Gustav Klimt’s The Maiden features what could be described as a patch-work quilt of young women at one with the coming-together of the whole, recognizable as human forms only by their pale white skin deep in in slumber. A recurring theme and feature of Klimt’s entire career, and indeed a recurring motif across European art for some time before, was the attempt, almost entirely by men, to encapsulate what they saw to be the pure nature of ‘woman’ and to articulate what they saw as the complexity of this unknown, exotic being. It was the engine of many movements in art, from art nouveau to the Surrealists, and for Klimt it was an essential part of his mission to revolutionize the cultural sphere. For Klimt, the female form was an allegorical vehicle representing the essential and dormant purity of human urges, often suppressed by the conservative cultures of his time. For many artists, Klimt included, reproduction of the nude female form was not enough, the aim was instead to inscribe upon bodies their manifestoes for rebellious change and progression.
The Maiden can be seen to share a lot of formal and stylistic characteristics with that of a painter greatly influenced by Klimt, Egon Schiele. A friend and student of the artist, Schiele was a man more at odds with the repressively conservative world of early-twentieth century Vienna and felt more acutely the misery of the First World War. Painted in 1913 a year before the onset of war in Europe, Klimt’s The Maiden is a distant meditation on the feminine. Schiele would take Klimt’s revolutionary use of sensual and sexualized bodies and, through a close relationship with the artist and his contemporaries as part of the Vienna Secession movement, as well as deep exploration of the psychology of fellow-Austrian Sigmund Freud, create jagged and elastic nudes that celebrated the fragility and loneliness of the body in a time of war.
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