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

Bulletin 17, 1971

Annual Index
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Click figure 9 here for an enlarged image

Gustav Klimt's "Hope I"

by Johannes Dobai  

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Such an interpretation finds support in Goldfish, exhibited by Klimt in the Spring of 1902. (41) In the foreground a voluptuous nude sits with her back turned, glancing provocatively over her shoulder, while two other nudes, accompanied by a round fish, are represented as mermaids (nixies) in the depths of the sea: in other words, uninhibited, sensuous beings as seen in paintings by Bocklin, Watts or Klinger. The real meaning of this painting only emerges with the knowledge that the work was originally to have been entitled To My Critics, so that the main figure in the foreground may be derived from a print by Félicien Rops, Appel aux masses. (42) The painting was intended as a reply to critics who considered the University paintings, especially Medicine, indecent.

A study of the events connected with the University paintings might reveal in Klimt certain Whistler-like traits. (43) However, these were not basic, but secondary characteristics of a man inclined to introspection, and it was really Klimt's friends who urged him into belligerence. For example, in 1903, when Hope l was painted, Hermann Bahr (following Whistler's example of The Gentle Art of Making Enemies) published a collection of hostile criticisms of Klimt, Against Klimt, with his own comments. His objective was to expose the philistine stupidity of Klimt's attackers, among whom were not only critics but professors of Vienna University and politicians. There are other instances of the belligerence with which Klimt's friends replied to hostile remarks, and Klimt's own remarks - like those in the interview with Bertha Zuckerkandl mentioned above - at times show his own uncompromising attitude.  Moreover, many of Klimt's works show that his artistic direction at this time is to be understood by the motto "Nuda Veritas" on his painting of 1899 (fig. 9) (44) - in which artistic freedom, of truth, and contempt for the judgement masses are expressed in the quotation from Schiller inscribed on the painting: "If you cannot please all by your actions and your art, please the few. To please the many is bad. - Schiller. Nuda Veritas."

Yet another level of meaning can be seen in Hope l if we observe that the symbolic scenery, as in the painting Goldfish, seems to be in the depths of the sea. This is suggested less by the ornaments, which look like a collage avant la lettre, than by the large, dark sea-monster - a strange, balloon-like shape that looks a little like a polyp or a tadpole, with a claw-like hand and dull, expressionless eyes. This creature's size approximates that of the pregnant woman, and it could perhaps be compared with the gigantic gorilla in the group of "hostile figures" in Klimt's Beethoven frieze of 1902. (45) These "hostile figures", based in part on Beardsley, are nude women who in the composition symbolize "sickness, madness, death, debauchery, unchastity and excess". (46) The gorilla too falls into the category of the animalistic and merely sensual, though the grotesque form seems to be also an ironical self-comment on the theoretical, moralizing contents of the frieze.

The sea-monster in Hope l is also related to the two tadpole-shaped mermaids of Nixies, a less successful painting Klimt completed around 1899. (47) They too hover in deep waters, but have female faces; one would expect these creatures to pull a man into the farthest depths, like the mermaid in a painting by Edward Burne-Jones. (48) In Hope I, therefore, the sea-monster seems to be a symbol of animal nature in a negative sense: the main figure among the "appalling grimaces" and the "grotesque and lascivious demons of life" mentioned by Hevesi, from which the pregnant woman turns away and, like Dürer's Knight, walks unperturbed between the figures of Death and the Devil (fig. 3). (49) Nonetheless, this monster, like the gorilla in the Beethoven frieze, is more comical than threatening, at least for today's viewers, but it is not easy to say why. Either a sense of humour carried away the sceptical Klimt, or he lacked the skill to convincingly depict life's dark forces. Perhaps, too, he was testing the aesthetic limits available to a painter in Vienna at that time.

Hevesi, who has at times been somewhat inexact in his descriptions of paintings, writes of "grimaces" in the plural. However, there is only one really monstrous "grimace", that on the head in the upper left corner of the painting - a face with a distorted mouth, with one eye closed and one half-open. In style this head, with its angular outlines, is the most "modern" element in the picture: it precedes heads with open I closed eyes by Egon Schiele that, like this head, are hard to interpret in words. (50) In Klimt's work there is no real parallel to this face. Some comparable heads in the group of "hostile figures" to the left of the gorilla in the Beethoven frieze, which were perhaps based on African or Polynesian sculpture, are not as startlingly asymmetrical in their construction as this distorted face. (51)

The two other heads seen frontally in the upper part of Hope l can scarcely be regarded as "grimaces", half-closed eyes in the upper-right corner of the painting. These that the renewal of life can only take place in the shadow of death. Klimt also gave a festive note to the picture by decorating the hair of the pregnant woman with flowers. Moreover, the small, round, gold ornaments, with their stylized outlines, seem playful and are probably derived from Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the "Four" in general.

After a description of all the motifs of Hope I, one is inclined to return to Hevesi's sentence in which the pregnant woman, like Dürer's Knight, walks unperturbed between Death and Devil "in the holiness of her condition, threatened on all sides by appalling grimaces, by grotesque and lascivious demons of life". Hevesi speaks of threats, even of a "path of terror" on which the pregnant woman must walk, "spotless and made invulnerable by the 'hope' entrusted to her womb." If one is to take these remarks literally (as they are probably meant to be taken), one must assume that Klimt meant to represent symbolically not only the "holiness" of pregnancy in general, but the holiness of this condition in an unmarried woman in particular - one who would be exposed to "threats" and may walk on a "path of terror." Apart from Hevesi's otherwise incomprehensible interpretation (a married woman in Vienna at that time was hardly exposed to threats if pregnant), Klimt's own biography might give us a clue, since we know that he had at least one illegitimate son, the future stage-manager Gustav Ucicky. Another look at Nuda Veritas and Goldfish would only confirm this view, as would Hevesi's further remark that at the time the picture was painted "all ideas of emancipation come together." If this interpretation is correct - as I would like to think it is - we would then see the gloomy, and indeed also the comical, aspects of the sea-monster in the painting as characteristic of philistine stupidity, threatening just because of its obtuseness. In this case the half-comical aspect would not be the result of a lack of artistic skill, but an apt expression of the hypocrisy of the conservative majority. 

But a deeper and more universal meaning of Hope l is suggested by the presence of the figure of Death. He is an important protagonist in the painting, as he is in Medicine, where he is seen directly to the left of the pregnant woman. The position of Death in Medicine also helps to explain the role of Death in Hope I. In Medicine, death is part of Suffering Mankind, and not a power threatening life from outside, as Klimt showed it in his large composition Death and Life (painted about 1911, and reworked in 1915). (52) In Medicine death is something like an aspect of life, part of a general process that includes life and death and is broader than both. Life and death become part of a "world mystery" that, as the overall meaning of the University paintings suggests, is unfathomable through mere intellectual analysis by scholars. (53)

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