It is improbable that more nonsense has been written about aesthetics than about anything else: the literature of the subject is not large enough for that (Clive Bell)


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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Kandel : The Depiction of Modern Women's Sexuality in Art

Kandel : The Depiction of Modern Women's Sexuality in Art This is Chapter 8 of Eric Kandel's "The Age of Insight : The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain".

Quoted text is in YELLOW. Text quoted from other authors is in GREEN *************************************************************************** ****************************************************************************

 AS SCHNITZLER WAS DELINEATING THE RICHNESS AND SUBTLETY of women's inner lives and their struggle to achieve social and sexual identities independent of men, Gustav Klimt was at the forefront of a parallel development in Austrian art. Austrian modernist painting grew from the belief that for an art to be truly modern, it not only had to express modern feelings, it also had to depict honestly the unconscious strivings that motivate men and women alike. In the hands of Klimt and his protégés, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, painting proved to be analogous to creative writing and to psychoanalysis in its ability to delve beneath Vienna’s restrictive attitudes toward sex and aggression and reveal people’s true inner state. As Kokoschka claimed, “Expressionism was a contemporary and rival of Freud’s development of psychoanalysis.” He might as well have said, “We are all Freudians, we are all modernists; we all want to go deep below surface appearances;”

BTW, that quote from Kokoschka can also be found in this book which seems to be covering the same territory as Kandel.

 Francois Boucher, 'Leda and the Swan", 18th C.

 Klimt kind of specialized in drawings of attractive young women masturbating, and while it's entirely possible that he pursued this theme to "depict honestly the unconscious strivings that motivate men and women alike" and "reveal people's true inner state", it's also possible that he, and his intended collectors, found these scenes sexually arousing

 How do they differ from the above image from the 18th C. ? Does the absence of any mythological reference completely change its function? Does it really make them any more confrontational or less salacious and repressed? Why doesn't he show any men masturbating ? Why are all the women so young and cute -- why are her limbs rendered so voluptuously -- and why does she always seem to be presenting her genital stimulation so directly to the viewer's gaze ?

 Here are some more examples -- and I'm wondering whether any one of them reveal anything more about a modern woman's sexuality - just as I wonder whether this series is not so much about women as it is about the fantasy life of fin-De-siecle Viennese men.

I'm not claiming that these alternative explanations can be proven -- but shouldn't Kandel at least attempt to dismiss them?

 BTW, here's a collection of all the Leda/Swan depictions that I could find.

 Rather than posing for posterity on a modeling stand with various supports and props. . . but having to appear oblivious to any audience, she is now self-consciously in the private presence of a man who is deeply interested in her, not as a poesy, but as a woman.  

 But I would agree with Albert Elsen as Kanel has quoted him above. Female sexual flaunting might have made earlier collectors more uncomfortable.

 Thomas Rowlandson 

 Though we do have the 18th C. version shown above -- and if we dug deeper into the subterranean world of pornography, we might find many more.

 As Kandel notes, Rodin also did drawings of this subject matter

 but Rodin's powerful sense of sculptural form overwhelms the space around it, so the erotic atmosphere seems diminished.

 Kandel quotes Ruth Westheimer as follows:

 Whereas it would be easy to dismiss these works as pornographic for men—and debasing for women—these pictures can also be seen as expressing an increasing awareness of women’s sexual self-sufficiency. That awareness led naturally, but all too slowly, to a greater independence of women in all spheres of life. Perhaps if Freud had seen these works he might not have saddled us with his myth that women require vaginal penetration to achieve orgasm. He might have also realized that clitoral stimulation is neither regressive nor immature but rather a healthy way for a woman to give herself pleasure—or to receive pleasure from someone else. 

 One might also note that self-pleasuring does not seem to be featured in Japanese pornography - or, at least, I've yet to see it. (note: Klimt notes that it can be found in Utamau's book, "The Laughing Drinker" of 1803 - but I despair of ever seeing a copy) And I also don't recall seeing much of it in contemporary video porn -- it's just not dramatic enough. Perhaps, as Kandel suggests, in 1900, it accompanied the emerging independence of European middle class women - and then later was dropped as that independence and equality was further along.


