The Vereinigung bildender Künstler Österreichs (aka Secession) was formally inaugurated in April 1898 with Klimt elected its president. Its mission statement was the promotion of artworks in public and the education of an ignorant public about Viennese and foreign art. The Secession challenged conservative art institutions and the commercialism they espouse, signifying what Carl Schorske describes as a ‘collective Oedipal revolt’ against the forefathers of Austrian establishments. More importantly, the Secession represents a quest for meaning by the modern Viennese man caught between the rationalism, positivism and materialism and the post-Kantian tradition of philosophical irrationalism out of Schopenhauer’s conviction that the true basis for all knowledge of human nature is the persuasion that a man’s actions are not directed by his reason.Klimt’s University Paintings epitomize the moment in Austria when intellectuals began to doubt the conception of human nature associated with the Enlightenment and classical liberalism. The murals were commissioned by the Vienna University to apostrophize the university and its four faculties – Theology, Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence, with the central panel bearing the theme of ‘The Victory of Light over Darkness.’ Like the first panel Philosophy which caused 87 university faculty members to sign a petition protesting against the panel asking the Ministry of Culture to reject it, the second panel Medicine touched a nerve of the academic body. Rather than glorifying progress in civilization through the science of medicine, Klimt’s Medicine presented as a ‘field of action as a phantasmagoria of half-dreaming humanity, sunk in instinctual semi-surrender.’ The priestess figure of Hygeia in the forefront acts as the mediator between the viewers and Klimt’s ‘existential theatrum mundi (theater of the world).’ The Greek mythological figure of Hygeia holds a snake, an amphibious creature and phallic symbol with bisexual associations, symbolizing the dissolution of boundaries between land and sea, man and woman, and life and death. Add to that the naturalistic nudes with pubic hair and their postures, emphasizing the sense of confrontation as a ceiling painting seen from below, Medicine caused a scandal beyond academia. The Minister of Education was forced to defend the original commission for the paintings in Parliament. Public prosecutor ordered the confiscation of the issue of the magazine published by the Secessionists, Ver Sacrum, containing drawings of Medicine on the grounds of ‘offence against public morals.’ Legal action taken by the Secessions’s president lifted the censor’s ban, but the anger and hostility remained.
Judith I, painted in 1901 (widely interpreted as Salome), represented the castration of man disguised as decapitation by a femme fatale. The threatening element in the painting is occasioned not by the act of homicide (in fact the head of Holofernes has been excluded almost completely), but by the exhibitionist display of sensuality, transforming the figure into a sexual object and making her appear dangerously unpredictable. The fact that she was seen as threatening reflects contemporary changes in the role of women in Viennese society, namely the emancipation of women in jobs and politics in the form of women’s suffrage. The much-discussed ‘crisis of the male liberal ego’ is no longer limited to political and economic changes. ? What began as an attempt in Viennese society to liberate sexuality from the constraints of a moralistic culture affording a new sexual freedom gives rise to psychological problems such as the threat of falling victim to the femme tentaculaire. Klimt aestheticized these problems by shifting them from reality into allegory in the fantastic guise of mythology.
True to the spirit of modernism, the Secession was fragmented into two camps by 1904: the Klimt-gruppe (‘the stylists’) including Klimt, architect Otto Wagner and designers Hoffmann and Moser, and the Nur-Maler (‘pure painters’) headed by Engelhart. The roots of the conflict are not merely aesthetic, but essentially ideological. The Klimt-gruppe embraced architecture and design apart from paintings as public art with a special mission while the Nur-Maler reproached these decorative artists and opted for the concept of an autonomous art. Klimt and the ‘stylists’ resigned from the Secession in 1905. The Klimt group organized the first Kunstschau exhibition in 1908.
Klimt’s most famous painting, The Kiss, was shown for the first time in the Kunstschau exhibition in 1908. Representative of his Golden Period, the combination of oil paint and golden ornament achieved a decorative splendor unprecedented in Austrian art. His late style was considered a version of the Art Nouveau style popular in Europe. In this golden fantasy of Klimt’s, man and woman are united in an embrace, a theme familiar in the painter’s oeuvre. The bodies of male and female are inseparable and indistinguishable save for the stylized ornamental elements on the garment, rectangle as Zeus’ phallic symbol on the male’s cloak and the ovular and floral pattern on the women’s. Later in the side wall in the dining hall of Stoclet Palace (Fig. 1), this distinction is abandoned altogether when both sexes are symbolized within one figure.
One of the three female portraits shown in the 1908 Kunstschau was Adele Bloch-Bauer. The dramatic contrast between the naturalistic face and blue-veined hands and shoulder and the extreme artifice of the garment and background metaphorizes people trapped within a web of precious substance, showing the unease of the artist’s attempt to reconcile the demands of physical reality and that of art for art’s sake. The tension created by the coiled volutes, mosaic cells, eye-shaped and vulva-like ellipses posits an alternative reality with the language of abstraction.
The artistic device of stylization as a form of aesthetic presentation was utilized by Klimt to cloak naked instincts and emotions in formal harmony, and in turn preventing them from being consumed; the artistic intention was to define art ‘entirely in terms of aesthetic behavior as the only true basis for justifying the existence of the world.’ Once the alliance between truth and beauty was challenged, Klimt’s art risked becoming merely beautiful and glamorous. Klimt’s trajectory from the realm of history and struggle to that of aesthetic abstraction and transcendence passes the burden of the quest for truth in modern Vienna on the younger generation of artists, of which Egon Schiele is the representative.