Gustav Klimt and Japanese Rinpa Tradition

Gustav Klimt and Japanese Rinpa Tradition

Gustav Klimt may never have set foot in Japan, but his enchantment with Japanese art and design was abundantly evident in his paintings.

In the late eighteenth century, Japonism swept through Europe, influencing the work of French artists like Van Gogh and Cezanne. For Klimt, whose early work was faithful to the principals of realism, these new stimuli gave rise to a change in style. In his later work we see flat visual planes, strong colours, patterned surfaces and linear outlines.


Gustav Klimt, Hope II, (1908)

He also began to incorporate Japanese textiles into his art. His long term friend, Emilie Flöge was a collector of Japanese textile designs and it is known that the pair created several dresses together.

Klimt particularly admired the Rinpa School, one of the major historical schools of Japanese painting.  The Rinpa School was founded in Kyoto in 1615 by artists Hon’ami Koetsu and Tawaraya Sotatsu who produced numerous works of ceramics, calligraphy and lacquerware, decorative fans, kimono textiles and folding screens. They also specialised in making decorative paper using calligraphy on gold and silver backgrounds.

During the decades that followed, the Rinpa school went through several revivals. In the late seventeenth century, brothers Ogata Korin and Otaga Kenzan began depicting nature by mixing numerous colours and hues on the surface to achieve unusual effects. They also made liberal use of gold, pearl and other precious substances. The style was characterised by flowers, birds, plants and flowers set against gold leaf, (below).

Perhaps Klimt’s most famaus painting from his ‘Golden Phase’ was the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, (below left), but he also used gold leaf in many of his other works including his Tree of Life, (below right), whose swirling pattern echoes Ogata Korin’s work.

Flowers and birds were also favourite motifs of Klimt’s. For example, in one of his last paintings, The Women Friends, (1917), the lovers are surrounded by the glorious phoenix, and symbols of doom: the raven and the red eyed swan.


Gustav Klimt, The Women Friends, (1917)

During his career, Gustav Klimt absorbed several influences and created a wholly unique style that changed and developed throughout his life. However, his association with Japanese art made a profound difference to his work and helped to shape the beautiful, ornate paintings that are celebrated to this day.


Emma Rose Millar was born in Birmingham – a child of the seventies. She is a single mum and lives with her young son who keeps her very busy and very happy. Emma left school at 16 and later studied for an Open University degree in Humanities with English Literature. She has had a variety of jobs including chocolatier, lab technician and editorial assistant for a magazine but now works part-time as an interpreter. Emma writes and historical fiction and children’s picture books. She won the Legend category of the Chaucer Awards with FIVE GUNS BLAZING in 2014. Her novella THE WOMEN FRIENDS: SELINA, based on the work of Gustav Klimt and co-written with author Miriam Drori will be published in December 2016 by Crooked Cat Books.

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