Gustav Klimt (1862-1918)

Created in 1907, during the artist’s ‘golden period’, this painting, ‘Danae’ by Gustav Klimt is a late example of Symbolism, a Europe-wide movement that spanned the written and visual arts, and which in the visual arts is characterised by narrative and literary works that are often mythological in theme.

The depiction of Danaë, a story taken from Greek mythology, was a favorite of the Symbolists. The theme was appealing as Danaë was viewed as an archetypal symbolic representation of divine love and redemption.

Danaë’s father, on hearing that a son born of his daughter would in the end be led to kill him, attempted to foil the prophesy by locking Danaë away in a brass chamber; however, she eventually fell pregnant (with Perseus) after the god Zeus appeared to her in the form of a shower of gold.

The painting revels in the moment of conception; the transformed God, appearing as a flowing river of gold spangles, is clutched at and held close to woman’s body.

The cascading golden form seems to concentrate and fracture in a flux of passion. Such a frank portrayal of ecstasy on the face of Danaë, the parted lips and closed eyes, was thought bold and provocative for the time and it must have shocked the painting’s early viewers, although such candid depictions of female sexuality were frequent in many Symbolist works.

The woman is depicted in a state of rich abandon with expansive, nacreous flesh and her auburn hair falling in luxurious tresses across her face. She lies, curled in climactic satisfaction, a stocking raveled about her ankle, in an undefined space, partially wrapped in a flowing, diaphanous veil of gold and purple the traditional colours of luxury.

These signs inform the viewer of her regal identity. The composition with the contorted position of Danaë was unusual dominated as it is by her thigh which takes on huge proportion and fully stresses the overt sexuality of the piece, an emphasis that is only partly mitigated by the distracting effects of the opulent decoration and the abstraction of the surrounding patterns.

The position of the woman’s body seems partly to effect an embryonic state, and the flat boundaries of the abstract painted forms further support this, appearing to encase and protect the woman as though she has been removed from all worldly concern and has been set adrift in the protecting sphere of her own sexual transport.

There is a disturbing element of voyeurism for the viewer; here we are party to the most private sensations; we look upon someone who is completely exposed and who is only aware of the pleasure and ecstasy that has transfixed her attention.