The challenge of State Commissions for a Self-Supporting Artist

In 1894, the University of Vienna entered into a discussion with Austrian artist Gustav Klimt regarding three paintings for the Great Hall of the university.  Klimt and the university officials came to an agreement on all the relevant issues and the artist began to fulfill the commissioned requirements.  The theme of the commissioned paintings was “The Victory of Light Over Darkness” and Klimt was to focus on the university’s academic excellence in the fields of Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence (Law).

Klimt began to do serious research on his three academic themes and, by 1900, was busy transforming his ideas and sketches onto the canvas.  His progress was thematically exhibited at various Secessionist exhibitions in Vienna.  When his painting for Medicine was presented for exhibition, a scathing editorial criticism was published in the Medizinische Wochenschrift journal which complained the “painter had ignored doctors’ two main achievements, prevention and cure”.   Criticism of Philosophy and Jurisprudence was no better.  Klimt was also turned down for a professorship at the Academy of Fine Arts in 1901 by the government which refused to ratify the Academy’s action.  Klimt was offended by the criticism and the government’s overturning the Academy’s desire to bring the artist on the faculty.  Klimt’s reaction was swift:  “I’ve had enough of censorship…I reject all state support, I don’t want any of it.” (Gottfried Fleidl, Gustav Klimt 1862-1918)

What are your thoughts on governmental intrusion in the hiring practices of the Academy of Fine Arts and the university’s bureaucratic blindness to artistic interpretation with the Great Hall ceiling murals?

Klimt, Philosophy, 1899-1907

Klimt, Medicine, 1899-1907

Klimt, Jurisprudence, 1899-1907

Published by: roberttracyphd

Academic professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. I teach theory courses in Art and Architecture History. In addition, I also curate exhibitions on campus as well as in other venues nationally and internationally.

29 Comments

29 thoughts on “The challenge of State Commissions for a Self-Supporting Artist”

  1. It’s a shame that his pieces were rejected overall. His pieces are very detailed and really illustrate the inner workings of his mind. I understand that the university probably did this because they have a certain image that they want to keep. But what is the point of artistic interpretation if the artist cannot interpret their work personally? I know commissions come with parameters, but why would someone commission you if they didn’t like your style? Commissions can be tricky to handle, especially if the opinions are one-sided. I was commissioned to draw a life-sized Lego Spider-Man for my friend’s girlfriend so she can pass her Drawing 101 final at CSN (she was about to fail). I finished it, but it turned out that she only wanted a line drawing to shade in herself, not a finished drawing. I still got paid the full amount, but I learned that you have to check all progress with the other party to make sure we are both on the same page. (She ended up passing)
    I wonder if the university already knew what kind of artist Klimt was. If they didn’t like his style, then maybe they shouldn’t have asked him in the first place. I feel that he shouldn’t have been censored like that. His figural works are a mixture of Art Nouveau and classical themes. The university should’ve of known that the ideas in these works are typical of him. Its normal for him. Klimt still should’ve gotten the job as a professor. Sure, the university disliked those pieces in particular, but he obviously knows what he’s doing. He has more than enough skill and mental capabilities to teach and inform students. I’m glad he rejected their support. This type of rejection made him better as an artist, I bet. Situations like this help you better dissect what you want and what you don’t want. It usually mean that better opportunities are meant for you elsewhere.

    Like

  2. An artist’s work is an extension of their mind. A painting, drawing, what have you, is like a gateway. You get a glimpse of the artist’s perspective, while creating your own. I find it shameful that the university didn’t want to accept Klimpt’s paintings. They obviously liked his style if they commissioned him to create work for them. They should have known what to expect from him. The fact that he was refused a position as a professor is also really bad. I think he made the right choice by walking away from state commissions, as I’m sure that allowed him to work to his full extent and skill.

    Like

  3. I find it a shame that the government intruded on the decision of the Academy of Fine Arts. It is strange to me also that the government would have stepped in. What was honestly the point of them stepping in and blocking Klimt from this position? Was he a threat to a certain way of thinking? Besides the reactions to his three paintings, I feel that there is something deeper.

