How a Mosaic from Caligula’s Party Boat Became a Coffee Table in a New York City Apartment 50 Years Ago

Imagine owning Caligula’s coffee table — or, better yet, a coffee table made from the mosaic flooring that once covered the infamously cruel Roman Emperor’s party boats. Art dealer and Manhattanite Helen Fioratti owned such a table for 45 years, but she had no idea what it was until she happened to go to a 2013 book signing by author and Italian stone expert Dario Del Bufalo. There, a friend noticed her table in Del Bufalo’s coffee table book, Porphyry, “about the reddish-purple rock much used by Roman emperors,” notes Gloria Oladipo at The Guardian. Fioratti’s husband bought the piece from an aristocratic Italian family in the 1960s, then affixed it to a base and made into a table. “It was an innocent purchase,” Fioretti told The New York Times in 2017 after Italy’s Nemi museum seized the artifact and returned it to its home country. Del Bufalo agreed, and it pained him to have to take it, but the artifact, he says in an interview above with Anderson Cooper, is priceless.

Caligula had two luxurious wooden ships with elaborate tile floors built to float on Lake Nemi, just a few miles outside of Rome. “Stretching 230 feet and 240 feet long and mostly flat,” Brit McCandless Farmer writes for Sixty Minutes, it was said they were once “topped with silk sails and featured orchards, vineyards, and even bathrooms with running water.” They even boasted lead pipes “inscribed Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, Caligula’s official name, according to a 1906 issue of Scientific American.” He was “once the most powerful man in the world,” says Anderson Cooper above, but Caligula became renowned for his brutality, self-indulgence, and possible insanity. The third Roman emperor was assassinated four years into his reign by a conspiracy of Praetorians and senators. So hated was he at the time that Romans attempted to “chisel him out of history.” The sinking of his party boats was one of many acts of vandalism committed against his wasteful, violent legacy.

Interest in the pleasure ships was only piqued again when divers found the wreckage in 1895. “The deck must have ben a marvelous sight to behold,” wrote Italian archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani in 1898; “it goes beyond the power of imagination for its strength and elegance.” Lanciani described in detail “the pavement trodden by imperial feet, made of disks of porphyry and serpentine… framed in segments and lines of enamel, white and gold, white and red, or white, red, and green.” But it would be another few decades before the ships, submerged for almost 2,000 years, would see dry land again when Benito Mussolini, who was obsessed with Caligula, ordered Lake Nemi partially drained in the 30s and the boats resurrected and housed in a nearby museum built for that purpose. Then, in 1944, retreating Nazis allegedly set fire to the museum, after using it as a bomb shelter, destroying Caligula’s pleasure cruisers. No one knows how Fioretti’s mosaic made it out of Italy during this time.

It seems that the Emperor’s star has been on the rise once more the past few years, since the discovery of the mosaic and of Caligula’s imperial pleasure garden, Horti Lamiani, “the Mar-a-Lago of its day,” Franz Lidz writes at The New York Times. Unearthed in an excavation between 2006 and 2015, the now-subterranean ruins found beneath a “condemned 19th century apartment complex, yielded gems, coins, ceramics, jewelry, pottery, cameo glass, a theater mask, seeds of plants such as citron, apricot and acacia that had been imported from Asia, and bones of peacocks, deer, lions, bears, and ostriches.” The ruins opened to tourists this past spring. As for Mrs. Fioratti, “I felt very sorry for her,” said Del Bufalo, “but I couldn’t do anything different, knowing that my museum in Nemi is missing the best part.” He hopes to make a replica to return to her Park Avenue living room for beverage service. “I think my soul would feel a little better,” he says.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Makes Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ a Timeless, Great Painting?

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio had many followers. He was, after all, the most revered painter in Rome before he was exiled for murder. After his own death, his work fell into a period of obscurity and might have disappeared were it not for his many imitators. Called Caravaggisti or tenebrosi (“shadowists”), those who adopted Caravaggio’s high-contrast hyperrealism, including Dutch masters like Rembrandt, produced the finest work of the Baroque period. Some of Caravaggio’s disciples were so good they produced copies of his work that could fool experts. And sometimes experts could be fooled into thinking a Caravaggio was actually the work of a copyist.

