The Three Portraits of Ria Munk by Gustav Klimt

I suppose the most challenging and distressing period of one’s life is when somebody close to us, somebody we love, dies.  It is both a traumatic and painful time when suddenly we feel the loss of someone we loved.  Later, we want to cling to memories of the dead person.  We want to remember them forever.  We do not want to ever forget that person who had so touched our lives.   How do we do that?   Within days of our loved one dying, we are offered the chance to see the deceased one last time as they lay in rest in the funeral parlour.   I have done that on a number of occasions and regretted it.  I probably did it more out of duty than out of a desire to see the body of the dead person.  The face of the deceased I looked down upon was not the way I wanted to remember them.  It makes no difference how well the mortician has waved his or her magic wand over the deceased, the face of the person is pallid and lifeless and only our mental capacity and power of imagination can change that image.  Ultimately, our fondest recollection of the deceased person is almost always through photographs, which sadly, like our recollections, fade over time.  Even after photography became the medium of remembrance, a painting of a person acted as an aide-mémoire and in today’s blog I want to look at how one family wanted to remember their deceased daughter. 

Ria Munck on her Deathbed by Gustave Klimt (1912)
Ria Munk on her Deathbed by Gustav Klimt (1912)

My blog today is about a mother’s love for her dead daughter and her desire to hold on to her memories of her beautiful girl through a posthumous painting.   The mother in question was Aranka Pulitzer Munk.  She was the niece of Joseph Pulitzer, the man who, through the  provisions in his will, set up the Pulitzer Prize for Journalism.   Aranka married Alexander Munk, a wealthy Polish industrialist in 1882 and the couple went on to have three daughters, Lili, Maria (Ria) and Lola.  The daughter that is featured in today’s blog is the second-born girl, Ria, who was born in November 1887.  Ria was an extremely beautiful young woman and in 1911, when she was twenty-four years old, she had become the lover of the forty-year old German poet and writer Hanns Heinz Ewers.  This was never going to be a good match for Ewers reputation as a libertine was well known and wherever he went, scandals followed.  However maybe it was this that drew Ria to the latter-day “bad boy” character.  They eventually became betrothed and despite Ria entering this arrangement with a sizeable dowry, Ewers called it off.  According to the book Gustave Klimt by Jane Rogoyska and Patrick Bade, Ewers wrote Ria a letter that December, in which he described her as “a hopeless romantic and out of touch with reality”.     As one can imagine, Ria was devastated and could not come to terms with the break-up and at noon on December 28th she took a gun and shot herself through the heart. 

Whereas now, the tabloid papers would be full of the scandalous story of the suicide of the daughter of a wealthy family, the suicide of Ria Munk was of little import in the local press.  On the contrary, Viennese society looked upon suicide following a broken relationship as almost the norm.  There was even a sense of romanticism about it, similar to cases of death at the end of a duel which was fought over someone’s honour.  The Viennese society seemed to be in awe of the pomp and ceremony of grand funeral processions which followed on from such deaths.  The famous Austrian writer and journalist, Stefan Zweig  summed it up in his 1943 autobiography, The World of Yesterday, when he wrote:

“…‘In Vienna, even funerals found enthusiastic audiences and it was the ambition of every true Viennese to have a lovely corpse, with a majestic procession and many followers; even his death converted the genuine Viennese into a spectacle for others. In this receptivity for all that was colourful festive and resounding, in this pleasure in the theatrical, whether it was on the stage or in reality, both as theatre and as a mirror of life, the whole city was at one…” 

That may in the case but one can only imagine the devastation and heartbreak felt by her parents.  Her mother, Aranka, decided that she wanted a posthumous portrait painted of her daughter.  Aranka’s sister was Serena Lederer (neé Pulitzer) and she was one of Gustav Klimt’s main patrons and he had painted her portrait in 1899 and a portrait of her daughter, Portrait of Elisabeth Bachofen-Echt in 1916.  Serena Lederer and her husband August had built up the largest collection of the Austrian artist’s works and so it was logical for Aranka to ask her sister to speak to Klimt about the portrait commission, Klimt was, at that time, the most sought after portraitist in Vienna.  It was also around this time in Viennese society that the death-mask portrait and the death-bed portrait had grown to become in vogue with city’s privileged classes, and so following the tragedy of her daughter’s suicide, Aranka Munk decided that she would commission a death-bed portrait of her beloved Ria and arranged, through her sister, to have Klimt  paint it. 