    In regards to the three commissioned paintings for “The Victory of Light Over Darkness”, Klimt was given the space to interpret the painting subjects in his way, if the University of Vienna wanted something more specific they should have told him “this is what we want and nothing else”. It is frustrating as an artist when people allow you the space to have creative interpretation yet when you create something that does not match the image in their minds-eye they are overly critical. As someone in the comments already said, art is an extension of the artist. The bureaucratic blindness of the University is crushing for an artist. It is shown that Klimt put a great deal of work into interpreting their theme of “The Victory of Light Over Darkness”. Censorship is still an issue within the art community now, so it is understandable that Klimt decided, after such a harsh criticism of his work, that he would stay away from anything that is government supported. Between the harsh criticism and the intervention regarding the position at the Academy of Fine Arts, it is clear that Klimt was seen as a threat of some sort by the government. You can see that now with street artists like Banksy.

    Like

  4. I don’t think the government has any say in the practices of the Academy of Fine Arts, their blatant favoritism for other fields shows in their reaction towards Klimt’s murals. If art isn’t a literal interpretation then the general public or in this case, government will miss the point completely. That’s why art is subjective to begin with, imagine how boring it would be if art was all just straight-to-the-point, no risks taken or boundaries broken. All the wondrous qualities we see in fine art today would be non-existent and very mundane. It’s when art challenges the viewer or meaning of a subject, does it truly show the complexity of the artist and their craft.

    Like

  5. I am a guy who is usually against censorship because of how it takes away half of a person’s point of expression. There are artists that love to express their work proudly and covering it up would be like making it invisible, or as if it was not drawn at all, or even altered. That is usually the problem when it comes to censorship of today, much like Gustav, it ruins the sense of talent and expressionism. I think everyone, including those who are blinded to artistic interpretation, should always have an open mind when viewing art and having constructive views instead of destructive views.

    Like

  6. It’s unfortunate because the pieces look amazing. To put censorship on an artist’s work really limits the vision and overall outcome of the artwork’s intention. Klimt had every right to react in such manner especially after time, research, and presenting the vision as an artist, only to be met with criticism and censorship. If there is a certain criteria or requirement the university wanted for the pieces, then it would really limit Klimt. As an artist, most of the time the vision that is being created has no limits and boundaries. This might be a strange example but let’s say one orders a sandwich from a restaurant known for their certain kind of sandwich, by the certain ingredients, secret sauce, and what not. If one orders the same sandwich but without the sauce, some of the veggies, changing the bread…it basically strips away what they’re known for. Limiting an artist, letting them know this isn’t what should be resulted to fit their criteria? It would be the artist’s work in the end but not as well at the same time.

    Like

  7. I do not understand the government’s intrusion. Leave it to the Academy of Fine Arts; leave it to the people who are qualified to say yes, or no, to the artist. The government isn’t a part of the art school, so that’s confusing!
    It’s a shame though that his paintings were rejected after such long, hard work. I don’t think they were specific enough if they were that disappointed in the results. The directions were so broad and they allowed him to be as creative as possible. I feel they commissioned this artist to do exactly his interpretation of the subjects and the theme. In the end, they were unhappy because that’s not what they pictured…well, of course it wasn’t what they pictured because it’s HIS interpretation. That’s what they commissioned him for in my opinion.

    Like

  8. In this case, I think that the commissioners should have been more specific and written up a contract if they expected certain content to be displayed in these pieces. This new era of modern art called for more expressive interpretations of subject matter and Klimt was simply portraying these three topics in his own perspective. This criticism is very significant though because it marks the reformation of the art market. It was a period of clashing opinions and ideologies fighting to become the superior ideal. Personally, I think the opinions of those who rejected these murals is irrelevant because when viewing the included elements in these paintings, one can find many references to each topic being depicted. It may be subtle, but that is what makes these pieces so sophisticated.

