The Stories Behind Klimt's Faculty Paintings

Gustav Klimt's painting "Medicine" (nach 1901) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

The Commission of the Faculty Paintings

In the faculty paintings, Klimt developed a novel, artistic language unfamiliar to Viennese audiences which was based on French and Belgian symbolism. With these works, Klimt gained a prominent place in the European symbolist movement.

University Vienna (after 1900) by Paul LedermannAustrian National Library

In 1894, Gustav Klimt and Franz Matsch were commissioned by the Austrian Ministry of Education to paint monumental allegories for the ceiling of the University of Vienna's large festival hall. Five paintings were planned, including a centerpiece and depictions of the four University of Vienna faculties.

Portrait of Gustav Klimt in profile, standing facing right, in a pale suit, a straw hat in his hand (c. 1890) by UnknownWien Museum

Both artists divided the commission as follows: Matsch was to paint the large centerpiece and the "Religion" faculty painting, and Klimt would focus on representations of the faculties of "Philosophy," "Medicine," and "Jurisprudence."

For reasons unknown, Klimt only began working on the paintings, each over 13 feet tall, in 1898. Due to their enormous size, Klimt even rented another studio to finish these pictures, which was tall enough to be able to work on them.

Gustav Klimt's Painting "Philosophy" (um 1900) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

For the faculty painting "Philosophy," Klimt chose a strikingly asymmetrical composition. On the left, he shows the plethora of humanity in the form of a chain of nudes, and on the right, he presents an almost empty sky in which the figure of a giant sphinx only just appears.

Humanity is portrayed using individual types of human of different ages and genders. Depictions of a young couple together with a small child prominently appear in the upper half of the picture. Above all, the woman shown in profile looks strikingly sensual and erotic.

Still, in addition to young and attractive people, Klimt does not hesitate to portray unsightly and aging bodies. In the lower part of the flow of people, for example, a nude of an old man hiding his face in his hands is prominent.

At the bottom of the flow of people is the head of a woman wrapped in a dark veil which partially covers her face. With her magical-looking face and sparkling eyes, Klimt seems to translate this flash of inspiration into a visual representation of the sparks of the mind.

To represent philosophy, the actual theme of the faculty painting, Klimt selected the embodiment of a sphinx whose shadowy figure emerges from a cosmic fog. In ancient mythology, the sphinx was considered the keeper of unsolvable secrets and riddles.

Gustav Klimt's painting "Medicine" (nach 1901) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

Klimt also chooses an asymmetrical composition for the faculty painting "Medicine." This time, the flow of life appears in the right half of the picture, while the left half is flooded with a bright mist of light. In this picture as well, Klimt shows a wealth of nudes.

The nude of a young woman who is the only figure in the left half of the picture is particularly striking. With her head tilted to the side and arm outstretched, she assumes a pose symbolic of submission to illness and death.

The motif depicting a pregnant naked woman, which can be seen in the flow of life in the upper half of the picture, was a completely new concept for those times. In contrast, Death emerges next to her in the form of a skeleton to express the threat of developing life.

Despite the wealth of figures symbolizing the suffering of humanity, Klimt does not limit his use of highly erotic nudes. These include, for example, a crouching female figure who appears near the center of the picture with a soft, rounded body shape and full, thick hair.

The only figure who turns directly to the viewer is the figure of Hygieia in the lower half of the picture. She was worshipped in Greek mythology as the goddess of medicine. She holds a bowl from which an Aesculapian snake, another symbol of medicine, drinks.

Jurisprudence (1898-1903, slightly revised until 1907) by Gustav KlimtBelvedere

For the faculty painting "Jurisprudence," Klimt opted for a slightly different composition. Unlike the previous faculty paintings, fewer people are featured here. They are also larger on the canvas and clearly separated from one another.

Klimt chose a court scene in which an old naked man appears as the accused before a tribunal. He guiltily turns to the tribunal. A huge octopus rises in front of him, holding the prisoner with its tentacles. These shackles symbolize the power of fate.

Behind the defendant, three expressive, female nudes appear. They symbolize the Erinyes, the avenging goddesses who hold humans to account for their shortcomings and crimes.

In the uppermost area of the picture, three female figures—the personifications of justice, law, and truth—appear in front of a decorated wall. The great distance between them and the accused evidently illustrates the shortcomings of court judgments and jurisdiction.

Gustav Klimt's Painting "Philosophy" (um 1900) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

Scandal of the Faculty Paintings

The faculty painting "Philosophy" was first presented to the public in 1900 at the 7th Secession Exhibition. The painting caused a general outcry among the public and in the press, but also brought an influx of visitors to the exhibition.

University Vienna (after 1900) by Paul LedermannAustrian National Library

Numerous professors of the University of Vienna, where the painting was intended to be displayed in the festival hall, vehemently rejected the work. For them, Klimt's portrayal had nothing to do with the concept of philosophy as they understood it. In their eyes, Klimt had made a mockery of philosophy.

