Thursday, July 3, 2014
Dear Darkness: An Ode To Gustav Klimt And Changing Poison Into Medicine
Hygieia, according to Greek myth, was the goddess of hygiene, of health, cleanliness and sanitation. In fact, the snake and the bowl remain symbols of pharmacy to this day. In this context, Hygieia was not afemme fatale but belonged rather in the traditional categorization of women as caretakers. This explanation of Hygieia contrasts with Klimt's powerful, inscrutable and even ominous depiction of her.
At the same time, it is clear that Hygieia is not the only figure in this painting, hidden amongst her elaborate headdress are the reposing faces of two women and the bare torso of a naked pregnant woman is partially hidden by Hygieia's red robe. Behind Hygieia, or perhaps within Hygieia, are very human very vulnerable women whose downward gazes, flowing hair and nudity speak much more to traditional depictions of women than Hygieia's strange defiance and power. Is Hygieia protecting these women? Is she instead threatening such women? Are these women another side of Hygieia, is she both vulnerable and powerful, innocent and mysterious? These questions are swallowed in the inscrutable gaze of Klimt's Hygieia.
In 1894, Klimt was commissioned to paint the ceilings in the University of Vienna’s great hall. The commission included three paintings, Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence. When Klimt presented them to the university upon completion, they were determined to be pornographic in nature, and filled with “perverted excess.” The university would not display them. Medicine was the second painting in the series. It featured a column of nude figures on the right hand side of the painting,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. Because of this, he was attacked by critics, who pointed out that Vienna at the time was engaging in major medical advancements,claiming that Klimt conveyed an ambiguous unity of life and death, with nothing to celebrate the role of medicine or the science of healing. An editorial in the Medizinische Wochenschrift complained that the painter had ignored doctors' two main achievements, Preventive medicine|prevention and cure.In 1945, the paintings were destroyed in Germany by advancing forces, the only remaining portions being a photograph of a portion of Medicine, and certain drawings and preliminary sketches.
Philosophy was the first of the three pictures presented to the Austrian Government at the seventh Vienna Secession exhibition in March 1900. It had been awarded a gold medal at the World Exhibition in Paris, but was attacked by those in his own country. Klimt described the painting as follows: "On the left a group of figures, the beginning of life, fruition, decay. On the right, the globe as mystery. Emerging below, a figure of light: knowledge." Critics were disturbed by its depiction of men and women drifting in an aimless trance. The original proposal for the theme of the painting was "The Victory of Light over Darkness", but what Klimt presented instead was a dreamlike mass of humanity, referring neither to optimism nor rationalism, but to a "viscous void".
The process of changing poison into medicine begins when we approach difficult experiences as an opportunity to reflect on ourselves and to strengthen and develop our courage and compassion. Suffering can thus serve as a springboard for a deeper experience of happiness. From the perspective of Buddhism, inherent in all negative experiences is this profound positive potential. I do not have the words to connect this post to what you may have thought you could find here, today, tonight but what I do offer is a longer thought....a thought beyond words, a feeling and a visual, a salute to mystery and the mystic law... a salute to being. So be. So stay. So beautiful, utterly beautiful and, listen inside.