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Erotica, circa 1916

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Add another provocative picture to Austrian painter Gustave Klimt’s body of work – well, provocative in his mind, at least. Recently rediscovered, “Lady with a Muff” now hangs in Prague’s National Gallery.

The painting shows a flirty female hiding part of her face with a fur muff, which isn’t all that different from his other works like “Woman with Hat and Feather Boa.”

Klimt liked to portray his erotic thoughts on canvas; although it brought him reproof from some critics who accused him of pornography. His response? “Enough of censorship. I want to break free.”

Apparently this meant erotica with an extra dimension - sumptuous ornamentation. Setting half-bare women in lavishly embellished settings was Klimt’s way of intensifying sensuality. By adding golden, jewel-like backgrounds, or black animal fur in the case of “Lady with a Muff,” it’s clear he hoped that erotica would leap off his canvas.

Yet his work ended up being more than that.

In “Salome” he entwined a semi-nude female in superabundant decoration with the head of a male at her feet, all of which adds up to a vision of glorification as much as hedonism.
In “Adele Bloch-Bauer” he describes a seated woman swathed in gold and a profusion of decoration as if she were an exalted religious icon.

Something else Klimt loved besides women. Despite all the brickbats he received from his countrymen, he loved his country. At a garden party, the artist asked a piano player if he could play Schubert. Rodin biographer Frederic Grunfeld tells how Rodin leaned over to Klimt at the party and said, “I have never experienced such an atmosphere - your tragic and magnificent Beethoven fresco, your unforgettable, temple-like exhibit, and now this garden... this music... What is the reason for it all?”

Klimt gave his answer in one word. “Austria.”

Never mind that Beethoven was German, not Austrian.

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