But a new Getty Center exhibition shows there is more to the father of Viennese modernism than ornate-style paintings.
The exhibition "Gustav Klimt: The Magic of Line," opening Tuesday and continuing through Sept. 23, showcases more than 100 drawings dating from the 1880s to early 20th century that trace Klimt's radical development from traditional painter to seminal modernist figure.
"These iconic images of 'The Kiss' and many of his famous portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer, and his famous paintings of 'I' and 'II,' which show pregnant women with specters of death around them -- all of these paintings are rooted, in fact, in his practice of drawing live models which he did every day," says Lee Hendrix, senior curator of drawings at the Getty Museum. "He had models coming to his studio posing for him, usually, in the nude.
"He made tiny adjustments to their facial expressions, to their hand gestures, to every little nuance until he finally reached a pure tincture of emotion and expressiveness that satisfied him so that the paintings, which look as if they've always been that way, were only achieved through thousands of life drawings."
Organized by the Albertina Museum in Vienna in collaboration with the Getty in celebration of the artist's 150th birthday, the exhibition is presented chronologically, beginning with his earliest studies as a twentysomething rising star.
From the beginning, Klimt's art was based on drawing the human figure as part of his routine.
His costumed three-dimensional models re-enacting historical or mythological moments eventually came to grace the ceilings of countless government buildings, including theaters where he was told to paint pictures the way theater had been staged in the past, as with the death of Romeo and Juliet.
As the exhibition proceeds, Klimt's drawings begin to reject traditional space and 3-D modeling for pure lines as a response to the wider European movement of Symbolism.
He investigates the psychological and emotional worlds of dreams, melancholy and sexual desire. Among the standouts is "Fishblood," 1898, which shows nude women floating diagonally through a sea of waves.
"It's a common motif of women floating in water and air that Klimt invented that show man not having power over their own state, but also showing the extreme erotic and sexual states of women," Hendrix says, adding that by this time Klimt had broken away from academically established painters to head up the Secession -- a group that sought to revolutionize the visual arts in Vienna.
One of his most famous works is the Beethoven Frieze -- a painted interpretation of the final choral movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
It was made up of mostly nude figures illustrating man's quest for happiness in the face of lasciviousness and demons and culminating in redemption through art. The original work is in Vienna but for this exhibition, the Getty has reproduced the Beethoven Frieze through a series of drawings.
In addition, the Getty Museum will team up with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for a July 10 Hollywood Bowl performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. It will be set to a video by Herman Kolgen, whose commissioned work inspired by Klimt's Beethoven Frieze will be paced live with the music.
And how's this for a surprise: Did you know the Beethoven Frieze shows the first depiction of "The Kiss" motif?
As Hendrix puts it, "People who think they know Klimt are going to come to this exhibition and find they really don't know him.
"Because he's so overexposed through posters and vases and postcards and T-shirts you don't really attribute the extreme depth and power to him that he deserves," she says. "When people come to this exhibition they're going to embark on a journey of discovery because the content is revealing and beautiful."
Gustav Klimt: The Magic of LineWhat: The first major museum exhibition to focus entirely on Klimt's drawings.
When: Opens Tuesday and continues through Sept. 23; 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles.
Admission: Free, but parking is $15 a car, reduced to $10 after 5 p.m. Saturdays.
Information: 310-440-7360 or www.getty.edu.
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