National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 17, 1971

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Gustav Klimt's "Hope I"

by Johannes Dobai  

Résumé en français

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The National Gallery of Canada has recently acquired an important work by the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt, Hope (cover and fig. 1). (1) To distinguish this painting from a later version on the same theme, which during Klimt's lifetime had the title Vision (fig. 2), (2) it is usually referred to as Hope I. Die Hoffnung* was the title which the artist himself gave it, and under which it was exhibited several times during his life. Differences between the two versions will be discussed later in this article, after a look at the conception and development of the theme for Hope I.

According to his friend Ludwig Hevesi, usually a reliable source, Klimt painted Hope I during the summer of 1903, (3) close to the time his monumental Jurisprudence was painted (one of the three panels he did for the Assembly Hall of the University of Vienna, but which were never installed; they were eventually destroyed by fire in 1945). (4) Most likely Klimt, then forty-one, painted Hope I with a view to including it in the great retrospective of his work, in November 1903, at the Eighteenth Exhibition of the Vienna Secession,** whose first president Klimt had been. The artist obviously intended the painting to make an important statement at this exhibition, but in the end he was denied the opportunity.

In his account of the exhibition Ludwig Hevesi writes that Klimt withdrew the painting on the advice of the Minister for Culture and Education, Johannes Wilhelm Rittér von Hartel. (5) Later, in 1905, he wrote, "at the Klimt exhibition two years ago the painting could not be shown; superior powers prevented it". (6) Klimt himself was even more explicit during an interview with the art critic Bertha Zuckerkandl, in April 1905, at the time he withdrew his three panels, the so-called University paintings - Philosophy, Medicine and jurisprudence - because they had been accepted but were not to be installed. (7) He criticized the University paintings commission and von Hartel himself (who because of the "Klimt Affair" retired from his position shortly afterwards, on II September 1905): "Since the unfortunate State Commission, (8) everyone in Vienna has got into the habit of blaming Minister von Hartel for all my other works, and in the end the Minister for Education must have imagined that he really carried the full responsibility. People seem to think that I was prevented from showing a certain painting in my retrospective because it might shock people. I withdrew it because l did not want to cause embarrassment to the Secession, but l myself would have defended my work." (9)

That Klimt himself considered Hope l important is shown by the fact that he included it in the second exhibition of the Deutsche Künstlerbund in 1905 in Berlin. (10) It had been purchased meanwhile by the Vienna collector, Fritz Waerndorfer, one of the co-founders in May 1903 of the Wiener Werkstatte.*** In this connection we have an undated, somewhat enigmatic letter by Klimt to his good friend Waerndorfer that shows he intended to go on working at the painting even after its purchase, because he considered the first version (of which no pictorial record is known to exist) as "totally unfinished" and "artistically incomprehensible". (11) W e have no record of when these "alterations or overpaintings" might have been done; if in fact they ever were done, their nature could now be determined only by scientific research. We do know, however, that by 1905 the painting was in the Waerndorfer collection, "protected by double doors to shelter it from profane eyes". (12) After this the Vienna public did not see the painting until Klimt and his friends organized the international Wiener Kunstschau 1909. This time too, it caused a stir, and was the painting "that nourished all the coffee houses and 'five o'clocks'". (13) However, this time it found a defender in the conservative camp as well - a certain Dr. Joseph Popp, of the Leo Gesellschaft (an association of neo-catholic orientation), who saw it as, in the final analysis, a religious work. (14)

When analyzing a symbolist work of art, it is well to remember that it was the intention of the symbolists themselves to develop symbols on several levels. Mallarmé's verses in reply to Huysman's Des Esseintes perhaps show better than any explanation that hyperbole was a central concept of the symbolists, which can only be expressed through parables. But in an essay "Symbolism in Painting", partly influenced by I William Blake, William Butler Yeats sees the symbol, in contrast to allegory, as something essentially open, even ambiguous. (15) This shows the romantic background of Symbolism, for the romantics also saw the symbol as opposed to allegory in this light. (16) In symbolist painting especially, so many levels exist that analysis of such a work must all too often be mere speculation.

One may, for instance, see Klimt' s Hope l as the expression of a view of life derived principally from Schopenhauer - an artistic presentation of misogynist and pessimistic ideas related to Klimt's Judith, which, significantly, also bore the title Salone at that time. (17) In this sense one might say, "To Klimt's Judith must be added her pendant, Hope, in which one fears that the child of Satan's plaything will be stillborn". (18) The background for such a view of life would be the ideas of a younger contemporary of Klimt, Otto Weininger, whose Sex and Character was in fact published in Vienna in 1903, the year in which Hope I was painted. "He posited a philosophical Counterpart to Franz von Stuck and Gustav Klimt; Man represents the virtuous, the positive, the creative; woman the evil, the negative, the destructive. All human conditions result from man's bisexual character in consequence of the interior struggle between his natures." (19) According to this interpretation, Klimt's paintings would be fundamentally pessimistic in content - a way of presenting the physical aspects of the senseless continuation of a mankind rotten at the roots, in the shadow of monsters and of death. In other words, the meaning would be scarcely less sombre than in Aubrey Beardsley, whose pessimistic treatment of hope, among other themes, is discussed in greater detail below.

Quite a different, much more optimistic, positive and, as will be shown, progressive interpretation of the painting is given by Klimt's friend Ludwig Hevesi, although he was sometimes inclined to idealize Klimt's work. (20) As mentioned above, he revealed in 1905 that the painting was protected by double doors in the Waerndorfer collection, and gave a plausible interpretation of this work, locked away from "profane eyes": 

The painting is the famous, or should we say infamous, Hope by Klimt, of the extremely pregnant young woman whom the artist dared to paint in the nude. One of his masterpieces. A deeply moving creation. The young woman walks along in the holiness of her condition, threatened on all sides by appalling grimaces, by grotesque and lascivious demons of life...but these threats do not frighten her. She walks unperturbed along the path o f terror, spotless and made invulnerable by the "hope" entrusted to her womb. A symbolic painting - in which the theme of Albrecht Diirer's Knight, Death and Devil (fig. 3) has a modern ring - has been cast into a sensitive, romantic form at a time when all ideas of emancipation come together. Naturally the muse of prudery has banned this paintings and condemned the artist to a hundred thousand years ill purgatory. At the Klimt exhibition two years ago the painting could not be shown; superior powers prevented it. Now it is in the privatissimum of the Waerlldorfer house.

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