Klimt: MÄDA PRIMAVESI
We don’t see things as they are, goes an old chestnut that’s often attributed to Anaïs Nin. We see things as we are. Perhaps that’s why, while Austrian artist Gustav Klimt never painted a self-portrait, he did write in an undated statement, “Whoever wants to know something about me…ought to look carefully at my pictures and try to see in them what I am and what I want to do.”
Throughout his career, Klimt almost exclusively painted women and landscapes, but in 1912 he painted the portrait of 9-year-old Mäda Primavesi, the daughter of banker and glass manufacturer Otto and former actress Eugenia Primavesi. The portrait hangs 7-feet tall, and was the result in hours and days of study spent between artist and subject. By the subject's own estimate, he created 200 sketches of her before the final product: A portrait of an assertive and independent young girl, slightly secretive with her hands behind her back, but her gaze intense and her feet firmly planted on the ground.
What could we intuit from Klimt in this work, made when he was old enough to be her father? 20 years before painting Mäda, Klimt's father and brother died within a few months of one another, and the stepped in as the breadwinner for both families, living with his mother and sisters (who never married). Concurrently, he also had numerous affairs that resulted in at least 14 children. Perhaps in Mäda he paints himself as the father he both was and wasn’t. Perhaps he sees his own taste for rebellion in how Mäda rebels against the confines of her class and gender in the early 1900s (even standing against a violet backdrop, she is no shrinking violet). Perhaps, given Klimt’s need for privacy, we’ll never actually know concretely what he says about himself in this particular painting. Which brings me to…
Today’s Contemplation: When you look at this portrait, are you able to see any of who you are and what you do? How does your own personality come across in your work? Can you notice it in your texts and emails, or larger projects (artistic or otherwise)? What are you telling others about yourself? What of yourself do you see in the work of others?