 Kandel notes that Klimt's drawings were not made to be sold, but they stayed in his personal collection -- which suggests that they were not intended to arouse anyone but himself. He also tells us that Klimt "had numerous, meaningful, romantic affairs and from these he learned a great deal about women"

But it seems more likely that these drawings depict prostitutes giving a good show, rather than his memories of lovers he has known. One might also note Kandel's ambivalence concerning Freud. On the one hand, he presents Freud as the centerpiece of that era's scientific exploration of the subconscious -- but on the other hand, Kandel offers several examples of Freud's insensitivity and misunderstanding of women -- and none to the contrary.

The denizens of a contemporary Shanghai brothel  probably understood women far better than the Viennese psychiatrist.

Giorgione and Titian depicted Venus, the Roman goddess of love, masturbating In both Giorgione’s The Sleeping Venus (1508—10) and Titian’s Venus of Urhino (before 1538), the goddess’s hand is placed over the pubis with her fingers curled, not extended. This positioning is so subtle and ambiguous that the paintings’ eroticism can readily be—and indeed repeatedly has been — repressed by the beholder and interpreted as depicting Female modesty rather than masturbation. In his chapter on "Censorship of the Senses", in The Power of Images, the art historian David Freedberg emphasizes that, with rare exceptions, even professional art historians have repressed their own sexual responses and not commented on this aspect of the paintings, focusing instead on iconographic readings, aesthetic evaluation of the form, color, and composition, and other interesting features. In contrast it is next to impossible for the beholder to repress an awareness of or sexual response to Klimt's nudes pleasuring themselves.

 I have to admit that, like all those repressed art historians that Freedberg mentions, I also have never felt that these two Venuses were masturbating. OK, the fingers are touching the labia -- but is that how women masturbate?

 And don't these paintings have a peaceful, sultry mood ? - so unlike the turbulence of Klimt's drawings. Giorgione's Venus is sleeping - and Titian's offers a come-hither stare to the viewer.

The genital area is definitely central to what's being presented - and it does seem that these girls like to be touched there, even if they have to do it themselves. But masturbating to a climax ? I think that interpretation is really a stretch -- though it's not important to Kandel's argument one way or the other. As he notes, clearly Klimt was undeniably explicit about it.

BTW, while Giorgione's Venus inhabits the world of myth and dreams, Titian's Venus seems to be working in the most lucrative service industry in 16th C. Venice. She's frankly inviting trade - not offering divine Love - and in that sense is just as pro-active as the women Klimt was depicting.

 And I think you're seeing her entire establishment here -- including a servant and the young courtesan-in-training who will provide income as the older woman becomes less appealing to customers. It's just that she's a high-end courtesan who offers more than just sexual excitement.

 What Klimt added to the great historical tradition of the nude in Western art—--—was a thoroughly modernist perspective. Even Manet’s Olympia, which depicts a real, modern woman in place of the virginal Venus, lacks the unabashed sexuality of Klimt’s drawings. Unlike many earlier Western artists, Klimt was not plagued by a sense of sin and therefore felt no need to disguise the sexuality of his models. The nudes in his drawings differ from their predecessors not only in being real, uncensored women rather than mythological figures, but also in being modern, feminist women. Klimt portrayed sexuality as a natural, frequently spontaneous part of life; this is evident in his drawings of women still fully clothed as they become aroused and begin to masturbate. might say that Klimt's artisan-class repression made sexual flaunting so much more appealing to him than it would have been to a Venetian aristocrat.

 Most earlier nudes look out from the canvas at the viewer, seeking permission for a shared and quiet eroticism, as if they could not be complete sexual beings without a male partner. Klimt’s nudes, on the other hand, are either oblivious to or unconcerned with the male gaze ; they are absorbed in themselves and their fantasy life. In these drawings, the viewer does not actively engage with a figure that looks out at him, but rather passively observes a private act. This dynamic implies not only sexual self-sufficiency on the part of the subject, but also voyeurism on the part of the viewer. Thus, these drawings expose not only the subject’s inward sexual desires, but the viewer’s as well. 

To be more specific .... this voyeur desires to see attractive young women masturbate --- that's what turns him on. Is that an especially modern thing to do? Is some kind of "deep insight" really involved ? It would seem to accompany a sense of inadequacy - as the viewer accepts being left out, even if he's the only man present. Kandel never uses the word "kinky", but it seems unavoidable here.