Such was the case with Caravaggio’s striking canvas, The Taking of Christ, a depiction of the New Testament story of Jesus’ arrest and betrayal by his first disciple, Peter. Commissioned by Roman nobleman Ciriaco Mattei in 1602, the painting disappeared and was thought to have been lost until 1993, when it was found hanging in a Jesuit house in Ireland. The Jesuits had thought it to be the work of Dutch artist Gerard van Honthorst, a painter who acquired the Italian  nickname Gherardo delli Notti (“Gerard of the nights”) after a visit to Rome inspired him to take up Caravaggio’s dramatically lit style.

“Caravaggio’s approach to religious art was shocking and controversial in his time,” notes the video. “His work was censored, dismissed and criticized, but it would lead to an entirely new kind of Christian art.” The violent dynamism of his paintings “was matched only by his tempestuous lifestyle.” Dead at age 38, the painter left behind only around 90 paintings and drawings, and these intimately reveal the marks of the artist. “Caravaggio’s technique was as spontaneous as his temper,” notes the National Gallery. “He painted straight onto the canvas with minimal preparation.”

Such is the case in The Taking of Christ. The National Gallery of Ireland, which houses the revolutionary work, point out that “numerous pentimenti (changes of mind)” on the canvas, “now visible due to changes over time in the paint layer, are a reminder of the artist’s unconventional way of posing models in tableaux and altering details as he worked.” He also seems to have literally painted himself into the scrum: “Only the moon lights the scene. Although the man at the far right is holding a lantern, it is, in reality, an ineffective source of illumination. In that man’s features Caravaggio portrayed himself, aged 31.”

Caravaggio’s face and distinctively rapid technique show up frequently in his work, but so little was known about him for so long that scholars seemed to have a difficult time telling an original from a copy. The Taking of Christ has 12 such known copies, some believed to be by Caravaggio himself. One hung in the Odessa Museum of Western and Eastern Art in Ukraine. It was later claimed that the painting was a faithful rendition by an obscure Italian painter, made at the request of Asdrubale Mattei, brother of the original painter’s owner. Caravaggio’s many imitators paid him the highest of compliments, and made certain his influence survived his untimely death.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Makes the Mona Lisa a Great Painting: A Deep Dive

This past summer we featured a short video introduction to the Mona Lisa here on Open Culture. You’d think that if any painting didn’t need an introduction, that would be the one. But the video’s creator James Payne showed many of us just how much we still have to learn about Leonardo’s most famous work of art — and indeed, perhaps the most famous work by any artist. On his Youtube channel Great Art Explained, Payne offers clear and powerful analyses of paintings from van Gogh’s The Starry Night and Hopper’s Nighthawks to Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych and Picasso’s Guernica. But there are some images to which a fifteen-minute video essay can’t hope to do justice.

In those cases, Payne has been known to follow up with a deluxe expanded edition. Taking on Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, he followed up three individual fifteen-minute videos — for a triptych, a neat union of form and substance — with a full-length treatment of the whole work.

Payne’s full-length version of his Mona Lisa video more than doubles the length of the original. “This is the more comprehensive version I always wanted to do,” he notes, adding that it “uses some of the information from the first film (but in higher resolution with better sound and with clearer graphics), as well as answering the hundreds of questions: Why doesn’t she have eyebrows? Is it a self-portrait? Is she only famous because she was stolen? How do we know what he was thinking?”

This time around, Payne has more to say about how Leonardo created such a compelling portrait on a technical level, but also why he came to paint it in the first place. On top of that, the expanded format gives him time to examine the much more conventional portraits Leonardo’s contemporaries were painting at the time, as well as what’s known as the Prado Mona Lisa. A depiction of the same sitter that may even have been painted simultaneously by one of Leonardo’s students, it makes for an illuminating object of comparison. Payne also gets into the 1911 theft and recovery that ultimately did a great deal for the painting’s reputation, as well as its 1963 exhibition in America that, thanks to television, turned it into a mass-media icon. By now we’ve all had more glimpses of the Mona Lisa more times than we can remember, but it takes enthusiasm like Payne’s to remind us of all the ways we can truly see it.

