Decorative gold surfaces and images of radiant women define the work of Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) for many people. The Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum’s current exhibition, however, highlights lesser-known aspects of the Austrian artist’s career, offering more insight into the man behind the works.

Designed specifically for the museum in coordination with the Belvedere in Vienna, which has the most extensive collection of Klimt paintings in the world, “Gustav Klimt: Vienna-Japan 1900” commemorates the 100th anniversary of the artist’s death last year and brings together more than 25 of his oil paintings and around 90 objects created by or related to him, including sketches and numerous photographs. The “Japan” of the exhibition title refers to the influence of Japanese art on Klimt, who emerged as an artist during the Japonism boom in Europe. The show also includes some of the kinds of Japanese objects, such as porcelain dishes and pill boxes, that ignited the imagination of the European art scene.

Born in 1862, Klimt entered the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts (now the University of Applied Arts Vienna) in 1876. With fellow students Franz Matsch and his younger brother, Ernst, he founded a company that produced many murals and paintings for the theaters, museums and other public buildings that were sprouting up in the city at that time. Sketches and other works related to these at the exhibition express something of the life of fin de siecle Vienna.

Klimt’s early style reveals his traditional art training, especially in his use of academic allegorical motifs, although his school did also introduce Japanese design principles. Some of the landscapes he painted in his summers away from the city, for example, show flat surfaces likely derived from ukiyo-e prints. Later, the burgeoning symbolist movement inspired Klimt’s move from conventional allegory to highly personal, and often obscure, symbolic imagery.

Klimt’s famous glittering portrayals of glamorous women belie a personal life clouded with death, suffering and guilt. His mother succumbed to mental illness and in 1892 both his brother Ernst and his father, a gold engraver, died. He never married but fathered many children, going from the arms of one woman to another for solace. Physical expressions of love became a key theme within his work, and though his most famous painting, “The Kiss,” is not in this exhibition, similar depictions of love are offered, such as “Reclining Lovers” (1904).

In 1897, Klimt helped launch the Wiener Sezession (Vienna Secession), a group of unorthodox artists searching for new forms of expression. They published the periodical Ver Sacrum (Sacred Spring), erected their own building and held group exhibitions every year. For their 1902 exhibition on the theme of Ludwig van Beethoven, Klimt designed a frieze that covered three walls of one room, a faithful life-size reproduction of which is included in this show. Illustrating humanity being led from suffering to happiness by the arts, the “Beethoven Frieze” was inspired by the words of Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” used by Beethoven in his ninth symphony, which the Wiener Sezession held a performance of atits exhibition

Schiller surfaces again in a quote in one of Klimt’s famous gold-laden works, “Nuda Veritas” (1899). Above the image of a woman, the symbol of truth, is written “If you cannot please everyone with your deeds and your art, please a few. To please many is bad.” It reads something like a motto, considering the Wiener Sezession’s vanguard and often controversial stance. Indeed, many did not understand Klimt’s intentions. The exhibition details how his ceiling paintings for the University of Vienna were met with hostility. Considered disturbing and pornographic by the administration they were rejected and not displayed at the university.

At the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, surrounded by sketches of pregnant women, old men and a portrait of his own deceased infant son, hangs “The Three Ages” (1905). Depicting a young woman nursing a baby and an old woman who, head in hand, appears to contemplate her approaching death, it encapsulates Klimt’s main concern with the nature of life, and is a fitting way to bring the exhibition to a close.

“Gustav Klimt: Vienna-Japan 1900” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum runs until July 10; ¥1,600. For more information, visit www.tobikan.jp/en.

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