 In all of these paintings by other artists, we learn what makes the nude female body alluring and arousing, but we learn little about how women themselves might think about and experience sexuality

 I don't think you can really distinguish Klimt from all "other artists" in this respect. In all their paintings, the viewer learns more about his (or her) own arousal than how "women themselves might think about and experience sexuality" Kandel focuses on sexual liberation, but he does not address the complementary importance of inhibition, without which human life is not possible, for either artist or viewer, outside of an insane asylum.

 Regarding insane aylums --- might not the above image suggest such a place? It's a mural depicting "Philosophy" commissioned by the State Ministry of Culture to adorn the assembly hall of the University of Vienna. A very important commission which apparently invited the distinguished artist to do whatever he saw fit.

Which made for an energetic controversy when many faculty wanted to reject it.

 Klimt's "Philosophy" is quite different from Raphael's version, done 400 years earlier. Rather than building a rational world, Klimt's philosopher can only stand apart from and observe the turbulent stream of human life.

 Gone are the well-measured spaces of classical architecture, and even gravity no longer applies. Also gone is any kind of idealism. I'm afraid that Klimt was rather prophetic concerning the maelstrom that would soon engulf Europe and tear the Austro-Hungarian Empire to pieces. No wonder the professors rejected it. The entire series ended up in a private collection that was destroyed by retreating Nazis in WWII -- so all we have now are these black and white photos and some of the study drawings. It certainly exemplifies Kandel's theme concerning the emerging study of the irrational subconscious.

 Kandel then reports the minority opinion:

 Franz Wickhoff, a professor at the Vienna School of Art 1-listory, and Berta Zuckerkandi vigorously defended Klimt against these critics. In a highly influential lecture before the Philosophical Society entitled “On Ugliness,” Wickhoff argued that the modern period has its own sensibility and that those who see modern art as ugly cannot face modern truths. Alois Riegi, a founder of the School of Art History, joined him in arguing that in art, as in life, truth is not necessarily beautiful. Riegl noted that each period has its own value system, its own sensibility, which is embodied in and portrayed by contemporary artists. In this context, Wickhoff insisted, Klimt’s work stands out “like a star in the evening sky.”

 Here's Klimt's depiction of "Medicine" -- and once again, it doesn't appear that the discipline can do any more than observe the ongoing cycle of human life and death.

 By contrast, here's a more idealistic vision of medical practice where the physicians are actually helping people. (the sculptor was Milton Horn (1906-1995)

Here's "Jurisprudence" - where rather than a rational judge weighing the evidence, we have a guilt-ridden criminal haunted by three naked young furies, presumably tormenting him for crimes of the bedroom. As Klimt characterizes these images:

 Rather than being a scene that the viewer can step into, the image feels more like a dream; in fact, it resembles Freud’s description of the unconscious in dreams as “disconnected fragments of visual images.” Thus, instead of presenting a realistic depiction of the external world, Klimt captures the fragmentary nature of the unconscious psyche in a way not previously depicted by other artists. 

 I couldn't agree more, and especially transgressive since Klimt has applied that whacky imagery to three of the great achievements of Western civilization: philosophy, Medicine, and Law.

Though many earlier images seem to capture "the fragmentary nature of the unconscious psyche" -- especially Uccello's "Noah"

 Klimt's next big project were the Beethoven murals for the Secession Exhibition Hall.
 As Kampel describes it:

 The frieze was based on Richard Wagner’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: the human struggle and yearning for happiness and bye, which reaches its highest fulfillment in the unification of the arts. The arts as viewed by Kiimt leads to the Kingdom of the Ideal, be it a heaven on earth or in paradise, where alone one can find pure joy, pure love, which he depicts in the last two images of the frieze as the choir of heavenly angels and the embracing lovers. 

An interpretation, apparently based upon the original catalog, is offered here

Kampel offers no further discussion of this fascinating temporary project that was mothballed, cut, sold, stolen by Nazis, and finally reinstalled in Vienna about 30 years ago.


 I love bad girls -- and Klimt probably did too.

Though I'm not sure how they relate to Beethoven's Choral Symphony.

 I wouldn't bet that this dandy would escape the ruses of the bad girls shown above

 Here's the resolution of the drama, lovers kissing. Note that the woman seems somewhat younger than the man. Wouldn't it be unthinkable that such romantic bliss be shared by two old folks ?

 The whole project seems more like an excuse for a personal fantasy than a pictorialization of a Beethoven symphony.


