Saturday, 14 March 2009


Gustav Klimt’s ‘Medicine’ was one of a series of three paintings commissioned for the ceilings of the University of Vienna. This is a photograph of the original in its final state before it was destroyed in 1945 to prevent it from falling into the hands of the enemy. I am fascinated by the ambiguity and unrivalled aesthetics within Klimt’s paintings, but this one in particular for the narrative that unfolds through imagery, symbolism and metaphor. ‘Medicine’ is a testimony of man’s struggle to break away from birth and death – the suffering in life, the finality of death, and the refusal to accept the concept that birth is merely the beginning of a journey towards death. On the left side of the painting: a woman with a newborn child at her feet represent birth into life; on the right side there is a thick entanglement of figures, within which a skeleton can be seen – representative of death within life. Barely visible amidst the confusion of figures is a Wheel of Fortune which is a metaphor for instinctual life, where one figure can be seen trying to break free. The female figure in the foreground of the painting is Hygieia (daughter and wife of Asclepius, god of medicine). Her full frontal stance not only emphasizes her importance, but also that she turns her back on humankind.
On completion of the work, the Faculty of the School of Medicine were up in arms over the message it conveyed – or failed to convey. ‘Medicine’ communicated an “ambiguous unity of life and death”, and failed to pay homage to the role of medicine or the science of healing, as the Faculty of the University would have expected. Such Professors of Medicine, who would pride themselves on their journey in search of truth, confronted by Klimt’s painting – a mere demonstration that science is no solution for human suffering.

No comments: