The most unexpected thing about Fable is not the mice and the lion, the storks and the fox, all juxtaposed with the oddly parked goddess-like figure in the center of the canvas; nor the fact the work was painted in Austria in 1883, when modernism in art had already grabbed a nearby nation by her toes, but the name of the painter who made it. He, none other than Gustav Klimt; he, of the luminous images of female figures, sometimes a couple, afloat in a confetti parade of gold and silver leaf—such as the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I and The Kiss. But with Klimt, like so many, Picasso and Dalí among them, his early works belie what the artist had in store.
Two decades before he saw the Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna, Italy, that would help to define his ‘golden phase,’ Klimt, the young man, idolized Hans Makart, nineteenth-century Vienna’s celebrated ‘Painter Prince’—so-called for his self-styled ostentatiousness, a dandy who liked to parade around in historical dress. Makart was, it seems, an Andy Warhol of his day, his studio a meeting place for the Austrian capital’s bold-faced names. And Klimt, an art student, eagerly looked on, even resorted to bribing, it’s rumored, Makart’s servant to let him into the master’s atelier to study his work, his florid historicism—the then in-vogue artistic expression of emulating periods of the past—that brought the elder painter fame.
And so when the Viennese publisher Martin Gerlach invited the nineteen-year-old Klimt, nearing the end of his training at the School of Arts and Crafts, to contribute drawings and paintings to what would become Gerlach’s distinguished three-volume set, titled Allegories and Emblems, with its intended goal to rekindle the myth and symbolism of Renaissance and Baroque art, Klimt naturally looked to his hero, to Makart’s style for one of his eleven allegorical contributions.
Fable stands among her characters, and at closer inspection the subject matter doesn’t seem quite as static or as stolid as the painting initially suggests; you might even consider Klimt was creating a bit of sequential art. Two fables in a single visual narrative: the before and the after. On the left are the mice, caught in the midst of scurrying about, grooming one another, looking suspicious, a moment before one of them clumsily runs across the nose of the sleeping lion and awakens him; Fable’s lesson is yet to be learned. On the right are the storks and the fox, clearly in the aftermath of the stork’s retaliation to the fox’s mean-spirited dinner invitation; Fable’s wagging finger: Do no harm—if someone does get hurt, then turn-about is fair play. An apt moral, perhaps Klimt found, for every ambitious painter.
 Laura Gibbs, “The Fox and the Stork,” Aesop’s Fables, Oxford World’s Classics, New York, Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 81.
Additional sources: Albert Ilg, “Preface,” Allegories and Emblems, Martin Gerlach, ed., Vienna: Gerlach and Schenk, 1882; Susanna Partsch, Gustav Klimt: Life and Work, Kent, UK: Grange Books, 1999.
(Image: Fable, 1883, Oil on canvas, 84.5 x 117 cm, Wien Museum, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)