Trapped in tulle?
The first time I rounded a corner in the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere in Vienna and caught sight of this painting it stopped me in my tracks. I lost track of time, standing there staring at this puzzle of a picture, trying to read the riddle of its subject. Several years later now gazing at The Portrait of Sonja Knips by Gustav Klimt in miniature postcard form I still can’t quite decide what I see.
Sonja Knips was the wife of a wealthy Viennese businessman and member of the haute bourgeosie. Not much else is known about her, and this portrait, painted in 1898, does not help much. As her knuckles strain against the arm of her chair is Sonja tense or alert? Is her pose elegant or stiff? Is her expression serene or sad? Watchful or wistful?
Klimt was a great painter (though I admit I prefer his more realistically painted earlier work like this rather than his more popular psychedelic work like The Kiss) but was he a good society portraitist? Commissioned to paint a beautiful portrait of a wealthy society matron for posterity what emerges instead is more of a psychological conundrum, a masterpiece of ambiguity.
Sonja’s face is painted in detail, yet she drowns or drifts in an impressionistic cloud of a dress. Is the froth of fabric tulle? Organdy? Chiffon? Perhaps Klimt realised that if he painted every bow and frill of the dress in the same detail as her face no one would notice Sonja at all. But why then did he put so much of the dress in the painting? The canvas is reasonably large (1.45m by 1.45m, to be exact) and the first time I saw it I remember thinking “that’s a lot of dress”. About half the area of the painting is occupied by the vast pink haze of tulle, organdy or chiffon, and the other half is mostly darkness, while Sonja’s tiny head perches high up in one corner.
Perhaps Klimt could not bring himself to flatter his subject (or lie in paint) or perhaps he saw no reason why he should even try. Look, he seems to say instead, behold the face of a woman drowning in a dress, trapped by tulle and class and wealth and her position, and clawing against the darkness that threatens to overwhelm her.
What do you see?