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

Bulletin 17, 1971

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Gustav Klimt's "Hope I"

by Johannes Dobai  

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A look at other versions of this theme in Klimt's art may further illuminate the meaning of Hope I. There is a small early painting by hill, now lost, entitled In the Morning, perhaps a portrait of Helene or Emilie Flöge. (54) In style and symbolism it shows Khnopff's influence, and represents a young woman in a morning-robe arranging flowers in a vase. The vase, Klimt's invention of a satyr-type head, is comparable to Gauguin's "head-vases". On the neck of the vase are two figures, perhaps representing a struggle between a man and a woman (though the photograph does not show this clearly). As far as one can tell from the re-production, a circular shape grows out of the vase on a long stalk - a child's face surrounded by light. If we read the picture correctly from the photograph, this may be an early example of the theme of Hope.

The case of Vision is much clearer. Klimt probably painted this picture in 1907, but did not exhibit it until 1909, together with Hope I, at the international Wiener Kunstschau (fig. 2). (55) The position, in profile, is taken directly from Hope I, but the pregnant woman, now clothed, bows her head deeply and lifts her hand in a gesture of blessing. (56) Her garment is a complicated texture of ornaments and a zone of oval shapes that look like cross-sections of kernels - as if modern man had been driven to fashion biomorphic designs like those cupules made by prehistoric man for which we have no explanation. Besides this ceremonial robe, a sort of halo, curiously foreshortened, behind the woman's head suggests "holiness", as do the three women at the feet of the pregnant woman who lift their hands as if in adoration. Everything here is centred around the kind of "holiness" seen also by Hevesi in Hope I. Death too is present.

This switch to subjects of solemnity first appeared in Klimt's work around 1905, when he started to work on the cartoons for the Stoclet frieze, in which the motif of the kiss seems elevated into the realm of the sacred. (57) The change can be seen in all his paintings, even in landscapes, and was accompanied by a softening of mood. This meant a rejection of the agnostic, pessimistic and sceptical content of his earlier works, and change also in what for Klimt was even more important than his symbolism - the organization of his artistic form. Seen from this point of view, Hope I, like the destroyed Jurisprudence, was an important step in the development of anti-illusionist form, which reached its ultimate expression in works like The Kiss and Vision. Step by step, Klimt developed an abstract formal language, depending increasingly on the power of autonomous form without figurative content.   

These forms, as mentioned, developed gradually in Klimt's work, but in Hope I he arrived at a montage-like composition. The juxtaposition of naturalistic forms like the pregnant woman, expressionist forms like the grimacing figures in the background, and ornaments like the circular, abstract, golden "faces" reveal the core of Klimt's art. It is the recognition of the basic relationships among forms and a foresight into the formal schemes modern man was to develop - one reason why his art attracts modern viewers. The negation of naturalism and the expressionist intensification of the representational content seem to not only run side by side but often to form elements of one and the same work of art. In Klimt's case, however, this insight was the result of an intellectual and artistic situation different from today's, since Klimt's art, in spite of all its innovations, remains very much in the classical humanist tradition.

One of Klimt's last paintings is the unfinished Adam and Eve of 1917-18. (58) The painting touches on our theme in so far as Klimt, to judge from preliminary drawings, was following an old tradition in representing Eve as pregnant, an idea he later abandoned. However, there are at least three drawings that show this intention, all three representing Eve as pregnant and in left profile, as in Hope I, and embraced by Adam in a protective gesture. (59) Without any other symbolic attributes, these two figures, their heads bent, convey a sad and solemn mood. Moreover, some drawings even show Klimt's intention of giving his own features to Adam. (60)

{Translated from the German by Gwenda Lambton)

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