fin du siecle: gustav klimt -philosophy, medicine, jurisprudence




Gustav Klimt loved women and spent most of his life drawing and painting them. Living through and contributing to fin du siecle Vienna his pictures have become icons of the twentieth century. ThoUgh initially his subject matter was traditional and accepted, latterly he shocked by his frank nudes and portrayals of female sexuality. The above three paintings were commissioned for the ceiling of the Great Hall of the University of Vienna in 1893. Klimt’s novel approach to allegory and symbolism was transformative but shocking to some. In March 1900 Philosophy was exhibited in Vienna with an explanatory text:

‘ Left hand group of figures: birth, fertility and decline. On the right the globe, the cosmic riddle; emerging from below an enlightening figure: Knowledge.’

This was not found acceptable, he was accused of distorting figures to make them seem ugly and the visibility of female pubic hair shocked many and Klimt was accused of obscenity.

The second and third paintings, Medicine and Jurisprudence were less original in concept and produced less of a shock. In Medicine there is the human chain seen in Philosophy but here representing the various stages of human development. Hygieia ascends from below with healing powers. Medicine went on display in 1900 in Paris at the Exposition Universelle and gained the gold medal for foreign exhibitors. When exhibited in 1901 in Vienna there was violent criticism with questions being asked in Parliament. The standing naked female figure at the upper left of Medicine was perceived as overtly sexual and unacceptable in a female nude.

Jurisprudence was exhibited in Vienna in 1903. At the top against a panel of human figures are figurative representations of the Law , below are an old man and woman waiting their punishment.

It was decided that the paintings would not be placed as planned in the University. Klimt resigned from the commission and bought the paintings back from the University. An industrialist August Lederer bought Philosophy while Medicine and Jurisprudence were bought by Kolo Moser. The last time all three were together was a celebration of the 80th anniversary of his Klimt’s birth 1943. All were destroyed by the SS when they retreated in 1945.

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