The Kiss (on the right) is one of the most frequent pictures in student dorm rooms. Female students that is. The gold, the flowers, gently undulating figure of a red-haired and pink woman being embraced and kissed by an angular and darker man what’s not to like?
But the early 20th century Austrian painter Gustav Klimt wasn’t always a crowdpleaser. In 1899 he was commissioned three paintings for the ceiling of the University of Vienna’s Great Hall. But Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence caused an uproar of university establishment and were never displayed. They were later looted by Nazis and destroyed by the fire in 1945, so we have only a fragment in colour and black-and-white reproductions of the rest.
But even from the ghost of the paintings we can see that Klimt combined his strands of his cash-cow ornate female portraits with his post-Great Hall allegorical groups, as in “award-winning” Death and Life. (If you ever in Vienna, do visit Leopold Museum for Klimt’s works if nothing else. Death and Life is mesmerizing, it’s 2m x 2m but feels like five times that.)
Why were his Great Hall paintings called ‘pornography’ and ‘perverted excess”? Not because the educated people at the end of the 19th century didn’t see nude figures on paintings. On the contrary, classical paintings of this period were full of nudes – relaxing in languorous poses, plump and pink. Klimt’s nudes are emasculated, twisted – and have visible pubic hair and genitals, hence pornography accusation. They also don’t suffer heroically as the heroes of classical paintings do, but in despair, viscerally – “in excess”.
But the main problem was not the nudes but the portrayal of the sciences. The 18th century, still recovering from the haze of Middle Ages saw glorification of scientific progress and scientists. The 19th century was the century of science, when the first diseases were defeated, of expanding industry, of electricity, telegraph and railways connecting cities to each other. The advances inspired enthusiasm and respect for scientists.
However, nothing is straightforward in human history, even the progress. 19th century heard first dissenting voices of artists, who pointed out dangers of hubris, for example Mary Shelley in Frankenstein, the first SciFi novel, and works of G.H. Wells, especially in Island of Dr. Moreau.
Klimt’s portrayal of sciences is more in the tradition of Shelley and Wells than those of painter of science pioneer Joseph Wright. Klimt’s sciences are far from glorious figures; they stand aside from the suffering human mass.
The only surviving fragment in colour shows Medicine clothed in blood-red. Experimentation on humans without their consent since the start of modern medical science, mutilating medical procedures and the usual medicine’s practitioners belief in their righteousness warrants arrogant, closed expression of Medicine looking down at the spectators. The prominent serpent in her hands – a part of traditional medicine emblem – but a universal figure of hate poised to strike. A skeleton, death, lurks among human bodies.
Depiction of Jurisprudence, a social science, study and theory of law is most peculiar. The goddess of Justice, which I imagine clothed in gold, holds scales in the background. Her companion holds a page with letters Lex – according to the Latin saying “Dura lex sed lex” (The law is harsh but it is the law). In the front instead of representation of a Syster of Medicine, coils an octopus-like presence. It surrounds a tortured male figure, reminiscent of Kafka’s The Trial where the protagonist is arrested and prosecuted for an unclear reason by an inaccessible authority.
Kafka wrote The Trial years after Klimt’s pictures. But considering what happened with the world in the 20th century and the role sciences played in the tragedies, starting with chemical weapons and not ending with technological catastrophes, Klimt’s pictures feel prophetic, even more modern, more 21st than the 20th century.
Bárbara C. Finn, Julio E. Bruetman, Pablo Young. Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) y su cuadro sobre la medicina. Rev. méd. Chile vol.141 no.12 Santiago Dec. 2013