Klimt, Gustav (Austrian, 1862-1918)


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This sketch was created as part of a commission received by Gustav Klimt and his partner Franz Matsch for the University of Vienna’s great hall. The overall theme was the triumph of light (knowledge) over darkness (ignorance). Klimt’s three images represented Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence, each of which caused outrage. In Medicine, a column of nude male and female figures cascades down the right-hand side of the work. The skeleton among them symbolizes death—the end of life—while the newborn baby below the young mother’s feet on the left symbolizes the beginning. An arm reaches out to pull them into the inexorable flow from birth to death. The figure at the bottom comes from the ancient world. Hygieia, who represented health and from whose name we get the term “hygiene,” was the daughter of Asklepios, god of medicine. The snake sacred to Asklepios is wrapped around her arm—it and her father’s rod together are the genesis of the symbol of medicine today. She also holds in one hand the cup of Lethe, one of the rivers of the underworld from which souls were made to drink before reincarnation to forget their past life. Klimt’s depiction of medicine here is ambiguous. Rather than showing its positive aspects, he focused on the fact that no matter what the field achieves, pain will always exist and death will triumph. This upset numerous Viennese, who pointed out that very important medical research was being done by significant figures such as Theodor Billroth, who is known as the father of modern abdominal surgery, and Karl Landsteiner, who in 1901 published a paper about his discovery of the ABO blood types. Klimt’s University of Vienna panels were destroyed in a fire set by fleeing Nazi SS officers at Immendorf Castle in 1945. Only studies remain. Notes by Mariann Smith
Art of Medicine