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Original Portrait of the Mona Lisa Found Beneath the Paint Layers of da Vinci’s Masterpiece

Great Art Explained: Watch 15 Minute Introductions to Great Works by Warhol, Rothko, Kahlo, Picasso & More

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Michelangelo Entered a Competition to Put a Missing Arm Back on Laocoön and His Sons — and Lost

Not many ancient statues are as well-known as Laocoön and His Sons. Masterfully sculpted some time between the first century BC and the first century AD, it depicts the eponymous Trojan priest in an agonizing struggle with the serpents that will kill one or both of his sons. The details of the tale vary depending on the teller: Virgil describes Laocoön as a priest of Poseidon who dared to attempt exposing the famous Trojan Horse ruse, and Sophocles describes him as a priest of Apollo who violated his vow of celibacy. Whichever version of the story he heard, the sculptor clearly drew from it powerful enough inspiration to impress Pliny the Elder, in whose Natural History the piece figures.

Even among the more artistically sophisticated beholders of the Renaissance, Laocoön and His Sons proved a captivating piece of work. Unearthed from a Roman vineyard in 1506, it looked to have weathered the intervening millennium and half with much less wear and tear than most large artifacts from antiquity — though Laocoön himself was, conspicuously, missing an arm. Commissioned by Pope Julius II, Vatican architect Donato Bramante “held a contest to see who could come up with the best version of the arm restoration,” writes Kaushik Patowary at Amusing Planet. “Michelangelo suggested that Laocoön’s missing arm should be bent back as if the Trojan priest was trying to rip the serpent off his back.”

Michelangelo wasn’t the only Renaissance man in competition: “Raphael, who was a distant relative of Bramante, favored an extended arm. In the end, Jacopo Sansovino was declared the winner, whose version with an outstretched arm aligned with Raphael’s own vision of how the statue should look.” Laocoön was thus eventually restored with his arm outstreched, and kept that way until, “in a strange twist of fate, an antique backward-bent arm was discovered in a Roman workshop in 1906, a few hundred meters from where the statue group had been found four hundred years earlier.” Positioned just as Michelangelo had suggested, this disembodied marble limb turned out unmistakably to have come from Laocoön and His Sons — but about three and a half centuries too late, alas, for Michelangelo to lord it over Raphael.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Why Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Painting is Not the Mona Lisa

Despite creating two of the most famous paintings in the history of Western art, The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci did not particularly think of himself as a painter. Sigmund Freud may have devoted several hundred words to showing that the Renaissance man par excellence rarely finished an artwork because of infantile psychosexual conflicts, but it seems more fitting to look at Leonardo’s approach to painting as of a piece with his approach to everything: He was simply far more interested in process than product. Even when the product was a masterpiece-in-the-making, and Leonardo’s patrons awaited, the artist’s restless mind was ready to move on before he finished a commission.

Such was the case with the Mona Lisa, which Leonardo never delivered to his client and instead brought with him to France. This painting, in all its unfinished mystery, may be Leonardo’s best-known work, but it is not — as Evan Puschak, a.k.a. The Nerdwriter, argues above — his best.

That honor should be reserved for a painting Leonardo began in the same year as the Mona Lisa, 1503: The Virgin and Child with St. Anne, which he worked on for seven years, never delivered to his client (most likely the King of France), and left unfinished at the time of his death in 1519.

The painting depicts a grouping of three figures: the infant Christ, wrestling a lamb, his mother, attempting to pull him away, and her mother, the apocryphal St. Anne, forming the stable base and apex of the triad. Behind her head towers a dense mountain range, a symbol of deep ecological time, says Puschak, just as the lamb in the foreground symbolizes the Passion to come. This transition from a pre-historic past (one far more ancient than the Biblical stories) to a redeemed future does not terminate with the lamb, says Puschak, but with us, the viewer.

