This is not a joke. How many words does one artist have to speak in order to enrage a University, clergy, art critics, Vienna, parliament and even Adolf Hitler? Three: Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence. Would you believe me if I told you these three words generated art reviews consisting of pornography, disturbing and overtly sexual? You should, because it is all true. Inadvertently creating public outcry, Gustav Klimt painted these three masterpieces. In the end, they would never decorate the ceiling of the Great Hall and Klimt willingly paid back his commission, “If you cannot please everyone with your deeds and your art, please a few. To please many is bad” (1).
Gustav Klimt was born in Baumgarten, Austria-Hungary in 1862 and died 1918. One of seven children, he was brought up in relative poverty and financially supported his family during his life. In his teens, he was awarded a scholarship to the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts. He was schooled in architectural, academic and conservative painting and greatly admired Hans Makart who was considered a celebrity painter of academic history. Acclaimed for his interior and theater decorating work, he won many award, pioneered artistic groups and achieved fame. As interest sparked, he studied Japanese, Chinese, ancient Egyptian and Mycenaean art and was possibly influenced by monochrome photography, consisting of images in one shade of color with limited hues. “He was also a highly accomplished and prolific draftsman. For drawings, Klimt preferred to work in black chalk and pencil, monochrome media which draw attention to the extreme refinement and intensity of his line” (2). At the height of Klimt’s fame, he began to unfold his new radicle innate style.
Klimt was commissioned to decorate the Great Hall ceiling at the University of Vienna with three paintings. He was instructed to present three black and white images of his paintings and was given complete freedom to illustrate complex characters, events and concepts. It is unknown where these drawings were created, but Vienna is possible since Klimt lived the majority of his life there.
Philosophy, the proposed theme was, “…triumph of light over darkness” (3). This first mural was presented in 1900. Klimt describes it as, “On the left a group of figures, the beginning of life, fruition, decay. On the right, the globe as mystery. Emerging below, a figure of light: knowledge” (4). I see a diluted background with water bubbles and ripples. Bereavement overtakes the crowd as they agonize with head in hands and open mouths. Below, death creeps upward and is not intimidated by the scene. Tragic subject matter is not my favorite, but I am impressed by the incredible detail and emotion captured in this drawing void of bright color.
Medicine, was the second painting presented in 1901. Art critics state, “Klimt conveyed an ambiguous unity of life and death, with nothing to celebrate the role of medicine or the science of healing” (3). I see the main focus of a healer or sorcerer who is bright and adorn with a type of caduceus, a staff with serpents that symbolizes medicine. Men, women, children and death cascade behind this powerful woman, but she is not afraid. She commands such power and I find her the most arousing element of the drawing.
Jurisprudence, is described as “psycho-sexual” (3), referring to Freud’s theory on libido. Three females representing truth, justice and law are circled around a condemned man and are represented as Eumenides, Greek gods of vengeance. The females are chastising the man with the deadly entwine of an octopus. The top mosaic section appears to be the three females watching themselves in action. Below, the women appear uninterested or bored of their activity, unlike the male, who is clearly broken. I find this piece quite confusing, but enjoy looking at the details and the mystery surrounding its meaning.
Photo manipulation is what I think when I see all three images. Even though I know they are black and white sketches, I could easily suggest that these images have been edited in order to create deception and grandeur. Layers of special effect, illusion and long exposure are also transparent, if only they were actually photographs.
To view larger images of Klimt’s three black and white drawings, click on link below and scroll down: