how the frame interacted with them, influenced by Japanese woodblock prints and other oriental objects. He transcribed the 3D environment into repeating surface patterns, emphasizing strong rhythms and structure. Many of his landscapes are realistic, but begin to appear abstract. He was fascinated by the energy of scattered brush marks in a beech grove, and enjoyed balancing potentially conflicting colors to create harmonious compositions.
His use of contrasting colors, like warm reds and oranges against cool greens and blues, is similar to Paul Cezanne's Pointillism experiments. This creates a vibrant effect, similar to the way light is reflected in the real world. Klimt's paintings can be simplified into grids and blocks of color, similar to the later abstracts of Mondrian. His use of small dabs of color to represent blossoms and leaves is similar to Georges-Pierre Seurat's Pointillism, and there is also influence from Vincent van Gogh's late 19th century paintings of blooming orchards.
‘Rosebushes Under Trees’ (c.1905) and ‘The Park’ (c.1910) two highly patterned landscape studies by Gustav Klimt
Klimt’s later landscape works became celebratory affirmations of life represented by nature in full bloom. The wealth of vibrant flowers and verdant leaves sang of abundance and fertility. There were less paintings of the wild places and his landscapes more often contained signifiers of a direct relationship between human and natural agencies. He favoured orchards, gardens, parklands, and tree-lined avenues, and perhaps there is what we would now call an ‘eco’ message about the symbiosis of nature and human wellbeing.
The patterns we see emerging in his blocks of blossom-scattered foliage, along with the symbolist grammar of plants, is something he repeatedly exploits, providing densely patterned backgrounds for his figures and portraits. Such patterns also comment upon the subjects and drive narrative elements in many of his best known works, not least his most famous ‘Gold Period’ painting, The Kiss…
Klimt is now considered a significant artist of the early 20th century, and his work continues to be widely admired and studied.