Klimt & Symbolism - Part 2

"Threat to Life" & "Femme Fatale"

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

Threat to Life

Experiences of life-threatening suffering or even death are in contrast to those of human happiness and fulfillment from a loving embrace. In some of his significant Symbolist works, Klimt also dealt with the fragility of human existence. His focus in these works was on demonic powers and evils, and people's ambivalent behavior towards them. In some pieces, he expressed this threat to burgeoning life through an untimely death.

In the "Jurisprudence" Faculty Painting, which he started to paint alongside "Philosophy" and "Medicine" in 1898 on behalf of the University of Vienna, it was the first time he had dealt with the subject of human suffering in such great detail. In a court scene, an old, naked man appears guilty as a defendant before a tribunal. A giant octopus rises up next to the man, vividly illustrating the inescapable power of human 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.

Narrow Wall Beethoven Frieze: "The Hostile Forces" (1901/02) by Gustav Klimt (1902) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

In particular, the explicit representation of these female figures, who, despite their frightening appearance also possess a highly erotic aura, equally resemble the depictions of the so-called Gorgons in Klimt's Beethoven Frieze. Together, the three Gorgons, which represent sickness, madness, and death, as well as the huge ape-like monster Typhoeus, form the group of so-called hostile forces, which the knight in shining armor has to face in the wall frieze created in 1902 for the 14th Secession exhibition, also known as the Beethoven exhibition.

"Hope I" (1903/04) by Gustav Klimt (1904) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

The life-threatening powers of fate become an acute danger when life is only just in the process of forming. In the painting "Hope I", from 1903–04, Klimt created a life-sized portrayal of a naked, heavily pregnant woman in unsurpassed clarity. To her side, death stands as her companion.

He is dressed in exquisite blue silk, his bare skull rising up above the pregnant woman's head. More heads appear above the odd pair: loud, hideous figures, faces of lunatics and the dead, whose faces have become rotted with decay and turned into ghastly grimaces. In among the group accompanying the pregnant woman, a kraken-like sea monster suddenly appears.

With his realistic representation of a heavily pregnant, naked woman, Klimt undoubtedly crosses the boundary of what was acceptable to portray up until this point. No other artist had ever dared to focus on such a subject before.

Standing Pregnant Woman in Profile, with Repetition of Figure (Studie for "Hope I") (c. 1902) by Gustav KlimtAlbertina Museum

In the studies for "Hope I", the pregnant woman is often accompanied by another, similarly nude, pregnant woman, yet death does not appear in any of the sketches. The reason for suddenly swapping the second woman for a death figure must lie in tragic circumstances in the artist's personal life. Klimt's son Otto, to whom his long-term lover and model Mizzi Zimmermann gave birth in June, 1902, died only three months later, in September of 1902.

Wien 8, Josefstädter Straße 21 (around 1910) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

A heavily pregnant young woman is also the subject of "Hope II", although, in comparison to the first version of "Hope", the depiction is significantly less controversial. Here, the woman does not appear naked but is clothed in a long, strikingly decorated coat. Only the breasts of the young woman are completely exposed. 

Her raised hand gesture, which seems to contradict her lowered gaze, as well the repeating of the closed eyes and lowered heads of the three other female figures, partially visible at the feet of the pregnant woman, seem to indicate a certain message that the observer cannot quite discern. The skull, which appears above the stomach of the pregnant woman, alluding to the permanent threat to burgeoning life through death, may also be connected to this message.

The Kiss of the Sphinx (1895) by Franz von StuckMuseum of Fine Arts, Budapest

Femme Fatale

A particular theme within art and culture of the late 19th century was the myth of the dangerous woman, the "Femme Fatale". A woman's eroticism could equally be seen as a danger to her partners. The Symbolist movement used mythological figures that were deeply rooted in culture, which brought to life the ambivalence of attraction, which can be both pleasurable and dangerous at the same time. One example of this was the sphinx—a wise, hybrid creature that was part woman, part predatory cat, and who threatened to tear to pieces anyone who succumbed to her embrace. Sirens were also popular in Symbolist art. Sirens were water-dwelling creatures who led ships into dark waters, only to meet their death.

