Important Art by Gustav Klimt
This was an important commission for Klimt's early career: the Vienna city council asked Klimt and his partner Franz Matsch to paint images of the old Burgtheater, the city's opera house - built in 1741 and slated for demolition after its replacement was finished in 1888 - as a record of the theater's existence. Unlike Matsch's counterpart to this picture, which shows the stage of the Burgtheater from a seat in the auditorium, Klimt's treatment does the exact opposite - a strange choice, but one that is quite significant architecturally, as it shows the full arrangements of loges and auditorium floor seats along with the ceiling decoration. It is typical of the academic style of Klimt's early work, and of the influence on him of Hans Makart.
When word of this commission was leaked to the public, many people begged Klimt to insert their portraits, however small, into the picture through special sittings with the artist, as being immortalized on canvas as a regular attendee at the Burgtheater constituted a tangible emblem of one's social status. As a result, the painting serves not only as a valuable record of the theater's architecture, but also essentially as a catalog of the city's political, cultural, and economic elites - over 150 individuals in all. Among the audience members are Austria's Prime Minister; Vienna's Mayor; the surgeon Theodor Billroth; the composer Johannes Brahms; and the Emperor's mistress, the actress Katherina Schratt. Though the subject is appropriate for a history painting, its dimensions (the width, its longest side, measures less than 37 inches) are diminutive, making the precision of Klimt's individual portraits all the more impressive. Critics at the time agreed, as Klimt was awarded the coveted Emperor's Prize in 1890 for this painting, which significantly raised his profile within the Viennese art community, and a flurry of other important public commissions for buildings on the Ringstrasse soon followed.
Though the Secessionists were known as a group that attempted to break with artistic traditions, their relationship with the past was more complex than a simple forward-looking mentality. Klimt, along with many of his fellow painters and graphic artists, cultivated a keen understanding of the symbolic nature of mythical and allegorical figures and narratives from Greece, Rome, and other ancient civilizations. With his soft colors and uncertain boundaries between elements, Klimt begins the dissolution of the figural in the direction of abstraction, that would come to full force in the years after he left the Secession. This painting exudes thus a sensory conception of the imperial, powerful presence of the Greco-Roman goddess of wisdom, Athena, and the inability of humans to full grasp that, rather than a crisp, detailed visual summation of her persona.
Also significantly, the hazy quality of the image allows Klimt to emphasize the goddess' androgynous character, a blurring of gender identity that was featured in ancient descriptions and depictions of her, and explored by many other artists and cultural luminaries at the turn of the century. She is dressed in the military regalia that traditionally identifies her as a warrior and the protector of her eponymous city, Athens - qualities normally associated with masculinity. Only the strands of hair that thinly drape down from each side of her neck (and almost blend with the golden color of her helmet and breastplate) give a hint as to her femininity. Barely visible at the left side of the painting, she holds the nude figure of Nike, representing victory, arguably the only clear feminine reference in the work.
The haziness evokes the contemporaneous exploration of dreams by Sigmund Freud, whose seminal work on the subject would be published in Vienna just two years later. It is tempting to read Klimt's painting in the context of Freud's view of dreams as the fulfillment of wishes, which might suggest that the powerful, imperious woman is the object of male desire, but also potentially that the traditional feminine persona must be costumed in order to attain such powerful status.
In 1894, Klimt was commissioned by the Ministry of Culture to provide paintings for the new Great Hall of the University of Vienna, recently constructed on the Ringstrasse. Klimt's job was to paint three monumental canvases concerning the themes of Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence, respectively. By the time Klimt began painting the canvases four years later, however, he had joined the Secession and abandoned the naturalism of the Old Burgtheater to challenge the conventional subject matter. The overarching theme that was supposed to unify the three University paintings was "the triumph of light over darkness," within which Klimt was granted a free hand. None of the finished products, however, conveys this theme with any degree of clarity. Medicine, the second of the three to be unveiled, was the canvas that caused the most controversy.
This detail from Medicine shows the figure of Hygeia, the mythological daughter of the god of medicine, who was located at the bottom center of the canvas and identified by an accompanying snake and the cup of Lethe. Above Hygeia rose a tall column of light, to the right of which rose a web of nude figures intertwined with the skeleton of Death. To the other side of the light column floated a nude female whose pelvis was thrust forward, while below her feet floated an infant (to whom she might have just given birth) wrapped in a swath of tulle. The imagery provoked a storm of criticism on two levels. First, faculty and Ministry officials charged that it was pornographic, particularly the female with the thrusting pelvis - thereby demonstrating the stodginess of Vienna's cultural community. Second - perhaps a more valid argument - the painting did nothing to illustrate the themes of medicine, either as a preventative or healing tool. The acrimonious response to Klimt's works eventually prompted him, in 1905, to buy back the three works for 30,000 crowns with the help of his patron August Lederer, who received Philosophy in return.
Klimt's work proves difficult to decipher, and it appears that one of his goals with the painting was to show the ambiguity of human life, simultaneously representing the themes of birth and death. In some ways, it proves highly ironic, as Vienna at the time was one of the major centers of medical research: along with Sigmund Freud, who had just published The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), it was home to the pioneering abdominal surgeon Theodor Billroth. In this respect, Medicine demonstrates how, despite the great inroads the Secession had made in the four years since its founding, the movement had not decisively overturned conservative attitudes towards modern art in Vienna. For Klimt, the entire affair represented an ultimate public humiliation and rejection; he did not exhibit in Vienna for five years after 1903, and he swore off official commissions and withdrew to take on only private portrait commissions or landscapes for the remainder of his career. His trio of University paintings, born into a firestorm of controversy, met their own fiery fate as they found their way into the collections of Jews and became three of Klimt's many works confiscated by the Nazis. They were incinerated in May 1945 inside the Schloss Immendorf, the lower Austrian castle where they had been stored, by retreating SS troops.