Hope I (1903/1903) by Klimt, GustavNational Gallery of Canada

“The painting is the famous, or should we say infamous, Hope by Klimt, of the extremely pregnant young woman whom the artist dared to paint in the nude. One of his masterpieces. A deeply moving creation. The young woman walks along in the holiness of her condition, threatened on all sides by appalling grimaces, by life’s grotesque and lascivious demons … but these threats do not frighten her. She walks unperturbed along the path of these terrors, made pure and invulnerable by the ‘hope’ entrusted to her womb.” (Klimt’s friend and art critic Ludwig Hevesi, 1905).

In this richly symbolic painting, where naturalistic and expressionist forms come together in a dazzling swirl of ornament, Klimt juxtaposes the promise of new life with harrowing and destructive forces.

Preliminary studies for the painting show a couple standing together in a moment of quiet intimacy, the man with his arm protectively around the shoulders of his pregnant partner.

In the final canvas, however, the skeletal figure of Death stands next to the woman, his blue, diaphanous cape embellished with menacing tooth-shaped motifs cascades alongside her body.

Encircling the model and Death is the serpentine tail of a dark and scaly sea monster.

This strange, balloonish shape, with its claw-like hand and dull, expressionless eyes, is a variation of Typhon, one of the “Hostile Powers” threatening humanity in Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze of 1902.

In the background loom three funereal figures donning richly ornamented capes: a Gorgon who first appeared in the Beethoven Frieze and two grotesque heads thought to represent Sickness and Madness.

These monstrous threats only augment the unsettling nature of the woman’s brazen nakedness and her steady, unperturbed gaze as she looks the spectator in the eye and displays her shimmering body, confident of the renewal within her.

Klimt’s bold portrayal of new motherhood flagrantly contravened standards of propriety in turn-of-the-century Vienna, and the artist’s intention to exhibit Hope I in 1903 threatened to provoke a scandal.

Of his work Klimt remarked: “Everything is ugly: she is, and what she sees—only within her there is beauty growing, hope. And her eyes say that.” (Klimt, 1903).

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