As my studio work brings me to study the works of Gustav Klimt, I decided to talk about one of his paintings Hope 1 (Hoffnung 1), an oil painting created in 1903. Currently located in the National Gallery of Canada, the main subject of this work is a pregnant, nude female. She is holding her hands together above her stomach and close to her chest. She gazes directly at the viewer and has a great mass of hair with a crown of forget-me-not flowers placed on her head. The scene is beautiful upon first glance but once the viewer’s eyes move to the background, deathlike figures become noticeably present.
The model for this painting was Herma, one of Gustav Klimt’s favorite models. Klimt described Herma as “having a backside more beautiful and more intelligent than the faces of many other models.” Hope I was created unexpectedly; one day Herma was supposed to model for Klimt and did not show up. He became concerned and eventually sent someone to see if she was sick. The response that Klimt received was that Herma was not sick, but pregnant. Klimt demanded she come into work regardless of her being pregnant and upon seeing her he decided to make her the model for Hope I. Gustav Klimt, who lived then with his mother and sisters Klara and Hermine in an apartment on Westbahnstraße, was unmarried, but had numerous love affairs and several illegitimate children (three of them recognized). It is unknown if Herma was bearing Klimt’s child.
Another model, Marie Zimmerman (1879-1975), was likely responsible for Hope 1’s motif. During work on the Hoffnung I, their son Otto died at the age of one; a circumstance that caused Klimt to change the concept of the painting. Indeed, the length of cloth behind the pregnant woman continues to refer to the hope (Hoffnung) expressed in the title, but the background is bestowed with ominous figures: in addition to a powerful squid, several hideous faces gaze at the pregnant woman. These faces could be identified with the daughters of Typhon, symbolizing disease, death, madness, lust, and impurity.
The themes present in this painting are contradictory, such as birth and death. The dark figures in the background swirl around the nude female seeming to blend the idea of life, death, and rebirth.
Not only does this painting show deathly figures in the background, but there also is a sea monster standing towards the left. The viewer can notice the squid’s teeth along with its claw like hand that is located directly across from the woman’s stomach and pelvic region. The sea monster has a large tail that wraps around the feet of the woman as if trying to capture her and continues out of the frame. Also, among the daughters of Typhon in the background, there is a skull located directly above the woman’s head. This skull is attached to a blue body with varying shapes, lines, and colors. The skull represents death and decay and could also be a reference to the art historical tradition of memento mori, which serves as a reminder that death is unavoidable. This tradition focuses on the idea that you can be thriving with life but tomorrow could bring the possibility of death.
It was uncommon and unacceptable in these days to paint a pregnant nude woman and so Klimt did not show this work to the public until the Second Vienna Kunstschau in 1909. This new style of Klimt’s artwork that included nude, slender, seductive females created controversy between Klimt and the Austrians. They saw Klimt’s paintings as sexual and scandalous and their conservative beliefs seemed to clash with what Klimt was trying to create with his artwork. Usually the women Klimt painted were shown as beautiful, powerful, and not subjective to their male partners. This “new woman” was a shock to the people of Austria but it is also one of the reasons Gustav Klimt became such a well-known, successful artist that made a great impact in the world of art history.
Hope 1 was bought by Fritz Wärndorfer, manager of the Wiener Werkstätte. He had the painting mounted on the inside of a locked cupboard door which he would open only for select guests. I have read some years ago in an architecture magazine that his wife was the specially designed glazed cabinet key keeper, and that after a diner with friends, Wärndorfer would ask her for the key, go to his office (where the painting was hidden) with selected male friends and would open the door for everyone present to admire. There was a banquet at his home, attended by Klimt, Hoffmann, Moser, the painters Carl Moll and Ferdinand Hodler, and composer and conductor Gustav Mahler soon after his acquisition and I like to imagine all these important figures in the room gazing at Hope 1.
(Source : Wikipedia and Gustav Klimt & Emilie Flöge photographs, Agnes Husslein-Arco, Alfred Weidinger (Eds.), Prestel, 2012.)