Gustav Klimt's Painting "Philosophy" (um 1900) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

"… Wenn wir auch gerne zugeben wollen, daß Derjenige, welcher die verschiedenen Systeme auch nur der deutschen Philosophie gründlich studiert, in einen Zustand gelinden Wahnsinnes gerathen muß, hat doch nichts Herrn Klimt gezwungen, uns nun auch einen gemalten Wahnsinn zu versetzen ..." (…Although we do admit that anyone who thoroughly studies the various systems, even just German philosophy, must fall into a state of lunacy, Klimt has not been forced to bring us madness in painted form either…") "Montags-Zeitung", March 19, 1900.

Some time later in 1900, Klimt's "Philosophy" was also sent to the 1900 Paris World Expo where—unlike in Vienna—it achieved great recognition and even received a prize.

Gustav Klimt's painting "Medicine" (nach 1901) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

An even greater scandal arose when the faculty painting "Medicine" was first displayed at the 10th Secession Exhibition in 1901. This time, numerous politicians also intervened. Conservative officials strongly criticized the Minister of Education for supporting Klimt.

Transfer Sketch for "Medicine" (c. 1900) by Gustav KlimtAlbertina Museum

In addition, copies of the sixth edition of the secession magazine "Ver Sacrum" in which sketches for "Medicine" were published were confiscated, on the grounds that they threatened public morality. However, this confiscation was stopped shortly thereafter.

Gustav Klimt's painting "Medicine" (nach 1901) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

But why were the faculty paintings rejected so strongly? The main reason was Klimt's refusal to make the allegories serve as an idealized, affirmative interpretation of the sciences, as expected by the commissioners. Klimt did not create idealized images of reality.

The endless flows of people in the faculty paintings illustrate how people are exposed to a world that seems out of control. They interpret humanity as an involuntary tool of dark forces. This way, they express general pessimism.

In addition, Klimt showed naked human figures in provocative poses and never shied away from presenting old people or heavily pregnant women. He clearly made eroticism and sexuality the central themes, as no one in Vienna had ever dared to do before.

Castle Immendorf (1936) by Heinrich SeeringAustrian National Library

The Fate of the Faculty Paintings

Moderne Galerie, Marmorsaal (c. 1903)Belvedere

After the University of Vienna had spoken out against Klimt's paintings, it was decided not to place them on the ceiling of the university's festival hall as planned. The ministry then intended to transfer these works to the state's newly established Moderne Galerie.

Berta Zuckerkandl-Szeps (1908) by Atelier Madame d'OraAustrian National Library

But Klimt rejected these plans. He was prepared to cancel the commission and repay the fee already received for the paintings to the ministry. The well-known journalist Berta Zuckerkandl supported Klimt and published several articles about this in the press.

Gustav Klimt (1908) by Atelier Madame d'OraAustrian National Library

"Ich lehne jede staatliche Hilfe ab, ich verzichte auf alles." (I refuse any help from the state, I renounce everything)
(Gustav Klimt in an interview with Berta Zuckerkandl, in: Berta Zuckerkandl's "Die Klimt-Affäre" [The Klimt Affair], in: "Wiener Allgemeine Zeitung," April 12, 1905)

Gustav Klimt's Painting "Philosophy" (um 1900) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

With the help of his patrons and friends, Klimt managed to pay back the money demanded by the ministry for the paintings. His patron August Lederer, an Austrian industrialist who already had many other paintings by Klimt, acquired the faculty painting "Philosophy" in 1905.

Gustav Klimt's painting "Medicine" (nach 1901) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

Klimt's fellow artist Koloman Moser, who founded the Vienna Secession with Klimt in 1897 and left it together with Klimt in 1905, acquired the other two faculty paintings "Medicine" and Jurisprudence" between 1910 and 1912.

Jurisprudence (1898-1903, slightly revised until 1907) by Gustav KlimtBelvedere

In 1919, the Moser family sold both faculty paintings. Thanks to generous patrons, the painting "Medicine" reached the Österreichische Galerie. The faculty painting "Jurisprudence" was acquired by August Lederer who already owned the faculty painting "Philosophy."

Castle Immendorf (1936) by Heinrich SeeringAustrian National Library

After 1938, the National Socialists stole both faculty paintings from the Lederer family. In 1944, together with the faculty painting from the Österreichische Galerie, they brought them to Schloss Immendorf which is located about 31 miles northwest of Vienna in Lower Austria.

Regrettably, Schloss Immendorf found itself in a military combat zone. On May 9, 1945, it was engulfed in flames. All three faculty paintings, as well as numerous other works by Klimt as part of the Lederer collection, were destroyed.

Credits: Story

Text: Österreichische Galerie Belvedere / Franz Smola

© Österreichische Galerie Belvedere

Credits: All media
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