Monday, February 18, 2008

Judith I (1901)

Judith I (1901)

Any artist who trucks in the transgressive could be forgiven for wondering what reaction a given piece of work might elicit (unless that’s the sole purpose for creating it, which I would say cheapens the artistic process, but let’s not go down that road for the moment). Will it be praised, jeered, banned, destroyed? All of these have happened to various works at various points in history, but Klimt’s Judith I is the only painting I am aware of in which a portion of the public reacted to the offense it caused them by pretending the subject was something other than what it was, right down to refusing to call it by its rightful name.

Judith I depicts the title heroine, a Jewish widow who snuck into the camp of Holofernes, an Assyrian general sent by Nebuchadnezzar to clamp down on the populace, seduced him and then lopped off his head. He chooses to present her in a contemporary context, as indicated by her fashionably Viennese clothing, the ornamentation of which blends in with the representative background, even bleediing out onto the frame. Once again, the male presence is muted; for starters, he’s just a head, but he’s also clasped down to her side near the bottom, half of his face cutoff by the edge of the picture. But that’s okay; it’s her face we need to be concerned with anyway.

Having decapitated a man, Judith doesn’t just seem peaceful, she seems positively, even defiantly serene. She proudly sports ornamental jewelry, is completely indifferent to her nude torso showing through her tunic, and with her eyes nearly shut, she gives us another depiction of Klimt’s persistent sleep/dream motif. It has been speculated that the picture is a (possibly unconscious) reaction to the growing influence of women in public life, indicated by the reversal at work in the fact that Judith used sex to lead a man to his demise, and yet is it she who seems aroused in the picture. She enjoys all of the power and all the pleasure as well.

The impudent empowerment angle alone might have been enough to raise eyebrows in a society, cultural renaissance notwithstanding, as repressive as the one in which Klimt lived, and if that didn’t, the juxtaposition of eroticism and violent murder might have done the trick. Add to that the fact that the subject is a revered Jewish heroine of the Old Testament and you’ve got all the ingredients for a public outcry. What is most interesting is the way the public, notably Vienna’s Jewish bourgeoisie, opted to react – namely that the artist must have made a mistake. This wanton vixen, with her languorous and lascivious expression, couldn’t possibly be the noble Judith of legend; clearly Klimt had intended to depict a different Biblical figure associated with decapitation, Salome, the young tart of a dancer who played the patsy in convincing her stepfather King Herod to take a little off the top of John the Baptist. So eager were they to believe this that they managed to create what we now call a meme, and the result was that numerous catalogs and journals for years afterward continually referred to the work as Salome. All this despite the fact that Klimt, as you’ll notice if you take another look at the painting, name-checked his subjects at the very top!

Judith II (1909)

Judith II (1909)

Eight years later, Klimt would revisit the subject with notable differences. Judith is still unapologetic, defiant and bare-breasted, but instead of being clasped to her side, her hand resting in an almost gentle manner upon it, Holoferne’s head now dangles, his hair wrapped around her bony fingers. Gone is the suggestion of sexual pleasure to be replaced by a far more raptorial expression and stance.

I do not know if there was any correspondingly negative response to this work as there was to its predecessor. (If there was, not, in fact, an outcry over Judith II, it may say something, given their differences, about exactly how long the ‘violence=okay, sex=bad’ mentality has been floating around.) But then, by that time, having renounced governmental sponsorship after the rejection of the Faculty paintings, and making a nice living off of a steady stream of society portrait commissions, Klimt probably wouldn’t have cared one way or the other.

Next: ???

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Assorted Water Maidens:

One of the more consistent images to show up in Klimt’s work was a repeated variant on the water maiden. He was interested in female sexuality and he was interested in mythology, so it is not surprising that he would turn to the playfully erotic image of the naiad, the mermaid, the naked water nymph whose long, lustrous locks flow in tandem with the currents that stream about her and which carry her downstream as she stretches her lithe frame through them. (In Mermaids, he even goes so far as to put the full weight of the figures’ sexuality on their hair, eliminating the bodies and depicting the women as floating manes with hungry faces peering out of them.) One can see this image of flowing, water-like hair in many of his non-aquatic subjects as well, including Danae and the Nuda Veritas (1899), and even examples in which the female sexual power comes off as downright dangerous, such as the Furies from Jurisprudence or the Gorgons from the Beethoven Frieze (1902).

Additionally, the combination of images spoke directly to the Art Noveau focus on natural forces – the female from which humanity is born luxuriating in the wellspring from which all life emerges.

Other familiar aspects show up here as well. In Water Serpents I, the two lesbian mermaids (women romantically intertwined was a theme that popped up quite a bit, mostly in his sketchwork) float in each other’s arms, the face of the one turned towards the viewer displaying the sleep/dream eroticism. Moving Water has a muted male presence, landing somewhere between the ‘face turned away’ depiction of many of his works and the reduction to a single rectangle in Danae. Here we have a somewhat toad-like figure standing off to the side of the current upon which the women float, peering up at them with, well, certainly with interest, possibly desire. It seems open to interpretation.

