In the early twentieth century, Vienna was the medical capital of the world and the place where Sigmund Freud had come to practice the new science of psychoanalysis. Freud’s theories were hugely influential in the development of modern art. The notion of instinctual passions being stronger than reasonable interests, of human behaviour being driven by the unconscious sat ill at ease with conservative Viennese society. In The Interpretation of Dreams, (1899), Freud argued that the source of all immorality lay in the unconscious of every human being and that by analysing dreams, the individual psyche could be unlocked. Furthermore, he believed the universality of symbols in dreams and that distasteful images in the form of symbols could be associated by shape, colour, size and quantity.
Klimt’s work is rich in symbolism and often has a dreamlike, even nightmarish quality, portraying the psychological state of humanity, juxtaposing physical beauty with the dark, ugly features of the unconscious.
His Beethoven Frieze, (1901) for example takes the eye on a stunning visual journey, beginning with the floating Genii searching the Earth and quickly becoming sinister, following the storm-wind giant, Typheous and images representing sickness, madness death, lust and wantonness. Then the knight, offering hope, with the journey ending in elation. The women in this section have their eyes closed as if exalted, in rapturous appreciation of the arts as they surround the two figures caught in an embrace. The masks above the figures though suggests that this ecstatic state is a precarious one.
The frieze illustrates the human yearning for happiness against external forces and internal weaknesses. It is also a reflection on Viennese society at the time. Achievements in science, technology and industrialisation had opened up a wealth of opportunity, however, there were huge concerns about the limits of mechanisation and urbanism. Intellectual and cultural achievements were overshadowed by political unrest, virulent anti-Semitism and movements against the emancipation of women and minorities.
Jurisprudence, (1903) is one of Klimt’s darkest paintings, both stylistically and psychologically. An elderly man is held fast by a giant octopus, an unearthly creature reminiscent of a nightmare. The man bows to three naked female figures, two of whom seem to be in dreamlike states. The central female figure stares out with cold eyes, as if in a trance. The man appears hopeless and vulnerable, passively awaiting his punishment. At the top of the picture stand three semi-clothed women holding the book of law and a sword. The rule of law here seems cruel and irrational, indifferent to humanity.
Klimt’s figures seem to occupy a realm somewhere between a dream and reality. His work is a celebration of life, yet symbols of death are never far away. In a bourgeoisie society of opera and coffee houses with a sinister undercurrent bubbling just underneath the surface, artists and intellectuals became torn between reality and illusion. In Klimt’s work there is a new, fragile reality, a utopian dream about to be shaken to its core, an ominous foreshadowing of events which were to take place in Europe over the following decades.
Freud and Klimt are intrinsically linked. Both freed their chosen fields – psychology and art – from their biological, anatomical chains, seeking out a new truth which centred on the self. Klimt’s paintings are a sublime illumination of the culture in which Freud’s psychoanalysis arose.