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Pessimism and Expectation Behind the Sensual Pleasure – Death Paintings by Gustav Klimt

Written by: Mia Zhou


Klimt is the master of depicting women and love. He portrays women with tender bodies and charming faces, illustrates the passionate tension between lovers and human kinship. Yet, Klimt always depicts grotesque creatures implying the existence of death behind these artistic scenes, therefore suggesting a sense of gloominess. What is Klimt trying to probe at when combining sensual figures with the indication of death? Are these paintings exposing his pessimistic view towards life or revealing his expectations towards human future? Today I will introduce three paintings by Klimt relating to death, thus further discussing his anxiety and insecurity as well as his idealism and hope.



In 1892, Klimt successively experienced the death of his father and brother, resulting in his futilitarian view of life. Love, (Figure 1) painted by Klimt in 1895, marks his first step towards interpreting ephemeral love. Similarly to his most popular work The Kiss, Love presents a pair of lovers embracing each other. The dramatic pose of the lovers makes the painting reminiscent of a theatre poster, with the rose on the frame suggesting romantic love. However, this is a very disturbing painting once you notice the figures above the lovers. There is a pale little girl with a white hair, a charming young woman which is strikingly similar to Klimt's Judith, a deformed man, and an elder person calmly looking down at the lovers. Although Klimt locates these figures on the upper part of the painting, it seems to me that they are spectres from the abyss gazing at the lovers. The man and woman are almost swallowed up by moss and vines; the abnormal cyan tonality of the man's face makes him resemble a lifeless sculpture. The scene of the gorgeous lovers alongside the bizarre figures at the top endows an eerie beauty to this painting. What is Klimt trying to convey here? The unpredictability and unavoidability of death? Love as both pleasure and enchaining? There is no certain answer but Love, a less famous work of Klimt, is an early demonstration of his pessimistic ideology of life and death.



In the late nineteenth century, Vienna, as one of the fin-de-siècle societies, was experiencing a series of social, cultural, and ethical crisis. The perceived decline of the Habsburg Empire impacted deeply on the life of its citizens, and particularly in shaping the values and aesthetics of Secessionist artists. Hope I (Figure 2) was one of the shocking paintings produced by Klimt in 1903, during the Vienna Secession. The presence of a naked pregnant woman on canvas as an artistic taboo demonstrates Klimt's determination to subvert the conventionality of Viennese society. Behind this attractive pregnant woman, there are also peculiar ghosts indicating an inevitable death. Although the delicacy of the pregnant woman appears out of place in a group of grotesque creatures, her pale body echoes their darkness and gloominess, as if she would eventually become one of them. Here in this painting, symbols of death not only reflect the hopelessness nature of life but also imply Klimt's hope to pose a challenged to a hypocritical and obsolete society. He conceives his expectation of the future of the modern era in the womb of this pregnant woman. Klimt is also likely offering a utopian hope that a new religious truth is built on the free expression of sexuality and femininity. What is the new "religion" that Klimt dreamed of? What is conceived through his utopia of humanity? It could be a new form of art that breaks the academic tradition – Secession art. In Hope I, he envisions allegorically his expectation of the future and of the art he created, hoping that these Secessionist values would be achieved and accepted by the future generation.



In 1915, Klimt created Death and Life (Figure 3) as the final embodiment of his controversial views. In the painting, there is a group of people tightly embracing each other. On the other hand, there is a personification of death holding a sickle and staring at them. Although death seems to come close to the human mass, there is a colourful realm surrounding and protecting them, separating them the dark, gloomy environment. I believe that the protection of life from death is love. Of course, death is eternally inevitable, yet human love also shines in its own way even in the midst of death. Instead of depicting a scene where life overcomes death or death threatens life, Klimt finds a balance and a reconciliation between death and life. Although he pessimistically insists there are always sadness and oldness behind beauty and youth, he also optimistically and romantically believes that love can comfort the inescapable pain of death in life. Furthermore, the group of humans in this painting makes me reflect on the monolith in Frogner Park in Oslo, which suggests a sense of reincarnation of life. For Klimt, maybe death is not the end of life, but the rebirth of a new, utopian world in another generation.



Bibliography:

Lampl, Nicole. "Breaching Taboos: Gustav Klimt's Depictions Of Pregnancy". Tulane University, 2018.


Sármány-Parsons, Ilona. "The Image Of Women In Painting: Clichés And Reality In Austria-Hungary, 1895-1905". Rethinking Vienna 1900, Steven Beller, Berghahn Books, New York & Oxford, 2001, pp. 220-256.


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