Massacio "The Trinity" 

Kandel now launches into a major digression as follows:

Klimt's new style also incorporated another modern idea—that of the beholder’s share, the viewer’s relation to art. The idea that the viewers participation is critical to the completion of a work of art was first put forth in a coherent and systematic way at the beginning of the twentieth century by Alois Riegl, perhaps the most influential art historian of his time.

 The profundity of this notion completely baffles me -- it seems to be either true but trivial, or incomprehensible.

But Kandel tries to explain it by offering a example presented in Riegl's book, "A Group Portraiture of Holland", published in 1902. The idea is that much Italian art of the Byzantine, Gothic, and Renaissance periods was designed to depict the eternal truths of Christianity and to elicit idealized feelings of piety, faith, pity, pathos, fear, and passion from viewers

 For example, the Massacio "Trinity" shown above, where "the artist arranges figures in hierarchical order" and "everyone knows his or her rightful place in the world" (outside the picture frame)-- and even if the Madonna is looking at us, the picture is a complete drama in its own right: the viewer's participation is not required to complete the story"

Frans Hals "Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Company"

 In contrast, the above emphasizes a shared sense of values in which even the servants participate --- not only are the people in a painting on equal terms with one another, they actively engage, and are on equal terms with the viewers outside the picture frame

What about the secular paintings of the Renaissance?

Especially, those portraits where the eyes are staring back at the viewer

Don't they require at least as much of the "viewer's share" as that group portrait by Frans Hals ? Isn't the Mona Lisa staring back at a social equal? The distinction that Kandel and Riegl are making seems to be between sacred and secular depiction, regardless of era.

 Klimt’s "Schubert at the Piano", painted in 1899 -- should be viewed as a continuation of the group portraits of Holland, argues the art critic Wolfgang Kemp. Like the Dutch paintings, it is entirely committed to an “ethics of attention”: the attention of Schubert to the music, the attention of the four listeners to Schubert, and the attention of one of the listeners (the woman at the left) to the viewer, thereby bringing the viewer into the picture and completing the circle.

Since this painting no longer exists, we can't form an opinion from anything other than the reproductions -- but it does seem to me that everyone is attending to the music (or at least the score) and no eyes are meeting the eyes of the viewer. As a viewer myself, I definitely feel outside the picture because I can't hear what they are all hearing. (and how I wish I could!)

The painting's design seems to encourage the viewer to focus on that genius at the piano, immersed in a bevy of admiring young women, who emerge from his fingers along with his music. So I do think this painting serves to exemplify Kandel's following generalization:

 Whereas the Dutch painters invited the viewer into the physical space in the painting, the Viennese invited the viewer into the emotional space of the painting. By recruiting the viewer’s empathy, the Viennese artists enabled the viewer to identify with and experience the instinctual striving of the person in the painting. 

But I don't see how this, or any of the paintings previously shown, exemplifies very much of the assertion that comes next:

Klimt and his disciples tried to help viewers look at art and at themselves in a new, more emotionally introspective way that would acknowledge the psyche of the sitter and thus illuminate the unconscious anxieties and instinctual drives present in everyone. To convey unconscious emotion, the artists exaggerated and distorted the human form. In this way, they were trying to elicit from modern, secular viewers the same type of powerful emotion inspired in religious viewers by Gothic sculpture and mannerist art, but instead of focusing on more conscious emotions, such as agony, pity, and fear, as religious art had done, Austrian modernist art focused on unconscious ecstasy and aggression.

To what "exaggerations and distortions of the human form" does he refer ?

And where is the "unconscious ecstasy and aggression" ?

 Otto Schmidt 

Like many other artists of his time, Klimt was aware of the increasing technological refinement and popularity of photography, including the emergence of nude photography in Paris in 1850. His response to the realism of photography an be seen in his paintings, in which he moves from literal depiction to more symbolic representation.....

 Kandel specifies that the next 5 images in his book exemplify the "more symbolic representation" in Klimt's paintings.

But unfortunately, the next five images are all drawings, not paintings-- and as you can see in the example posted below, they're not especially symbolic. So I don't know what happened here. Did a set of reproductions of Klimt paintings get lost while the book was in production? Or does Kandel really think that these drawings include any more symbolic representations than the Klimt drawings shown earlier in this chapter?

