Gustav Klimt - Pallas Athene, Medicine, and Judith and the Head of Holofernes
Pallas Athene was a familiar figure in Vienna, officially adopted as a symbol by the parliament. This, however, is not the coolly detached goddess of classical art, embodying an ideal of harmony and balance. Instead, Klimt’s Athene, flashing-eyed as Homer described her, seems to come from an older stratum, to have a deeper and more mysterious, even unsettling, power. The familiar face of the goddess has been transformed, as one contemporary critic said, into a “demon of the Secession.”
Medicine (click here for larger view) was the second painting, presented in March 1901 at the tenth Secession Exhibition. It featured a column of nude figures on the right hand side of the painting, representing the river of life. Beside it was a young nude female who floated in space, with a newborn infant at her feet, representing life. A skeleton represented death in the river of life . The only link between the floating woman and the river of bodies is two arms, the woman’s and a man’s as seen from behind. At the bottom of the painting Hygieia stood with the Aesculapian snake around her arm and the cup of Lethe in her hand, turning her back to mankind. Klimt conveyed an ambiguous unity of life and death, with nothing to celebrate the role of medicine or the science of healing. Upon display of the painting in 1901, he was attacked by critics who could have noted that Vienna was leading the world in medical research under such figures as Theodor Billroth (1829-94), Frantisek Chvostek (1835-84), and Ludwig Türck (1810-68). An editorial in the Medizinische Wochenschrift complained that the painter had ignored doctors’ two main achievements, prevention and cure.
In May 1945 the paintings were destroyed as retreating German SS forces set fire to the castle to prevent it falling into enemy hands. All that remains now are preparatory sketches and a few photographs, most notably that of one focusing solely on Hygieia. Only one photograph remains of the complete painting of Medicine, taken just before it was destroyed.
In the Old Testament, the Jewish widow, Judith, saved the city of Bethulia from siege by the Assyrians by adoring herself and venturing into the enemy camp to gain access to the Assyrian general, Holofernes. He invited her to a banquet intending to seduce her, and while they were alone at the feast, Judith took advantage of Holofernes’ drunkenness to decapitate him, and returned to Bethulia with his head in a sack. The Jews saw Judith as a virtuous heroine, but Klimt portrays her as a Viennese femme fatale. Her expression of cruel triumph has often led to her being confused with Salome, who ordered the beheading of John the Baptist to satisfy the vengeful spirit of her mother.