The pyramidal composition recalls Leonardo’s The Virgin of the Rocks from 1483. Such groupings were common in early Renaissance paintings, but The Virgin and Child with St. Anne represented a masterful refinement of the composition and of Leonardo’s famed sfumato technique. As Artdaily notes:

In Florence, where it was conceived, the Saint Anne quickly drew considerable attention and can be seen as a watershed moment in the evolution of artistic language, inspiring many disciples and colleagues who sought to emulate Leonardo’s style and technique in this work. Florentines were fascinated by the various cartoons executed by Leonardo and by the painted work, even in its rough outlines.

One preparatory work, the so-called “Burlington House Cartoon” (below), shows “the full expression of Leonardo’s first vision of the Saint Anne theme upon being awarded the commission.”

Image via the National Gallery

The work also shows the continued development of a theme that absorbed the artist throughout his life, expressed in earlier works such as The Virgin and Child with Cat and The Virgin of the Rocks. “These Virgin and Child compositions testify to Leonardo’s question to render in the most compelling manner the tenderness of the relationship between Jesus and the Virgin Mary,” and thus, between mother and son. Most of Freud’s observations in his Leonardo essay are nonsense, based on a mistranslation into German of the word “vulture” for a word that actually means “kite” (an error he later found particularly embarrassing). But his discussion of Leonardo’s childhood and his best, unfinished painting may strike us with particular poignancy.

[T]he smile which is playing on the lips of both women, although unmistakably the same as in the picture of Mona Lisa, has lost its sinister and mysterious character; it expresses a calm blissfulness…. Leonardo’s childhood was precisely as remarkable as this picture. He has had two mothers, the first his true mother, Caterina, from whom he was torn away between the age of three and five years, and a young tender step-mother, Donna Albiera, his father’s wife. By connecting this fact of his childhood… and condensing them into a uniform fusion, the composition of Saint Anne, Mary and the Child, formed itself in him.

Perhaps Freud was right, and The Virgin and Child with St. Anne was truly Leonardo’s most personal work, the apotheosis of a quest to integrate his personality through art. Whatever the case, we can say, along the psychoanalyst, that “on becoming somewhat engrossed in this picture it suddenly dawns upon the spectator that only Leonardo could have painted this picture.”

On a side note, Nerdwriter, the creator of the video above, has a new book coming out, Escape into Meaning: Essays on Superman, Public Benches, and Other Obsessions. You can pre-order it now.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Play a Kandinsky: A New Simulation Lets You Experience Kandinsky’s Synesthesia & the Sounds He May Have Heard When Painting “Yellow-Red-Blue”

Wassily Kandinsky could hear colors. Maybe you can too, but since studies so far have suggested that the underlying condition exists in less than five percent of the population, the odds are against it. Known as synesthesia, it involves one kind of sense perception being tied up with another: letters and numbers come with colors, sequences take on three-dimensional forms, sounds have tactile feelings. These unusual sensory connections can presumably encourage unusual kinds of thinking; perhaps unsurprisingly, synesthetic experiences have been reported by a variety of creators, from Billy Joel and David Hockney to Vladimir Nabokov and Nikola Tesla.

Few, however, have described synesthesia as eloquently as Kandinsky did. “Color is the keyboard,” he once said. “The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings. The artist is the hand that purposely sets the soul vibrating by means of this or that key.”

That quote must have shaped the mission of Play a Kandinsky, a collaboration between Google Arts and Culture and the Centre Pompidou. Enlisting the compositional services of experimental musicians Antoine Bertin and NSDOS, it gives even us non-synesthetes a chance to experience the intersection of sound and not just color but shape as well, in something of the same manner as the pioneering abstract painter must have.

