Inventory Number: KLG572
Size: 18h x 18.50w in
Year Made: 1908-1914
Of the fifty prints that comprised Das Werk Gustav Klimts, only ten were reproduced in color and Danae was among these. The flushed color of the cheeks and the red lips of Danae are the very elements of the image crucial to understanding it as an experience of ecstasy rather than meditation on mythology. In re-centering the myth on Danae’s experience, rather than focusing on the actions of others, Klimt used the story as a means to obliterate the standard lessons associated with it and returned to his favorite subject: woman.
At the opening of the Kunstchau in May 1908, Gustav Klimt made rare public remarks that summarized his absence from exhibitions and spoke to a broader dissatisfaction with the shape of the art world in Vienna. “For the last four years,” he noted, “we have not had the opportunity to show our work in exhibition. Not that we consider an exhibition to be the ideal method of establishing contact between the artist and the public: we would be much happier with large scale commissions.”[i] Yet, for Klimt anyway, large-scale public commissions had been problematic since the labeling of his work for the University of Vienna as “pornography” and “perverted excess.”[ii] In hindsight, he almost begrudgingly participated in exhibitions to keep his work in the public eye, but also released a remarkable set of collotypes—Das Werks Gustav Klimts—which came out from 1908-14 and fulfilled his goal of “establishing contact between the artist and the public” in a manner outside of galleries and exhibition spaces.[iii]
Danae was among the sixteen paintings featured in that exhibition which marked Klimt’s return to public exhibition. Although often classified as a mythological painting, there is little beyond the title that supports such easy classification for Danae is a panegyric on eroticism wrapped lightly in the veil of mythology. This is an image of flesh, of pleasure, of intimate eroticism. Like all myths, that story is but a vehicle; it is a container for the larger idea Klimt is concerned with here, one that links the experience of human sexuality with something transcendent. It is an experience that requires a body to be centered in, but at the same time is a dissolution of mind, thought, and ego into a purely experiential state.
The historical lesson of Danae—like that of many Greek myths—is the story of struggle, of the inability of man to bend the universe to his will and change the outcome. When her father, King Acrisius of Argos, learned from the oracle that his daughter’s son would kill him, he locked the childless Danae in a tower of bronze hoping to avoid his fate. Yet Zeus is taken by her and through a golden rain that miraculously appeared through the roof and into her womb he created her son, Perseus. Undeterred, Acrisius continued his attempts to resist the inevitable and locked the pair in a chest and cast them into the waters. But fate resolves itself despite man’s wishes; Poseidon allowed the pair to survive and Perseus reached manhood. When Perseus learned of his destiny he also attempted to outmaneuver it by avoiding Argos altogether, but in spite of this effort he still killed his father by accidentally striking him with a javelin (sometimes discus) during games in the city of Larissa. Even the son of Gods cannot escape the deeds the oracle foretold.
The myth was well known to European artists since the Renaissance, and audiences would have understood the parallels between Zeus’s miraculous insemination of Danae and the conception of Jesus by the Virgin Mary. Visually, both stories have the same elements, with the golden rain of Zeus being converted to the glowing light of God’s word in the Christian tradition, each able to transcend their inherent materiality and pass through walls of flesh and stone to create life. But whereas previous depictions presented the action—the descent of the golden rain into the somewhat passive container of Danae—as the focal point, Klimt re-centered the myth and gave primacy to Danae and her direct experience at the exclusion of the visual cues and setting that locate the story.
Widely distributed in various prints, and painted by Rembrandt, Correggio, Boucher, and others, the image of Jupiter and Danae was a ubiquitous presence in the Fine Arts, but Klimt may have drawn his inspiration closer to home. The Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna owned one of Titian’s Danae (ca. 1554) and the structure of that painting is emblematic of the manner in which the myth was recounted. Although Titian located the scene outdoors—whereas Rembrandt and Correggio depicted interiors—the bed, the cascading coins or rain, and the passivity of Danae remain constant throughout earlier depictions. The language of the scene speaks to an interior, a genre scene in which a story is enacted for the viewer to contemplate.
In Klimt’s Danae, the focus is on sexual ecstasy at the exclusion of any other details. There is no room, no setting, no context provided for the work except in the title. The perspective taken is more akin to portraiture than genre painting. No illusion of modesty blunts the impact of the scene and Danae’s legs wrap around the golden rain and embrace it as it enters her. While the small droplets of gold cascade below, the squiggly lines—Klimt’s symbol of Zeus’s sperm—enter her completely. The consummation is reflected in her garment, not only in the purple of royalty, but in the golden shapes that reference the womb with cells inside.[iv] Depicted with her lips parted, her cheeks flushed, her fingers clasping, and nipple erect, this is not an image of woman surprised by the encounter as had been painted previously, but here we find a woman completely enjoying—even abandoning—herself to the visceral pleasure of intercourse.
Significantly, of the fifty prints that comprised Das Werk Gustav Klimts only ten were reproduced in color and Danae was among these. One might have expected that Fragments of the Beethoven Frieze, The Three Stages of Life, or even the sumptuous golden Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer were better candidates for color prints, and yet Klimt chose Danae. In doing so, he allowed the viewer to witness the flushed color of the cheeks and the red lips, the very elements of the image crucial to understanding it as an experience of ecstasy rather than meditation on mythology. In re-centering the myth on Danae’s experience, rather than focusing on the actions of others, Klimt used the story as a means to obliterate the standard lessons associated with it and returned to his favorite subject: woman.[v] In Danae, Klimt depicted a woman neither locked in the past of history nor located in the present by artistic convention. Danae is every woman; she is a being that is transhistorical, radiant, and divine.
[i] Quoted in Christian M. Nebehay, Gustav Klimt: From Drawing to Painting (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1994), 169.
[ii] See: Gilles Neret, Gustav Klimt, 1862-1918 (Los Angeles: Taschen, 1993), 26.
[iii] Claire Cass, Rediscovering Portfolio Prints by Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, Jason Jacques Gallery, March 31st-May 31st, 2006 (New York: Jason Jacques Gallery, 2006) provides an in-depth study of the history and production of this series.
[iv] Emily Braun, “Ornament as Evolution: Gustav Klimt and Berta Zuckerandl,” in Gustav Klimt: The Ronald S. Lauder and Serge Sabarsky Collections, ed. Renée Price (New York: Neue Gallerie, 2007), 144-69.
[v] Gottfried Fliedl, Gustav Klimt 1862-1918: The World in Female Form (New York: Taschen, 1998), 168 quotes Klimt: “There is no self-portrait of me. I’m not interested in my own person as the object of a picture. I prefer other people, especially women, and, even more, other forms of existence … I’m sure I’m not particularly interesting as a person.”