In 1889, the year that a young Gustav Klimt painted An Allegory of Sculpture, one of the greatest minds of his generation was suffering the fallout of a massive mental breakdown. Friedrich Nietzsche, whose book The Birth of Tragedy had aroused great excitement in the intellectual circles of late-nineteenth century Vienna was a great influence on Klimt and his ideas resonate throughout the artist’s oeuvre. Klimt was impressed by Nietzsche’s idea that Germanic culture should base itself on an artistic style equivalent to the tragedies of Ancient Greece, and his ornamental paintings of the forthcoming Gold period attempted to rival, and at times surpass, such drama. What one can see in this allegorical and deeply symbolic work is the seeds of his future ideas and the huge gap left in Germanic intellectual life following Nietzsche’s collapse.
Many artists of the Art Nouveau period used ancient Greek and Rome for inspiration, as well as the obvious influence of previous movements such as Symbolism and Romanticism and Rococo. Klimt’s Allegory of Sculpture, however, is both a playful and stoically serious meditation on the possibilities of form and a blueprint for his forthcoming radical shift in direction towards ornamental, figurative pieces. At the same time Klimt was painting his allegorical reproduction of the Biblical eve, he was also getting ready for the first exhibition of the newly formed Vienna Secession, founded in 1897, of which Klimt was the lead figure. The group would go on to change the face of art history and, having never clarified their aesthetic vision in words, Klimt’s Allegory of Sculpture is the closest thing there is to a coherent manifesto for the revolution that was about to come.
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