Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence: The Scandal

Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence: The Scandal

“When I finish a painting, I have no time to stand up against the same stubborn people again and again. It is insignificant how many people like it but, rather, who likes it.” Gustav Klimt

In 1894, the Ministry of Education’s art committee commissions Gustav Klimt and his friend Franz Matsch to design the ceiling paintings for the assembly hall of the University of Vienna. The allegorical composition should effectively represent the faculties and celebrate the importance of science in society. Thus defined, the themes are divided up between both artists: Matsch is assigned the centrepiece, The Triumph of Light over Darkness, as well as one of the four adjacent panels, dedicated to Theology. Klimt undertakes the other three panels devoted to Philosophy, Medicine and Law.

While Matsch opts for an academic and historicist style, Klimt’s canvasses take a different direction and break with tradition. A scandal erupts, for the first time in 1900, when Klimt unveils Philosophy. On seeing it, 87 of the university's professors write a letter to the Ministry, requesting that it revokes its commission. They fear that the painting is a blemish on their establishment. In no time, the controversy spreads throughout Vienna like wildfire. But despite being criticised in Vienna, the painting wins a gold medal at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900. The second canvas, Medicine, relaunches the debate and also, while being criticised for its pornographic nature, attracts 38,000 curious spectators. When the third canvas, Jurisprudence, is completed in 1903, a verdict is delivered: the paintings are inappropriate. The Ministry proposes that the Gallery of Modern Art would be a more suitable forum for Klimt to exhibit the canvasses, but he refuses. In 1905, Klimt pays back the fee he received from the ministry and reworks the paintings up until 1907. They are subsequently sold to a collector, before tragically disappearing in the Castle Immendorf fire of 1945, a blaze ignited by the Nazis when at least 13 canvasses and 300 drawings by Klimt go up in smoke. We are acquainted with these works today, thanks to black and white images and a colorized reproduction of the preliminary sketch for Medicine.

Beyond the erotic nature of the paintings, what really provokes the scandal is their profoundly pessimistic tone, inspired by the philosophies of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, who are in vogue at this time. The fact is that Klimt ignores the direction of the Ministry to portray the importance of science in a positive respect. He opts instead to illustrate the ambiguous unity of life and death and the suffering of mankind. The conclusions we draw from these works are sombre: philosophy does not give us any grasp on our destiny, medicine, despite its many advancements, cannot defeat death, and the law brings with it injustice, vengeance and guilt. For the critics, the representation of human bodies is too realistic and crude. From a technical perspective, these canvasses give us a glimpse of the style and symbolism that will characterise Klimt’s future works.

This scandal marks the rupture between Klimt and the institutional world: his nomination for a professorship at the Academy never materialises and he does not fulfil any further public contracts. “Enough of censorship. I am having recourse to self-help. I want to get out. I want to get away from all these sterile absurdities that hinder my work, and get back to a state of freedom. I refuse all state patronage. I renounce everything.” Going forward, Klimt will earn his living painting portraits for the Viennese bourgeoisie.