Three Woman with Sunflowers
Watercolor, circa 1920
20 x 14 inches
Estate of the artist
Papillon Gallery, Los Angeles
Turn of the century Vienna was a city of great contrasts. Richard Strauss’ buoyant Rosenkavalier and Johann Strauss’ famous waltzes glorifying the Vienna woods with wine, women and song existed side by side with extreme poverty and desolation in many of its quarters. The city was experiencing dramatic shifts at every level in its changing role as the capital of an empire.
Modernist artists banded together to challenge the official establishment art. The avant-garde Viennese Secession Group, including Gustav Klimt and Josef Hoffmann, rebelled against traditional forms of art and methods of instruction promoted at the Viennese Academy. The poverty and social upheaval of pre-World War I Vienna both affected and inspired the work of other Secession artists such as Schiele, Gerstle and Kokoschka.
This was the climate in which Gertrude Klaris (1897-1977) spent her formative years. Although born in Budapest, she and her mother moved to Vienna after the death of her father in 1910. Because her mother was a member of the Austrian upper class, they lived at the Shottenhof, situated in a comfortable neighborhood shared by other well-to-do families. At this time Klaris attended the exclusive Schwarzwalt girl’s school.
From her early years Gertrude Klaris loved to paint. Her mother, however, held the Victorian opinion that it was acceptable for a young lady to embroider but certainly not to paint. Despite this lack of family encouragement or financial support, Klaris’ decision was to pursue a career in art. Her obvious talent, as well as her strong nature and tenacity in dealing with the committee of Vienna’s Graphic Institute, won her a scholarship.
By 1918, the year she was accepted at the Institute, the old Hapsburg monarchy and the empire itself had ceased to exist. Rifts formed between the various national groups coexisting under the empire, especially between the Germanic and Slavic populations. Klaris was identified as Hungarian on her matriculation certificate from the Graphic Institute, officially known as the German-Austrian Graphic and Experimental Institute of Vienna. Although not a native Austrian, she was recognized for her fine artistic abilities.
Pursuing a career as an artist was a struggle for a woman in Vienna in 1920. There was great resistance to her acceptance at the Academy of Fine Arts. However Gertrude Klaris managed to convince the committee that, since the quality of her work equalled that of the male students, she should be admitted. The administration approved her application.
Klaris’ early drawings,especially her portraiture, show evidence of her traditional training. By 1920, however, the influence of the Secession--especially Egon Schiele--was apparent in her work, although she had developed her own blend of symbolism and style. The attenuated figures of her paintings and drawings of this period are depicted as angst-ridden beings or are portrayed in a mystical or spiritual light.
While at the Academy, a contest was announced to design the windows of the Trappist monastery on the Dalmatian Island of Curzola. Gertrude Klaris submitted her designs and won the contest. Employment followed at the leading Viennese art glass atelier, namely Ignazz, Durr, and Geyling. While working there, she created designs for a number of European institutions.
In 1928, she received a commission for a glass mural to be constructed in a sanitarium near Innsbruck. In 1929, she won the first prize at the Universal Exposition in Brussels for two non-objective designs. [She was apparently the first or, at least, one of the first artists to create non-objective designs for stained glass windows.]
Other achievements followed including the Scholars Prix de Rome which took her to Italy. She studied at the Academia de Bella Arti in Florence and worked as an assistant to the painter Carena.
Also in 1929, she married Austin Bedell, an American artist who had been studying in Europe. The couple left for Paris and, in late 1929, moved to the United States.
Though she continued to paint and exhibit in both Europe and the United States, the last decades of her life were a struggle because of her ever progressing blindness. Gertrude Klaris died in Santa Barbara, California in October of 1977.
[This is an edited version of an essay that appeared in the exhibition catalogue Gertrude Klaris: The Early Years, 1918-1935. The exhibition took place on November 12 through December 24, 1987 at the Fine Art Society of Los Angeles.]