As explained in the Listening In video above, Kandinsky heard yellow as a trumpet, red as a violin, and blue as an organ. An image of sufficient chromatic and formal variety must have set off a symphony in his head, much like the one Play a Kandinsky gives us a chance to conduct. As an interface it uses his 1925 painting Yellow-Red-Blue, each element of which, when clicked, adds another synesthetic layer of sound to the mix. These visual-sonic correspondences are based on Kandinsky’s own color theories as well as the music he would have heard, all processed with the formidable machine-learning resources at Google’s command. “What was he trying to make us feel with this painting?” Play a Kandinsky asks. But of course he didn’t have just one set of emotions in mind for his viewers, and making that possible was perhaps the most enduring achievement of his journey into abstraction.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

When Salvador Dali Viewed Joseph Cornell’s Surrealist Film, Became Enraged & Shouted: “He Stole It from My Subconscious!” (1936)

Did Salvador Dalí meet the diagnostic criteria for a personality disorder and maybe, also, a form of psychosis, as some have alleged? Maybe, but there’s no real way to know. “You can’t diagnose psychiatric illnesses without doing a face to face psychiatric examination,” Dutch psychiatrist Walter van den Broek writes, and it’s possible Dali “consciously created an ‘artistic’ personality… for the money or in order to succeed.” No doubt Dalí was a tireless self-promoter who marketed his work by way of a sensationalist persona.

But maybe Dalí faked symptoms of mental illness (via his understanding of Freud) in order to deliberately induce states of psychosis as part of his paranoid-critical method, a “spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the critical and systematic objectivity of the associations and interpretations of delirious phenomena,” he wrote. One of Dalí’s extreme “unorthodox methods for idea generation,” the practice of pretending to be insane may have driven Dalí to believe too strongly in his own delusions at times.

Throughout the early 1930s, Dalí championed paranoia, “a form of mental illness in which reality is organized in such a manner so as to be served through the control of an imaginative construction,” he said in a 1930 lecture. “The paranoiac who thinks he is being poisoned discovers in all the things that surround him, down to their most imperceptible and subtle details, preparations for his death.” And the paranoiac Surrealist who believes he’s being robbed of his ideas may see artistic theft everywhere — especially in an exhibit of Surrealist artists that does not include him. (After all, as Dalí once declared, “I am Surrealism.”)

In 1936, Dalí attended a screening of Joseph Cornell’s short Surrealist film Rose Hobart (top), named for the obscure silent actress whose scenes Cornell excised from a “1931 jungle adventure film” called East of Borneo. Cornell took the footage, slowed it down, “chopped it up, reordered it, and discarded the entire plot,” writes Catherine Corman. “He cut out reaction shots… removed overtly upsetting scenes,” edited in scenes from other films, and “made the film seem deliberately modest and worn,” projecting it through a blue filter and scoring it with two songs from Nestor Amaral’s album Holiday in Brazil (which he’d found at a junk shop).

The screening happened to be held in New York at the same time as the Museum of Modern Art’s first exhibit of Surrealist art, an exhibition “rife with controversy,” MoMA writes, that “provoked fierce reactions from battle factions among the Dadaists and the Surrealists.” French Surrealist poet and critic André Breton, who two years earlier expelled Dalí from the Surrealist group for “the glorification of Hitlerian fascism,” wrote the catalogue introduction. The Spanish Civil War had just broken out that year, further aggravating Dalí, no doubt, when he encountered Cornell’s film at a matinee screening.

Partway through the screening of Rose Hobart, Dalí became enraged, stood up, shouting in Spanish, and overturned the projector. Later, he reportedly told Julian Levy, whose gallery held the screening: “My idea for a film is exactly that, and I was going to propose it to someone who would pay to have it made…. I never wrote it or told anyone, but it is as if [Cornell] had stolen it.” Other versions of the story had Dalí saying, “He stole it from my subconscious!” or “He stole my dreams!” Cornell had not, of course, reached into Dalí’s subconscious but had manifested the film from his own obsessions with silent film and Hollywood divas, themes that run throughout his work. After Dalí’s outburst, the shy, reclusive artist refused to screen Rose Hobart again until the 1960s.