The biblical figure of Eve—accompanied by the serpent—was also frequently interpreted as a femme fatale, as celebrated in the series of paintings by Franz von Stuck, entitled "The Sin". Klimt's contributions to the femme fatale myth were his unusual depictions of the biblical figures of Judith and Salome, in which eroticism and death clash in bewildering clarity.

Judith (1901) by Gustav KlimtBelvedere

His 1901 painting, "Judith I" was an excellent example of a depiction of a seductive woman. It is also one of the Viennese artist's most well-known paintings. 

The legendary biblical figure of Judith made increasingly frequent appearances in art and literature during the 19th century. Judith beheaded the Assyrian general Holofernes, in order to save her Jewish people from destruction. 

Klimt's highly erotic depiction relates to the interpretation made by Friedrich Hebbel in 1840 in his drama entitled "Judith," wherein the Jewish heroine actually has sexual relations with the general, in contrast to the biblical text.

Her torso is more exposed than covered by a thin silk.

With a slightly reclined head and lascivious open mouth, Klimt's Judith gives the viewer the seductive look she also used to charm Holofernes with her half-closed eyes. 

Judith II Salomè (1909) by Gustav KlimtCa' Pesaro - Galleria Internazionale d'Arte Moderna

Eight years after his sensational depiction of "Judith", Klimt set to work on this subject once again, linking it to another biblical figure—that of Salome, the daughter of Herodias. Herodias was the second wife of King Herod. At a banquet, Salome beguiled King Herod so much with her dancing that he was prepared to grant her anything she wished. At the behest of her mother Herodias, Salome demanded the head of John the Baptist, whom Herodias hated, because he had cast doubt on the legitimacy of her marriage to Herod.

Klimt's Judith piece seems to be a play on Salome's dance, since he shows Judith with bare breasts, jolting forwards as she dances.

The dynamic is reinforced by the richly ornamental shapes which decorate Judith's flowing dress.

In this way, Klimt seems to draw a connection between these two female biblical figures, Judith and Salome.

Study for Judith II (c. 1908) by Gustav KlimtLeopold Museum

The figure of Judith jolting forwards may have had its starting point in a study that Klimt presumably made from a flamenco dancer around the same time. Klimt captures a dancer, dancing towards the observer in a striding motion, in the swift strokes of one of his rare watercolor sketches. In the painting, the dancer returns, yet her dance movements make her appear almost rooted to the spot. The rich, linear decoration on the woman's dress seems to assimilate the dance movements and transforms it into abstract curves and striking color compositions.

Salome, The Climax by Arthur BeardsleyCarnegie Hall

During Klimt's era, the subject of Salome fascinated countless other artists. The English graphic artist Aubrey Beardsley put his particular stamp on the subject with his 1893 illustrations of Oscar Wilde's drama "Salome", which was created in 1891. The German composer Richard Strauss also paid an impressive musical tribute to the figure in his 1905 opera, "Salome".

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

The scandal surrounding the Faculty Paintings for the University of Vienna had already shown that one of the main reasons for the public outrage about Klimt's work lay in his erotic nude images. Attractive female figures appear multiple times in the Faculty Paintings and are provocative moreso for their lascivious poses rather than for their nakedness.

Portrait of Gustav Klimt, half-length portrait from the front, wearing his painter’s smock, with folded arms (c. 1909) by Pauline Kruger HamiltonWien Museum

Between 1900 and 1910, in particular, Klimt continued to fall into the role of the scandalous artist, who dared to pay homage to female eroticism in Symbolist paintings like no one else of his generation.

Credits: Story

Text: Österreichische Galerie Belvedere / Franz Smola

© Österreichische Galerie Belvedere


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