 It's a big mystery -- and yet another example of the poor editing that seems endemic in the production of art history books

 The delicacy of Klimt's drawings and his insights into the inner life of the women he drew also stand in stark contrast to the photography of his time. Kilmt's women create a sensual daydream, a world of their own inhabited onlly by themselves,, self-sufficiently and unselfconsciously, not performing for any camera. The artist often surrounds them with iconic, sexually symbolic ornamentation that enhances the daydream and widens even further the gulf between the deep psychological exploration of women in his drawing and the reality of photography 

This is a fascinating little section, where Kandel displays five nude photographs taken around 1900, and then digs up five drawings by Klimt that feature a nude model in a similar position

It's a great opportunity to compare those two techniques of image making -- regardless of who the artists were.

This Klimt drawing seems to me to be a straight-forward study from life-- where the artist draws what he sees -- placing things on the paper in the same relationship to each other that they have in the real space that he is looking at. I can't find any "iconic, sexually symbolic ornamentation" here, can you?

Nor do I feel that the woman in the drawing is any less self conscious than the woman in the photograph. Aren't they both showing off their booty for the sake of the viewer ? Though, of course, the draftsman is not doing the kind of point-to-point projection that the lens of a camera effects upon a light sensitive paper. Klimt is simplifying, characterizing, measuring, and designing his illusionary space as he proceeds to mark up his paper.

 San Vitale, Ravenna "Theodora" 

To portray the depth of the human psyche on a flat, two dimensional surface, Klimt needed new artistic strategies. In devising them, he turned for inspiration to a much earlier style of painting, Byzantine art. 

Yes, I think Byzantine art has much more to do with the flatness of Klimt's pictorial space than the "Essence of Modernism" as Kandel quotes Clement Greenberg.

Without reading ahead in the text, I had already chosen the above depiction of the Empress Theodora which Kandel says "particularly fascinated Klimt" Whatever those 6th C. mosaic masters may have thought about her, the wife of Justinian I is primarily known to Klimt (and us ) through Procopius who may have had an axe to grind when he portrayed her as the greatest slut in the empire, using her "three orifices" to fuck her way up to the royal bedchamber.

The Byzantine  mosaic does seem to portray a lively person -- but I don't sense "the depth of the human psyche" any more than I do in Klimt's portrait Adele Bloch-Bauer

Klimt realized that  two-dimensionality imposed on her image an abstract timelessness and a rhythmical composition that differed from contemporary attempts to copy nature.... Under the influence of the Byzantine mosaic, Klimt  began to combine flatness with a highly ornamented style of painting. 

Thomas Eakins, portrait of Alice Kurtz, 1903

Kandel does not tell us which artists of that time  were trying to copy nature.

I picked the above example because  it gives us the illusion of flesh, bone, hair, and cloth in three-dimensional space.

But doesn't it also offer an abstract timelessness and a rhythmical composition ?

The difference seems to be one of confrontation.

Flatter images seem to be pushing out into the world of the viewer -- while the illusion of pictorial space pulls the viewer within.

The two queens, Theodora and Adele, are presenting themselves at a court or salon -- while Alice is there to be studied - like a biological - or psychological - specimen of great interest.

Klimt, "The Kiss", 1907-8

In the Kiss,the combination of flatness and golden ornamentation reaches its apex -- the stylization succeeds in conveying desire -- the two bodies appear to be fused - the lovers' clothes, like the flowery base are adorned with sexual icons -- erect rectangles, symbolizing sperm on the man's cloak are matched by ovoid and floral symbols of female fertility on the woman;s dress.

And then quoting Alessandra Comini:

 The eventual culmination of mutuality of desire is beautifully enacted in the ornate intercourse of circular and vertical forms. 

Hyderbadad, 18th C.

Here's another painting that depicts erotic energy with a pattern of surrounding forms and colors. As with  Klimt's "Kiss" , that can be sexier and more dramatic than the figures themselves.

Same thing with this Japanese print. (I wish I could identify the artist)

Edvard Munch, 1892

But the  best comparison is probably with this contemporary European painting that creates such a different mood that seems to be more about loneliness than lust --  more about privacy than triumph -- more about psychology than appetite.

There's a mutuality in all three alternate examples that contrasts with Klimt's version that's more like a predator who has captured,  and is about to consume, his prey.