Dalí had vanquished an imaginary rival, but perhaps his true targets — Breton and his former Surrealist colleagues — remained untouched. It would not matter: Dalí eclipsed them all in fame, especially in the age of television, which embraced the artist’s antics like no other medium. But through his performances of insanity, maybe Dalí actually did touch into a creative preconscious state shared among artists — a place in which Joseph Cornell just might have found and stolen his ideas.

In 1932, Dalí had an epiphany about Jean-Francois Millet’s The Angelus, a painting with which he’d been obsessed since childhood and that influenced him heavily as an adult, becoming a key source for his paranoid-critical method. Dalí claimed that the two farmers praying over a meager harvest were actually mourning a lost child. He persisted in this belief until the Louvre agreed to X-ray the painting. Underneath, they found a small, child-sized coffin, and at least one of Dalí’s paranoid fantasies was proved true.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

136 Paintings by Gustav Klimt Now Online (Including 63 Paintings in an Immersive Augmented Reality Gallery)

At the end of World War II the Nazis burned an Austrian castle full of masterpieces, including three paintings by Gustav Klimt entitled Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence. Called the “Faculty Paintings,” these were commissioned by the University of Vienna for the ceiling of its Great Hall in 1900, then, upon completion seven years later, were deemed pornographic and never exhibited. Until now, they were preserved for posterity only in black and white photographs.

Thanks to cutting edge art restoration AI, the monochromatic images of Klimt’s Faculty Paintings have been reconstructed in color. They are now on display in an online gallery of 130 paintings, plus a virtual exhibition of 63 of the artist’s works, all brought together by Google Arts & Culture and appropriately called Klimt vs. Klimt. It’s a retrospective exploring the artist’s many contradictions. Was he a “scholar or innovator? Feminist or womanizer? Famous artist or humble craftsman? The answer, in most cases, is both,” notes Google. There’s more, of course, given the venue, as Art Daily explains:

The exhibition features an immersive Augmented Reality Pocket Gallery, which digitally organizes 63 of Klimt’s masterworks under a single roof. Audiences can virtually walk the halls of the gallery space at scale and zoom in on the paintings’ fine ornamentation and pattern, characteristic of Klimt’s practice, made possible by the digitization of his iconic artworks in ultra-high resolution.

With respect to the first pair of oppositions (that is, scholar or innovator?), Klimt was assuredly both, though not exactly at the same time. Trained as an architectural painter at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, his early work is solidly academic — realist, formal, classical and conservative.

So conservative an artist was Klimt, in fact, he was elected an honorary member of the University of Munich and the University of Vienna, and in 1888 Klimt received the Golden Order of Merit from Austrian Emperor Franz Josef I … before, that is, his work was judged obscene — a judgment that did surprisingly little to hinder Klimt’s career.

At the end of the 19th century, Klimt abruptly shifted focus, particularly after the death of his artist brother Ernst and his father, a gold engraver, in 1892. He became a founding member of the Vienna Secession movement, producing some of his most famous Symbolist works during his “Golden Phase,” when many of his works contained real gold leaf in tribute not only to his father but to the Byzantine art he saw during visits to Venice and Ravenna. This was the height of Klimt’s career, when he produced such works as The KissThe Embrace, and Fulfillment and Expectation, “probably the ultimate stage of my development of ornament,” he said.

In many ways, Klimt embodied contradiction. An admirer of society and luxury, he also spurned company, turned away all visitors, and spending so much time painting landscapes during summer holidays that locals called him Waldschrat, “forest demon.” Renowned for his sexual adventurousness (he supposedly fathered 14 children), Klimt was also an intensely focused and isolated individual. In a piece entitled “Commentary on a Non-Existent Self-Portrait,” he writes:

I have never painted a self-portrait. I am less interested in myself as a subject for a painting than I am in other people, above all women… There is nothing special about me. I am a painter who paints day and day from morning to night… Whoever wants to know something about me… ought to look carefully at my pictures.

Look carefully at an online gallery of Klimt’s works here. And see the immersive Augmented Reality gallery here.


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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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