    Like

  9. I find it strange that the government would become involved in something that holds no relevance to their offices, but its a sad known truth that people fear the unknown, its unfortunate that these people had power and pull in terms of his career. Artists tend to leave things open to interpretation and Klimt’s work was very complex, which may have left their government wondering what they were looking at. I think that as long as the work being produced wasn’t meant to incite violence or depicted something obscene that the government shouldn’t have involved themselves in it.

    Like

  10. At times, those in charge certainly would have the duty to keep the herd in line, and in this case, the herders took the opportunity to make a statement, make an example of, and crack the whip on what they deem to be acceptable. It can be seen to be unjust, to deny the public of such masterful art, but in another sense, for Klimt to be on the radar, much less attract the attention of governmental institution, without a doubt, reveals the power and impact of art. Sometimes what remains to be seen bears equal weight to that which is shown.
    In a different light, if the art is meant to engage in the public sphere, confront judgement through varied eyes, then it is, and will be exposed to all criticism. This is when the expression exchanges hands and no longer is the “problem” of the creator, but rather the audience. All too often is the lingering thoughts, pressure and stress that the artist harbors when it comes to the validity of their work, the approval of their ideas and the means in which they choose to express themselves, a hindering anchor that weighs down on the plight to progress.

    Like

  11. I find it odd that the government would even intrude to begin with. They commissioned Klimt to make this piece of art and it is his interpretation of what they wanted. It’s a shame that he was rejected for all of the hard work he put in and that he was censored. He put in a lot of detail into his paintings and it is an extension of how Klimt’s mind works. I feel as if they let him be creative as possible and in the end they didn’t like what Klimt made because of all the criticism he got for his piece. They should have known what to expect form Klimt. In the end i’m glad Klimt decided to stop doing state commissions.

    Like

  12. Art can be a tricky thing to decided whether it works or doesn’t for certain group. But unless it is a danger to people, the government should have no say on how we create art. Art is a form of expression; it can even be used as protest. A university has ever right to not use a person art, but there has to be a concrete reason for it. Just because they can’t see his work for what it is doesn’t mean they should hide it from others. Obviously through time his work became more known, but at the time it must have been harder to show. I also think that a majority of them took his art the wrong way. I think he was trying to express the thoughts of the human condition and just didn’t come across for some people.

    Like

  13. Separation of arts and state should be practiced just as separation of church and state, in every government. It is one thing for the government to hire an artist, but it is a whole other thing entirely for them to interfere with the hiring of an artist by another institution based on their opinions of that artist’s work. While the members of the government have the right to criticize Klimt based on his failure to represent the theme accurately, this shows a lack of vision, inclusiveness, and taste on their part. The sad thing about that is that these are traits which many wish to see in their governing bodies and institutions, especially today, and possessing these traits brings about trust and other positive sentiments towards such a group. Any government that does not respect artistic freedom cannot be successful to me because limiting freedoms is the most obvious mark of an oppressive and backwards government. Seeing are artists are thinkers and the crafters of the cultural fabric that weaves society together, it is a very poor choice to punish an artist based on their own unique perspective and vision.

    Like

  14. I feel like the government should have known what to expect out of Klimt. After all, out of all the artists of that time, he was the one that was specifically chosen for the job. Also, they should have checked in on Klimt progress more often to make sure they were both on the same page, especially for such a huge job. I feel like there were many factors that led to such a big misunderstanding, which could have been prevented if the government was more specific about their expectations of Klimt. Overall, it’s a shame that Klimt’s work didn’t get to fulfill its intended purpose.

    Like

  15. Not to make light of the situation, but I find it is hilarious that none of the non-arts disciplines found Klimt’s work any good, or more specifically communicating what THEY believed was their profession. It is a similar situation with one of the previous blog posts speaking on the fact that the identity that one creates (the artist) is how they want to be seen onto the world. Klimt’s interpretation is what he understood these fields to represent for him and his understandings within his research. However the way in which each college interprets their own field is entirely personal and ingrained to their own experiences and learnings during their studies. I understand the situation subtly as I study under three different colleges (fine art, art history, and sociology) and the ways in which I see and apply my findings in the separate disciplines works in combination with one another, where as another would see them separate. Especially since Klimt worked these commissions together he may have interpreted his research to be one all encompassing field rather than three separate studies. This situation speaks on the egos, self-developed identities, and pride that each college develops for themselves . To be seen and communicated in the way Klimt has, simply gives and alternative view but in their eyes is giving the WRONG view. Moral of the story is: both understands are nether correct nor incorrect, they are simply the ways in which that individual, group, college interprets.