Riza Abbasi, 1630

Finally, here's my favorite Persian painting from the Met  (I've known this painting for 50 years!)-- where the lady is in the fellow's grasp, but it seems to be more about  mutual affection than lust - with a feeling that the two of them will be facing the future together.

Klimt, "Adele Bloch-Bauer", 1912

The portrait exemplifies an important clement of Klimt’s new style: the deliberate blurring of the boundaries between the various elements of the painting. The viewer is hard put to delineate Adele’s gown, the chair, and the background. In fact, the boundaries metamorphose inio one another, creating a pulsating sense of movement in the beholder’s perception of space and form. By flattening the background and fusing it with Adele's gown, Klimt obliterates the traditional distinction, especially notable in portrait painting, between figure and ground

I'm certainly hard put to delineate that chair - but Adele herself seems to be quite distinct from the background.

The central Portion of her gown, the part closest to her body, is covered with rectangular and ovoid sexual symbols similar to those in other paintings, such as The Kiss. Her folded hands mirror the hands of the two lovers in The Kiss. Klimt’s use of hands to symbolize emotion is a device elaborated on later by Kokoschka and especially Schiele.

I'm wondering just which emotion the hands are symbolizing.


The changing boundaries in the painting and the dense, symbolic ornamentation of the dress convey the idea that the stark, ordered geometry of the background is restrictive and socially imposed, whereas the symbols on Adele’s dress reveal her instinctual drives. The Klimt historians Sophie Lillie and Georg Gaugusch comment on this conflict when they write that “Klimt’s painting appears a compelling visual expression of Freud’s theory” expressed several years earlier in The Interpreration of Dreams: namely, “that emotions buried in the subconscious rise to the surface in disguised form.”

Here's Adele's dress -- at the highest resolution available -- but where are those symbols that reveal her instinctual drives ?

The large, rippled, clam-like opening of the dress might suggest a giant vulva, however -- and I feel its contrast to the rectangular pattern in the background.

I do share Kandel's feeling of a woman at the mercy of both a restrictive world and her own sexual passion. With that big black hat, she feels like a child playing dress-up - especially against the backdrop of some kind of oriental, Arabian-nights, pictorial fantasy -- so appropriate as wallpaper for a child's bedroom.

She's not the matriarch of an important family who manages a household - or a cultural leader in a major European capital city.

She's a big kid - and, in contrast to the 1907 version, this is a portrait of her inner life.

Here's a quote from the artist:

"I have never painted a self-portrait. I am less interested in myself as a subject for a painting than I am in other people, above all, women."

Woman with Fan, 1917 

Friederike Maria Beer, 1916 

Baronin Elisabeth Bachofenecht, 1914

Here are a few  more of his later portraits that also center a woman's figure against an oriental decorative  background.

They're similar, but none of these ladies feel quite as vulnerable and child like as Adele Bloch-Bauer

In Judith, Klimt provides an extreme interpretation of the pious widow, depicting her as a symbol of the devastating power of the female erotic urge. Judith, barely clothed and fresh from the seduction and slaying of Holofernes, glows in her voluptuousness. Her hair is a dark sky between the golden branches of Assyrian trees, fertility symbols that represent her eroticism. This young, ecstatic, extravagantly made up woman confronts the viewer through half-closed eyes in what appears to be a reverie of orgasmic rapture. While beckoning the viewer to enter into her ecstatic state, Judith reveals Holofernes severed head, only a portion of which appears in the painting. The theme of decapitation is carried further by Judith's gold choker rendered in the same gilded style as the background, it formally severs Judith's own head from her body. Although the title of the painting identifies the figure as Judith, this dangerous beauty, who resembles Adele Bloch-Bauer, is arrayed like an elegant lady of the contemporary Viennese upper class, the sort of woman whom Klimt painted and with whom he had affairs.

I think Kandel has nailed it!  That's exactly how I feel about this image, and I'd be more than happy to follow Holofernes and offer her my severed head for Judith to cradle so gently against her white belly.

With those two golden wings off her shoulders, she's an angel of happy destruction. (though, unlike Holofernes, I would like to wake up the next morning and go about  business as usual)

So I don't agree with Kandel when he writes :

Judith's murder of Holofernes is symbolic only.  Thus, the painting discloses the psychological problem that Freud predicted would accompany the liberation of women's sexuality: namely,  men's nightmares about sexual anxiety  and the relationship between sex, aggression, life, and death.  Klimt recognized this problem before Freud ever wrote about castration anxiety.

