Friday, May 9, 2008

Klimpt, Freud, Nietzsche

From The Guardian.
It was all over. The Reich was finished, Hitler dead, his charred jaw bone all Russian pathologists could find of him in the smouldering ruins of Berlin. Hundreds of miles to the south, in Austria, an SS unit prepared to stage its own private apocalypse.
On May 7 1945, they arrived at Immendorf Castle in southern Austria. The German soldiers already billeted there were ordered to leave. That morning, German forces in Austria had signed their surrender, to take effect the next day; for these SS men, it was the last night of the war.

Klimpt was more than gold leaf and erotic glitter. The article linked above shows him as an artist close in spirit to Nietzsche, and to his Viennese contemporary, Sigmund Freud.
Klimt ... had a passion for Greek art and mythology. But instead of celebrating the rationalism of the Greeks, he evoked their dark side. A profound influence on his work was Friedrich Nietzsche's 1872 book The Birth of Tragedy, which argues that Greek tragedy grew out of music, the purest of the arts because it taps into the deepest, most primitive parts of the psyche (the book is addressed to his friend Wagner, whose music famously does just that). Klimt dramatised this radical theory of art in two paintings, Schubert at the Piano and Music II, painted as a pair in the late 1890s: in the former, Schubert gives a drawing-room performance; in the latter, the more primal image of a Greek lyre-player is flanked by mythological monsters. Both paintings were burned in 1945.

Philosophy, the first to be finished, was an explicit Nietzschean manifesto. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche argues that western culture is driven by a superficial confidence in facts and a coarse drive to manipulate the world: this "optimistic" rationalism, he writes, must now give way to a tragic sensibility that accepts the uncertainties of our perceptions. In other words, while science as it was understood seemed to offer certainties, Nietzsche championed a more subjective understanding of the world. Klimt's Philosophy makes this idea movingly visible with its great, agonised column of human bodies - loving, longing, being born and dying. The universe through which they cascade is a vertiginous empty space dotted with stars.
Of course, I know this painting only from looking at a black and white photograph of it. Philosophy is gone forever - burned in 1945 along with Medicine and Jurisprudence, paintings that express the same pessimistic view of the world.


  1. Sadly, there is only a memory left of those paintings and no color. I love your erudite blog and always learn something new when I visit. Greek mythology dazzled me when I was young and still mythos lingers in the air.

  2. Your post is illuminating. I have long been an admirer of Klimpt simply for the marvelous artistry, composition, form, color, design. A master. Your comments fill out that experience.

  3. That was quoted from the article in the Guradian--link at the top of the post for the whole piece.