    Like

  16. In regard to Klimt’s paintings for the University, I think that each one represented each subject rightfully so. However, his interpretation was not what was expected from those that commissioned him. His interpretations were not as straightforward as they wanted it to be. That being said, it is important for both the commissioner and the artist to talk about what is expected and what is wanted. I think the commissioners were at fault here because they simply gave Klimt the task of creating these paintings and assumed that the results of his paintings would be the one they wanted or were expecting. However, I think the rejection and backlash of his pieces allowed for Klimt to grow as an artist.

    Like

  17. In my opinion it is kind of redundant to make such strict rules amongst a Fine Arts school when its assumed that works of art will be produced that may or may not cause controversy. I suppose in this day and time the people nearly had much of a say so in confronting the government. Klimt did right by standing by his work and what he believed to be true. I’m sure faculty in this society have conflicting views within art but I guess that goes back to wanting the community to have “like ideas and thoughts”. You never know what a professor may learn from a student and vice versa when it come to having certain views on worldly systems and occupations. Im sure with commissioning someone to produce work there should be a detailed contract or description to what is being asked.

    Like

  18. Censorship in any form is a destructive practice as an artist. It is part of the territory however when receiving commissioned work from any higher institute. The government feels obligated to protect the public from what it may deem inappropriate or immoral. However, I believe that the government supporting artists and the arts, in general, is vital to the survival of the freedom many artists are privy to. Klimt is a perfect example of why government support is so important. His most famous, or infamous, works were destroyed due to a corrupt and oppressive government agency who wanted complete control over the world. The destroying of works of art by the Nazis should instill great anger and strengthen our resolve to support artists, no matter how “offensive” their works may be deemed.

    Like

  19. In the case of Klimpt and the University of Vienna, it seemed to be a lose-lose situation because of the rejection both sides ended up with. First of all, and I noticed the majority of people also having this idea, the university should have known that Klimpt was the type of figurative artist who focused on symbolism rather than realism. For both the academy and the government to reject his art, then to reject him for a professor position, probably hurt Klimpt in the moment, but ultimately made him stronger and more independent as an artist. His reaction to reject any future support from the state was probably smart, because why make art for people who do not respect you? Not only did the state embarrass itself by rejecting one of the greatest modern artists, it made itself an example for how not to treat artists in society.

    Like

  20. Unfortunately, governmental intrusion and bureaucratic blindness were all too common in Klimt’s time. Up until the early 20th century the art world was the realm of the wealthy, and the wealthy all too often held the power. Artists lived off commissions from wealthy patrons and politicians, in turn the wealthy and the politicians had final say as to what was considered “art”. Many art movements of the early 20th century pushed back against this norm, and by doing so tested the boundaries of what could be done and what could be considered “art”. So while I believe that the government should have no say in the art world, without their intrusion and the subsequent pushback, the art world wouldn’t be what it is today.

    Like

  21. I don’t blame Klimt’s reaction to the censorship, criticism, and denial of joining the faculty. He was commissioned to do three paintings, for the University of Vienna, representing their academic excellence. They knew what his works were like, yet they did not approve of his commissions. The only exception is if they had laid out specifically what they wanted in the commissions, then I would understand their dissatisfaction.

    I understand criticism towards the paintings but influencing the University to not hire Klimt for what they deemed inappropriate is unacceptable. Where does censorship and control stop? I’d like to think that there’s less censorship today than there was in Klimt’s time but unfortunately it still exists in many forms. As artists, we shouldn’t let our artistic expression be inhibited by the government or held back by the criticisms of society.