Presumably with the help of photographs, Klimt completed the death-bed portrait of Ria Munk in 1912 and it was entitled Ria Munk am Totenbett (Ria Munk I),   Ria Munk on her Deathbed (Ria Munk I).  The background of the work is dark blue and is in stark contrast to the red carnations which form part of the garland of flowers, which frame Ria’s beautiful face.   Looking at the work we see Ria lying peacefully with her head on a white pillow.  Surrounding the pillow there are some white carnations.  There is no indication that Ria has died a violent death.   This painting is all about Ria’s beauty.  Her chest is covered in orange, red and purple fabric, which hide from us the bullet wound.  She is at peace.  Klimt has painted her with pink cheeks. As yet her facial features have not begun to sink into her skull.   Her mouth is partly open which make us think that she is just asleep.    She is surrounded by flowers and many people draw a similarity to Klimt’s depiction of her and the depiction of the tragic heroine in John Everett Millais’ 1852 painting, Ophelia.   It is a lovely portrait which exudes an aura of peace and serenity but there was also something about it that made her parents to reject it.  Aranka Munk decided the work, although beautiful, was too death-like and too distressful to behold.   Aranka then belatedly decided that she wanted the aide-mémoire of her daughter to be a painting of how she remembered her when she was alive.  She wanted to evoke memories of her daughter’s vivaciousness and exuberance, rather than the peaceful but solemn one of Ria, depicted by Klimt as she lay on her death bed and so, according to Erich Lederer, Serena Lederer’s son, Klimt was again commissioned to paint a second portrait of Ria.  In 1913, Aranka gave Klimt some more photographs of her daughter and asked him for another portrait, one that would encapsulate her beauty and her joie de vivre. 

Die Tänzerin (Ria Munk II) by Gustave Klimt (1916)
Die Tänzerin (Ria Munk II) by Gustav Klimt (1916)

There are some questions about this second portrait that remain unanswered.    The one fact we do know was whatever the artist gave Aranka, she rejected it.   Why did she reject it?   Was the painting above the one Klimt handed over to Aranka Munk?  If we look at the painting which bears the title Ria Munk II, then it is not difficult to see why a mother would be horrified and subsequently reject such a semi-naked portrait of her late daughter.   However we are not sure that the portrait we see before us was the painting Klimt gave her, in fact we can almost be certain that it was not.  Would Klimt really believe that a grieving mother would welcome such a semi-nude depiction of her daughter?  Although we have no way of knowing what Klimt’s second portrait of Ria Munk, which he gave to Aranka looked like, what we do know is that it was rejected by her.  Another fact we know about this second commission from Ria’s mother was that Klimt struggled with it.  We know this from a postcard he sent to his life-long friend, the Viennese fashion designer Emilie Flöge, in 1913.  He wrote of his problem with the commission:

“…the Munk portrait… wouldn’t come together! Can’t make it a likeness!…”

Following Aranka’s rejection of the painting, Klimt took it back to his studio, and altered it.  The altered and finished version is more erotic and depicts a bare-breasted portrait of a dancer.  It is now beleived that the dancer could have been Johanna Jusl, who was not only a dancer with the Vienna Hofoper but was also one of Klimt’s models.  His amended version, which we see above, depicts a lady, bare-breasted and exuding an overt sensuality, which one presumes would not have been present in the painting he offered Aranka Munk.   She stands in a full-frontal pose but her head is coyly turned away. Her cheeks have a faint rose tinge to them.  The elongated horizontal shape of her eyes gives her an oriental look.  There is a delicate tinge of light blue on her face and neck which confers upon her a ghost-like appearance. Next to her is a table upon which there is a vase of poppies.  Behind her, to the right, there is a vast floral display whilst in the left of the work we see oriental figures portrayed on a green background.  Her highly colourful and garish patterned  dress, which is open to her waist exposing her breasts, seems to become one with the background.  Below the hem of the dress we catch sight of lace-edged black pantaloons below which we see her shapely white-stocking legs and high-heeled shoes with their decorative bows.  There is a definite oriental-feel to this work and we know Klimt was fascinated by orientalism.  In Frank Whitford’s 1990 book, Klimt, he tells the story of a young aspiring artist, Egon Schiele, visiting Klimt’s studio in the Vienna district of Heitzing and how Schiele describes the studio as being dominated by Far Eastern Art and artefacts as well as Japanese woodblock prints.  Klimt had also a large collection of kimonos, a large red Japanese suit of armour and a number of exquisite Chinese costumes.  So was Klimt’s love of orientalism unusual?  In 1923, Anton Faistauer, a Viennese painter wrote a book entitled ‘Neue Malerei in Osterreich’ and in it he discussed  Klimt and orientalism, he wrote:

