Gustav Klimt through the lense of Schopenhauerian philosophy

In fin-de-siècle Vienna of the early 20th Century, Klimt publicly denounced the subject of Philosophy, alongside modern science, as incapable of addressing the true human conditions in his infamous University Paintings. They sparked such public outrage and scandal that Klimt himself withdrew the works from the commission made by the University of Vienna. One of the works in controversy was Medicine (1900-1907).

An old photo of a crowd

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Gustav Klimt, Medicine, 1900-7. Credit: WikiMedia Commons

Medicine is widely read by scholarship as a pessimistic representation that signifies the impotence of science and knowledge. In this mural, Klimt depicts humans struggling to break free from the endless cycles of being born, growing old, getting sick, eventually dying while only to be reborn. Hygeia, the goddess of health and daughter to the god of medicine, turns her back on humanity in indifference. It might be difficult to imagine Klimt’s work in this way as his lushly decorative style left behind a legacy that characterized Art Nouveau itself. Situating Klimt in the context of fin-de-siècle Vienna, however, his seemingly puzzling pessimism to a modern viewer was rightfully grounded in philosophical thoughts of his time. Perhaps rather ironically, Klimt’s Medicine resonates with a branch of philosophical ideas loosely labelled as Irrationalism that critiqued rationality and individualism as core liberal values of modern European societies. Klimt insistently refused to leave any explanations of his works behind, other than the art itself. So, it shall be in Klimt’s art that we will seek the answer to the question: can we better understand an artist’s oeuvre in conjunction with the philosophical ideas of his time? 

This is where we turn to Arthur Schopenhauer whose philosophy greatly influenced many Viennese intellectuals by the late 19th Century.[1] Schopenhauer was a faithful follower of Immanuel Kant who believed that the essence of the world is incomprehensible to the human mind and knowledge. Using this framework, Schopenhauer argues that the essence of the world is in fact an energy called Will. This energy exists in all of nature, outside time and space, endlessly striving to propagate and pursue living. Will is the driving force behind life as well as the misery that comes with living. Human comprehension of Will is limited to the five senses, so Will can only be partially experienced through feeling and perception. To make sense of this, Representations of Will are constructed by humans to explain observable things and phenomena of the world. But Representations only explain the appearances of things, the true essence still eludes us – this is what Schopenhauer calls “veil of Maya”. 

In Klimt’s Medicine, the “veil of Maya” is symbolized by the thin floating veil surrounding the figure of Death, now dwelling amongst human figures and inseparable from the cycle of life.[2] Medicine, or science, cannot relieve us from suffering because they merely contribute to constructing Representations of the world. So, if humans cannot piece through the “veil to maya” to comprehend Will, the source of all suffering, how could they break away from the endlessly miserable cycles of life? The seemingly Schopenhauerian pessimism in Klimt’s Medicine is what provoked backlash to his University Paintings. However, curiously enough, Klimt had reused the same compositional motif in Medicine for a much later allegorical painting, Death and Life (1910-1911, reworked in 1915-1916). 

Gustav Klimt, Death and Life (1915/16). Credit: WikiMedia Commons

Death and Life places the figure of Death in the direct opposite of the human cluster symbolizing Life. Death is androgynous and monochromatic, threatening yet static and distanced. The representation of Life, in contrast to Medicine, is a dreamy ornamentation of vivid colors with symbolic patterns alluding to nature and beauty. Though similar to Medicine, it portrays the cycle of life with various human figures: mother, child, old woman, couple; all of which convey a sense of regeneration and succession but with no particular direction. The figures seem to be in a dream state, or in a state between sleep and wakefulness. Each figure seems to have an instinctive drive of their own, yet they are also collectively governed by a force of nature that repeats the cycle of regeneration and rebirth. Although constantly under the gaze of death, the figures seem to be unbothered and unaware of Death’s presence. Life appears to carry a positive undertone over Death, even with a sense of triumph. If this visual analysis stands correctly, Death and Life significantly differs from its earlier reincarnation in Medicine. Why is that?

Although Schopenhauer was pessimistic, he still provided potential solutions to resolve the endless suffering as results of the Will. According to Schopenhauer’s philosophy of aesthetics, contemplations of art provides a relief from the strivings of the Will and the misery that comes with living, albeit only a temporary one. For Schopenhauer, art and the artistic genius can piece through the Representations of the world, or the “veil of Maya”, by turning inwards to apprehend the true, universal essence of all living beings, called the “Platonic Ideas”.[3] Klimt was certainly not unfamiliar with this notion. Art historian Peter Vergo argues for a crucial connection between Klimt and Schopenhauer through composer Richard Wagner who was a known admirer of Schopenhauer.[4] Wagner had in turn directly influenced Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze (1901)an elaborate allegorical work that celebrates the triumphant light over darkness. The optimism found in Beethoven Friezeresonates with Schopenhauerian “Platonic Ideas” as Klimt puts his faith in art’s ability to liberate humanity from suffering.  