    Like

  22. I think that government intrusion should be prohibited if they don’t have any background with art at all. It truly is a shame that Klimt’s work got rejected. I think that he has the right to react the way that he did. If someone were to reject my work and completely miss the whole meaning of the piece and also nitpick every single detail; i’d be pissed. So I think that Klimt was fine with how he reacted. The government shouldn’t have the right to intrude or have any say on art specific things.

    Like

  23. I believe the government should not have a say in what happens in an academy for fine arts. Klimt was commissioned meaning that he was hired as an artist because of the University’s interest in his style and ideas. The way Klimt interprets a theme makes him who he is and he was hired to develop those ideas for the mural. For the government to criticize his works and reject his position meant denying his freedom and denying an Academy’s choice of accepting his because of his diverseness. It doesn’t seem right to me and even I cannot handle choices in censorship because it means that someone else opinion is overriding another’s.

    Like

  24. Klimt had every reason to be upset. The government lacked appreciation of fine arts. It is counter productive to hire someone to do a painting, and reject their ideas because it wasn’t something that they saw fit. If they were so concerned about how it “should look”, they should of done it themselves, and that’s the problem. They lack the ability to create. If you lack in an area, you typically hire someone who CAN do the job. Klimt did exactly what he was hired for. They had no right to tell him, it wasn’t good enough.

    Like

  25. I think it is absolute garbage that Klimt was treated this way. The bureaucratic jerks basically said they rejected the work because they did not understand the work. To be fair, had this been a commission for a private collection, then it would not be so outrageous. But this was for an institution, these paintings were meant to inspire young, learning minds. The university is supposed to incubate thought. I would go so far as to say the more confusing the piece is the more thought it might provoke and therefore superior to any specific scene.

    Like

  26. If the government did not have any background of art or any deep interest with art, government should not care about art at all. If i were Klimt, i would’ve upset too because people do not know anything about art are judge me with art and reject me in art. Art is something that is really close with politics, but sometimes it is not. However, still it is really a shame that Klimt’s pieces were rejected. If the pieces do not have any violence, and the artist’s fame is really high, government would not understand the art at all. Deep art is something that artists understand better than non-artists.

    Like

  27. I feel that Klimt was creating art for analytical minds. Sometimes it’s hard to get them to see a master piece unless you let them tell you what they want and you do it. Analytical minds often at times think they know it all, but lack the creative ability to execute their ideas. This lead to using the artist as some kind of lower human being or controlling the artist. Someone to use and toss when they’re done. To me this is who he was dealing with when it came to the government and academia. I feel there will always be the struggles Klimt had when commissioned by people who just want you to do it their way, as if you where just a tool they can boss around to get what they want from you. If we allow this to happen we may get paid, but the world would look like one giant doctors office. Boring and dull. I don’t think it is right for people such as the government or academia to get involved with how an artist expresses oneself. They would look at the work of the artist and hire him/her based on their style and know whatever they receive will be to the best of the artist knowledge, research and understand of the problem the commissioner needs solved.

    Like

  28. I find it hard to believe that the University criticized Klimt with so much ignorance. One would think that if you are giving an artist a commission to express their interpretation of a given theme that you shouldn’t be too quick to judge the piece that is created without having some consultation with the creator to get their complete explanation of what has been created. I see Klimt as an innovator because he transformed the traditional standard of what most academic institutions had painted on their walls at the time. The lack of appreciation for what Klimt painted is sad. To have a government institution become offended by something in a field that they have no expertise and form a barrier on Klimt’s career is unprofessional. Klimt had every right to become as upset as he did.

    Like

  29. I think that it’s a shame they rejected Klimt’s murals. They didn’t understand his work of art. It feels like there is a pattern, not just with Klimt, it also happened with Van Gogh and other artist. It always happen. There is a great unconventional artist, his work is totally different from the art at the time. People misjudge the work of art, because they can give an interpretation. Time passes and the artist passes away. People finally appreciate the artist and their work. The work of art that once got rejected now is acclaimed.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s