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

Bulletin 17, 1971

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Click figure 8 here for an enlarged image

Gustav Klimt's "Hope I"

by Johannes Dobai  

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An interpretation between these two, but a little closer to Hevesi, develops if one tries to see this painting in terms of Klimt's development during the preceding few years. The main motif - the naked pregnant woman crossing her hands beneath her breasts as if to protect the growing infant - is not a new invention in Klimt's repertoire, but the development of an earlier, secondary motif into the principal one. This makes improbable the romantic anecdote told by Arthur Roessler in 1953, that Klimt was motivated by the pregnancy of one of his professional models to paint Hope. (22) We see the figure of this pregnant woman in the upper right corner of the painting Medicine (fig. 4), exhibited by Klimt as early as the spring of 1901. (23) The pregnant woman is painted there with scarcely less drastic realism than in Hope I, but she is only one of the motifs in a group, or rather a knot, of figures suspended in the cosmic void, which, as in an epic, may represent the various stages of life. A basic pessimism is shown by Klimt's positioning of Suffering Mankind behind the figure of Hygieia. Many such stages, situations or phases of existence are depicted: a pair of lovers seen from the back, two representations of a mother and child, the head of an old man, a seductive young woman, an old woman derived from Rodin's La vieille haulnière, then the pregnant woman, and close to her the figure of Death in the form of the conventional human skeleton.

deserves mention not only because it contains the main motif for Hope I, but also because the whole composition centres around the same theme - biological survival. Next to Suffering Mankind and isolated from it, floats a nude young woman, foreshortened as seen from below, who is actually a symbolic mother-figure. she communicates with the suspended group of figures by extending her left arm, while a young man stretches his arm in her direction. She stands on a floating, semi-transparentsphere, which Hevesi described in 1901 as being of a blueish colour - a symbolic uterus motif. (24) Good photographs of this painting - which was destroyed by fire in 1945 - clearly reveal that the shape envelops an infant, or rather an embryo; this shows up most clearly in the final version, which was painted over the earlier version after 1901. (25) This motif absent, however, in the oil sketch and the large compositional drawing, and it appears only in vague outline in the first stage of the painting. (26)

What prompted Klimt to insert the symbolic uterus motif in Medicine is difficult to explain because of the scarcity of primary sources. But the "floating woman", and indeed the whole composition, thereby gained a new dimension of meaning. The simplest answer seems to be that Klimt wanted to broaden the scope of his composition and to reduce rather than heighten its implicit pessimism. However, the inclusion of an infant, or an embryo, could also have been based on earlier instances elsewhere that might have prompted Klimt's own reply to this motif of "becoming". For example, Beardsley's deeply pessimistic Incipit Vita Nova (fig. 5) probably originated in 1893. The content of this dark work is best interpreted through his personal psychology, but, apart from anatomical illustrations, it contains perhaps the first depiction of an embryo in the history of the figurative arts. (27) Shortly afterwards, in 1895, Edward Munch's famous lithograph Madonna (fig. 6) appeared, which was based on paintings probably done since 1893. This print, with an embryo in the frame surrounding the woman, was at one time also given a deeply pessimistic interpretation, which seems to me unjustified. (28) With its "halo-like" frame around the Madonna, this lithograph might equally well be a hymn to the "saintliness" of conception and birth, corresponding to the holiness of life-forces in Munch's so-called St. Cloud Series; thus, the dolorous expression on the Madonna may be meant to convey "holiness". Edith Hoffman. who compares this print with Félicien Rops's Mors Siphilitica, is of course quite right in her observation of veiled death motifs in this work; later, in a much larger painting of 1897-98 (a sort of counterpart to the Madonna), Munch himself treated the theme of syphilis in Inheritance (fig. 7) (29) Apart from Beardsley's above-mentioned work, this painting is probably the most radically pessimistic presentation in art history of a human being "born diseased" out of a sinful race. The content may in part be accounted for by Munch's deep religious anxiety at that time, (30) when he was trying to refute the ideology of those whom Franz Servaes, in his 1894 essay on Munch, called the Primitivists. Unlike Munch, they asserted that "each man shall become Adam and each woman Eve, in order to master totally one's instincts, to rebuild, from instinct up, a new human race". (31)  

Another work produced before 1897 may have stimulated Klimt: a pair of wall sconces made by Margaret and Frances MacDonald, with the motifs of expectation and fulfùment. (32) Expectation is a maiden with Diana's crescent moon in front of her breasts, and Fulfillment is a mother-figure who, within a sun-like circle, holds an infant. This circle has the same position as that of the moon on the other figure; it covers the woman roughly from shoulder to waist and seems to be not just in front of her but part other. This seems to be a symbolic uterus motif, an idea that later apparently also influenced Egon Schiele. (33) It should perhaps be mentioned that the "Four",* who decorated the Waerndorfer music room in Vienna, also influenced Klimt, but in ways that are not relevant here. (34)

Returning to Hope I, its artistic meaning may have become a little clearer; but even the simplest description of the painting points to its "esoteric" content, meant to be understood on several levels. This ambiguity is also characteristic of other works by Klimt and makes them true examples of symbolist art. In contrast with the corresponding figure in Medicine, the pregnant woman in Hope I is less stylized, but is drawn and painted with a precision that is the fruit of many life studies. It is interesting therefore to note that the studies, which all show great naturalistic precision (and were probably, at least in part, made for Medicine, i.e. around 1898-99), were done over a long period of time, to judge by the style. (35) For example, there are sketches that at first glance can be identified as studies for Vision. (36) Others seem to have been made - again judging by the style - after Vision was completed, perhaps during the second decade of this century, another proof of the fascination this motif continued to have for Klimt. (37) But a sketch in the Historical Museum of Vienna may be of even greater interest because it seems to have been drawn about 1903 (fig. 8). (38) In this drawing the main figure of Hope l is repeated three times, so that the sketch seems to have been done for a never-executed decorative frieze with the motif of the pregnant woman.

The figure of the pregnant woman in Hope l has - and this should have been said earlier -a "real" quality that resembles the earlier drawings. This impression is confirmed by the scepitical expression on the woman, who seems to look straight at us; it gives the face a portrait-like quality rather than a generalized one. This is remarkable if one compares the figure with the work of an artist who before 1900 influenced Klimt in many ways. Fernand Khnopff, in paintings like I Lock My Door upon Myself of 1891, (39) also experimented brilliantly with a synthesis of Naturalism and Symbolism, but his faces are developed from Pre-Raphaelite formulas, unlike the one in Klimt's picture. (40) In both works, however, the expression has something petulant and provocative about it, which in Khnopff's case may be understood in terms of his conception of the femme fatale. In the case of Hope I, however, it may have another meaning, for instance a protest against Victorian suppression of the facts of life.

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