“…for Europeans Klimt is an outsider… (and) it would be better not to compare him at all to western ways. He is incomprehensible to the West, to the French and Germans, and his art, for now, is rejected there… He is conceivable only in Vienna, better still in Budapest or Constantinople. His spirit is entirely oriental. Eroticism plays a dominant role in his art, and his taste for women is rather Turkish… He is inspired by the decorations of Persian vases and oriental carpets, and especially delights in the gold and silver of his canvases…” 

The work, with the title Die Tänzerin (Ria Munk II) – The Dancer (Ria Munk II), the title originating from Erich Lederer, remained in Klimt’s studio and he never sold it.  It is now part of the collection of the Neue Galerie in New York. 

Frauenbildnis (Ria Munk III) by Gustave Klimt (1918)
Frauenbildnis (Ria Munk III) by Gustav Klimt (1918)

The third portrait of Ria Munk, entitled Frauenbildnis ( Ria Munk III), which Klimt began around 1917, was one of the largest and greatest full-length female portraits by him.  It was, like a number of Klimt’s  later works found in his studio, unfinished, when he died in February 1918.  The woman in the painting, with her pink cheeks and dark eyes is standing sideways on but is turning to face us, the viewer.  Unlike the previous portrait, there is demureness in the way she holds her robe closed.  She seems totally at ease.  There is an aura of self-confidence about the young lady.  She proffers us a dreamy smile.  There is no hint of seductiveness about her expression that we saw in the earlier portrait. As was the case in many of his earlier full length female portraits of women from Vienna’s high society such as Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer II (1912), Portrait of Eugenia (Mäda) Primavesi (c.1914) and Friedericke Maria Beer (1916), he once again morphs his subject into a highly colourful and decorative background.   The background of this work consists of a multitude of flowers such as roses and tulips, floral patterns and oriental-looking designs. The painting is incomplete, especially with regards the dress and the foreground, which we see are just traces of the charcoal preliminary sketch.

Shortly after Klimt’s death, and because her daughter’s portrait had been commissioned by Aranka Munk, it was given to her.  Aranka, who had divorced her husband in 1913, was now living in the summer at her lakeside villa at Bad Aussee in the Austrian state of Styria and it was here that she kept this third portrait of her daughter Ria.  It remained there until 1941.  Aranka, being Jewish, was then forced to sell part of the property to neighbours in 1941.   The Gestapo later seized her remaining property, and her apartment in Vienna, in 1942.    Aranka was deported to Lodz in German-occupied Poland in October 1941 and was put to death on November 26th, a day before her 79th birthday. Her daughter, Lola, was also sent to a concentration camp, at Chelmno, Poland, where she died in September 1942.

The year the villa and its contents were seized by the National Socialists, the Frauenbildnis ( Ria Munk III), portrait passed into the hands of the art collector and dealer William Gurlitt.  In 1953 the Frauenbildnis painting was among a number of important paintings that Gurlitt sold to the Neue Galerie der Stadt Linz, which in 2003 became known as the Lentos Museum. The painting subsequently remained in the Lentos Museum, Linz until June 2009.  It was then, after years of legal challenges that Linz city council finally voted to return the Klimt painting to its rightful owners and it was thus given up by the Lentos Museum to Aranka Munk’s descendents, who were living in Europe and America.  The following year, June 2010, the descendents put the work in Christie’s London auction where it sold for £18.8 million. 

Whilst I was working on this blog news broke out about a $1 billion art hoard discovery at a Munich apartment of an 80-year-old recluse, Cornelius Gurlitt.

Does the surname ring a bell ??????

Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

9 thoughts on “The Three Portraits of Ria Munk by Gustav Klimt”

  1. Ria II: Is it possible she is topless because she is ‘Ria in a Klimt-style Paradise’, showing that her wounded breast is healed and her body unscarred? It would make sense symbolically. Has that picture been x-rayed?

  2. I was fortunate to see the original painting this past Wednesday at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. It is beautiful. Thank you for the history of the three portraits.

  3. Wonderful historical background — thank you so much! For lovers of these paintings, this is a link to songs about the three Ria portraits by Lacy Rose (her “Ria” song cycle) for voice(s) and string quartet. I think they’re suitably haunting but (full disclosure) I’m a little biased: I did the string arrangements. One more *kudos* to the author of this illuminating essay.

  4. Thanks for writing this. I think Ria is my cousin, 3 generations removed. It’s interesting to learn these details.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: