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Klimt's Girl Friends

a re-evaluation from Chris Wayan's journal 1998/7/4


I just saw a painting by Gustave Klimt: Girl Friends, 1916-17, a portrait of a lesbian couple.

One of them looks very strange--snake-eyed, with tiny pupils. Yet to me, she's still warm and likable. A really odd combination of feelings! From the breasts down, Snake Girl's body has clearly been squeezed out of a toothpaste tube, all long and wobbly. Why does Klimt do this? He knows anatomy; her girlfriend's body seems reasonable.

Gustave Klimt: Girl Friends. Oil painting of a nude woman leaning on a woman in a red robe. Background: red Chinese wallpaper with birds.
The girlfriend's more human. Maybe a little swan in there, but basically realistic. Now, you'd think the one with snake eyes would be the sentinel, guarding them both from a homophobic world (and worse: Hitler, coming soon). But from the way they eye us and one another, it's clear that Snake Girl, tender in private, is just too odd to function out in the human world. She relies on her lover to mediate. I'm amazed how much the portrait reveals of their characters and relationship... once I start looking beyond the decorative surface.

And the painting does form a highly decorative pattern, typically Klimt. The two, particularly that red robe, fit into that lurid wallpaper of fantastic birds. Why not? Aren't they just two more?

Yet psychologically it's deep portraiture. Makes me want to re-examine his other paintings. I've seen his portraits of women as fantasies--sort of a fine-art Frazetta, plus gold leaf to up the price. What if they're really psychological studies too?

Gustave Klimt: Girl Friends. Detail of oil painting: a woman with pale eyes and small pupils leans on a smiling woman looking at the viewer.
See, this all feels familiar. I paint dreams. When I paint who I am in various dreams--male, female, clothed, not, human or not--a certain fraction of (invariably male) viewers gawk at the female self-portraits and elbow me and call them hot and go on about how they'd like to hump my pinup fantasies... when they're me. And I find myself thinking "Even if I were into guys I wouldn't want YOU, you're CREEPY!"

Yes, a lot of my images are as pinuppy as Klimt's because I like sexy and colorful and decorative, but I never think of those images as sex OBJECTS. I don't like seeing anyone as objects. Let alone myself! Subjects. I'm all about subject. Trying to make you identify. With that woman. With that horse. With that snake. Whoever.

So now I wonder about Klimt and his friends... and what ELSE besides lesbian survival strategies might be hiding behind all that gold leaf.



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