Looking up "Castration Anxiety" on Wikipedia>it would appear to be more based on experiences with the family in childhood than with sexually aggressive women as an adult.

I've never experienced it -- and this painting by Klimt does not convince me that he did either.

Unlike Klimt's Judith, who shocks the viewer by reveling in her fatal seductive poser, Caravaggio's Judith looks virginal and is repulsed by her deed and by her sexuality.

Yes, it is quite a contrast.

I'm doubting that Carvaggio had much  experience with  the faces of women in sexual ecstasy - but I'm sure he knew a lot about faces that showed grim determination and surprise.

Carvaggio tells the story of  God's people  straight - Klimt turns it upside down with a Judith who is incapable of  blood drenched  violence.

BTW - The story of Judith is one of my favorite themes, and several sculptural examples (including my own) are shown here.

Here's a version by Cristofano Allori, a contemporary of Caravaggio, that came to a show in Chicago a few years ago.

This sweet, dreamy young woman seems incapable of violence - but then she also seems less aware of her sexual appetites than the Judiths that Klimt knew so well.

(she's Cristofano's mistress -- and the head of Holofernes is a self portrait - so she must have been driving the artist  nuts)

The painting is of further interest because it expands our understanding of women’s sexual desire. In his delicate drawings, Klimt most commonly shows the pleasurable aspects of sex,----- But in Judith, Klimt also reveals the destructive aspects of sexuality, thus enlarging our understanding of the range of sexual emotion that women are capable of experiencing, a range similar to that of men.

But Klimt's Judith is being pleasured by her destructive behavior, isn't she?

Klimt doesn't offer any range of female sexual emotional response at all -- beyond wanton enjoyment.

Death and Life, 1911

Klimt grapples with the themes of love and death in in a number of contexts, perhaps mot famously in his paintings of the life cycle. In his 1911 Death and Life, a mass of humanity (the life force) is grouped on the right, opposite the solitary figure of Death on the left. Klimt integrates death into life with separate color zones: Death wraps himself in the colors of night, while the human bodies expressing life and love display a rich diversity of colorful, gay ornaments.

As   noted here , Death is holding a mace/club rather than the  traditional hourglass (your time is running out) or scythe (to reap the harvest).

Klimt's  Death is going to whack you whenever he sees fit -- rather than waiting for an appropriate time.

And all but two of the characters in the stream of life are sleeping -- putting them into  that world of dreams  that Freud was making so important at that time. I wonder why Kandal didn't jump on this opportunity to further this argument..

One pair of open eyes belongs to a baby -- and other to that crazed young woman who is immediately opposite death, mirroring his gesture, and staring in his direction.

The venerable professors of the Khan Academy also suggest that this painting was an attempt to tackle the kind of profound life/death themes that were once addressed by religious art.

Which seems likely -- though I think the most important moments of human life are spent wide awake doing things outside the bedroom -- and mostly this painting is about dreamers.

Apparently the background was originally gold leaf -- but Klimt changed it a few years later, possibly as he realized that this theme was more about biology than spirit. As he jumbled his human figures together, the resulting mass resembles protoplasm.

Love and Death are shown in even starker terms in Hope I. (1903)  Here, a nude   expectant mother, whose iridescent red hair is echoed in her proudly displayed public hair, is filled with dreams of her child, while being shadowed, unawares, by the skull of Death

This is the final painting that Kandel presents in his chapter on Klimt.

Though done nearly 10 years earlier than the version shown above, it's more effective for me - as the wide awake expectant mother proudly confronts mortality with her own contribution.

It serves to exemplify the artist's interest in women's sexuality as experienced by themselves - but seems less relevant to Freud.

Here's the second version of Hope, done about five years later. The contours of human form no longer dominate the composition - it's much closer to "Death and Life".

The painting is being overwhelmed by the ornamental  patterns

Only this area of detail
is still figurative,
but what a wonderful area it is.

Portrait of Marie Breunig, 1894

Klimt was definitely interested in women 
-- and he was definitely attracted to them
 -- but he wasn't always focused on their sexuality.

I'd like to pursue a broader study of his paintings - but I guess that's outside the scope of this chapter.

1 comment:

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