Lastly, it is worth pointing out, for humor value alone, that the playful Goldfish is believed to be a deliberate thumb to the nose to those critics who took exception to his portrayal of sexuality. Not only does the figure in the forefront have hair of an even more flaming red than usual, she also saucily looks back at the audience as she points her bare backside at them.

Moving Water (1889)


Fish Blood (1898)


Mermaids (Whitefish) (c.1899)


Goldfish (1901-02)


Water Serpents I (1904-07)


Water Serpents II (1904-07)


Next: Judith I (1901) & Judith II (1909)

Saturday, February 09, 2008

The Faculty Paintings

Much of Klimt’s early success was centered around commissions to create work that was not just to be exhibited but to become a part of public life, such as his depictions of ancient forms that were installed above the doorways of Vienna’s premiere art museum. In this vein, the Ministry of Education commissioned him and his business partner Franz Matsch to paint what came to be known as The Faculty Paintings, which were to be placed on the ceiling in the Ministry’s great hall. The three that Klimt was assigned, Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence, were expected to be celebrations of the achievement of rationality in the modern world. This was not, however, what the artist delivered, and the controversy stirred up by them ended with Klimt buying the paintings back from the government and renouncing any further state patronage. Many years later, the paintings were stolen by the Nazis. They were eventually destroyed at the end of World War II, along with other works, in a fire at Immendorf Palace set by retreating SS troops. I can only imagine what it would have been like to see these paintings in the flesh, so to speak, as their enigmatic quality, reduced as it is by the necessity of viewing them in the photos that survive, still has the power to provoke chills.

Philosophy (1907)

Klimt - Philosophy (1907)

Klimt advocated a school of thought that emphasized the idea that, regardless of man’s copious achievements in terms of science, intellect, etc., he was still subject to nature’s whims. (I may be presenting that somewhat simplistically, but that was the gist. It is tempting to wonder how well-known his belief in this viewpoint was; his status as Vienna’s most revered artist notwithstanding, surely the Ministry would have been reluctant to hire someone who was prone to undermining the “light conquers darkness” sort of portrayal they wanted.)

Klimt portrays humanity as a column of bodies. While they display such common human traits as passion and despair, none of them seem to be in control of their destinies. They merely float through the universal ether, out of the darkness of which looms a sphinx, whose sleeping face is indifferent to them, much like the universal mysteries it represents. At the bottom of the painting, a solitary woman’s face peeks out from behind a cloak, her eyes peering out at the viewer as a lone indication of human sentience.

Medicine (1907)

Klimt - Medicine (1907)

Medicine shares a number of traits with Philosophy. Once again, humanity is represented as a floating column of bodies, though this one clearly illustrates various stages of life (including a skeletal death), most represented by women. Instead of Philosophy’s sphinx, we get Hygeia, daughter of Asclepius, granddaughter of Apollo, Greek mythology’s Florence Nightingale. She performs a ritual task, but is as indifferent to the nearby humans as the Sphinx was. And, like the solitary woman in Philosophy, we have one figure to the left, suspended in space, a baby at her feet, her arms thrown out in a display of vitality.

The nudity in Medicine caused a bit of furor, but it was nothing compared to the anger directed at Klimt by the city’s physicians. The artist’s representation of man’s journey and the ambiguous importance of the symbol of medicine was not the celebration of the healing arts that they had expected. But if the city elders had hoped the experience had taught him some kind of lesson, his third Faculty Painting would prove otherwise.

Jurisprudence (1907)

Klimt - Jurisprudence (1907)

It has been speculated, but can’t be conclusively proven, that Klimt changed his original plans for Jurisprudence in light of the trouble the first two paintings had caused him. The picture shows a spindly, naked man, bound and placed within the confines of an octopus’s tentacles (I’ve always felt that the octopus was deliberately made to look like the sort of courtroom box in which a prisoner might have been confined). Before him stand the three Furies, and far above them, surrounded by judgmental, disembodied heads, are depictions of Truth, Justice and Law.

There are two popular interpretations of the painting. One goes directly to the idea that Klimt felt persecuted for his previous work (some believe the man is a self-portrait), and the other posits it as a metaphor of sexual shame. Certainly the Furies, who give off an air of both sexuality and malevolence, would seem to support the latter, as could the man’s posture, bending as he does in what could be considered guilt. Regardless, the fact that the lofty ideas of jurisprudence are far removed from the individual and the arbiters of his punishment speaks quite loudly. Here Klimt has moved from depicting the main theme of the painting as indifferent to man to making it downright hostile.

Next: a bevy of water maidens (1889 through 1907)