Situating Death and Life between the overwhelmingly pessimistic Medicine and Beethoven Frieze as polar opposite, it now seems to speak more ambiguously about Schopenhauer’s solution to suffering. In Death and Life, humanity is seemingly trapped in the cycle of rebirth and regeneration, like in Medicine, but the human figures seem to be alleviated from suffering as bright and blissful ornamentations merge with their bodies. It’s worthwhile to note that Klimt added more ornamentations to the figures in the reworked version, intentionally creating a stronger contrast against the monochromatic figure of Death.[5]

This representation of the human bodies through ornamentations is significant in two aspects. Firstly, according to Schopenhauer, the body is a convergence between Will and Representation, being simultaneously an object apprehended through perception as well as a manifestation of Will. In Schopenhauer’s word: “The action of the body is nothing but the act of will objectified”.[6] In other words, the expression of Will is materialized through representations of the body.

Secondly, the ornamentation of the figures provides the aesthetic contemplations that relives suffering and simultaneously leaves the mark of an artistic genius. Scholar Jacques Le Rider argues: “life [itself] speaks through ornamentation […]; and by an eminently subjective perspectivism legitimized by genius: the language of ornamentalism founded a style which obeyed the creator’s sovereign ‘point of view’.[7]

Combining these two aspects together, the stylistic and thematic changes in Death and Life becomes clearer. Here, the figures are in suspended in a state in between relief and suffering, never fully miserable nor blissful. Though their bodies still subjected to the manifestations of Will-to-live in the cycle of life, the ornamentations can be seen as aesthetic contemplations in which they can submerge themselves and thus avoiding, or at least pretending to avoid suffering. This is the true essence of humanity as conveyed by Klimt, trapped in existence yet eased by aesthetical pleasures brought about and legitimized by the artistic genius. We can see how far Klimt’s has departed from the pessimism of Medicine as well as the optimism in the Beethoven Frieze, arriving at a point of reconciliation. Humanity is conditioned by neither pure suffering nor complete bliss, but an intertwined cluster that encompasses everything in between. This is not a grim reality: after all, arts, beauty and aesthetics can elevate us from the essence of the world that bounds us in the endless cycle of Life and Death, even if just momentarily.  

[1] It has been suggested that Schopenhauer might have indirectly influenced Klimt’s early works through mutual associates such as Hermann Bahr, Peter Altenberg and Gustav Mahler. But there is no point in speculating any plausible connections between Klimt and Schopenhauer as their cross never officially crossed. What is left for us to grasp can only be found in their respective works.

[2] Marlowe-Storkovich, Tina. “”Medicine” by Gustav Klimt.” Artibus Et Historiae 24, no. 47 (2003): 231-252.

[3] Karnes, Kevin C. “Wagner, Klimt, and the Metaphysics of Creativity in “Fin-De-Siècle” Vienna.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 62, no. 3 (2009): 647-697.

[4] Vergo, Peter. “Between Modernism and Tradition: The Importance of Klimt’s Murals and Figurative Paintings” in Gustav Klimt: Modernism in the Making, ed. Colin B Bailey. (New York; Ottawa;: H.N. Abrams, 2001), 27. 

[5] Cavallaro, Dani. “Bodies” in Gustav Klimt: A Critical Reappraisal, 2018. 

[6] Smith, Kimberly A. “A Melancholic Landscape” in Between ruin and renewal: Egon Schiele’s landscapes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 114.

[7]  Le Rider, Jacques, Modernity and Crisis of Identity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007), 74.

Published by Nini Huang

Recent University of Glasgow graduate of History of Art and Digital Media and Information Studies (MA). Areas of interest include critical practices, new media art and postcolonial discourses. Particularly keen to consider questions related to Institutional Critique in a contemporary context, i.e how the administrative and operative functions of art institutions shape cultural discourses, especially in relation to the increasingly indispensable role of digital media in current climates. Currently studying Media and Communications Studies: Culture, Collaborative Media and Creative Industries at Malmö University.

2 Replies to “Gustav Klimt through the lense of Schopenhauerian philosophy”

  1. A very insightful piece. Being new to criticism of art, I have been pleased with how easy it was to follow your presentation of the background and future influence that “Medicine” had on the later “Death and Life”!

    I seldom appreciate that beyond the canvas, there was a heart yearning to express the ineffiable. I guess you have given another clear tone to that previously incommunicable drive the arstist had.

    I am definitely looking forward to more of your work here 🙂

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