As I last left Dazzling Demons, an Austrian SS unit was just about to destroy the art treasures of Schloss Immendorf. The castle owner later said the Nazis thought “it would be a ‘sin’ for the Russians to get their hands on them”. According to a 1946 police report, the SS officers “held orgies all night in the castle apartments”. The next day, the unit laid explosives in the castle’s four towers and walked out.

Judith and the Head of Holofernes, Gustav Klimt 1901.

Several paragraphs after the destruction of Schloss Immendorf, the Guardian’s art critic, Jonathan Jones, visits the Schloss Belvedere gallery in Vienna. Klimt’s Judith and Holofernes hangs beside a window looking out over the city. Its darkness and light is set off against the bright sky. This menacing Judith, he says, brings us closer to those works destroyed in 1945.

In the Book of Judith, Judith saves the Israelites by visiting the enemy Holofernes in his tent and beheading him. She has been represented in many ways in European art, but rarely as sexually as in Klimt’s painting. 

Klimt was a kind of neoclassicist; as well as painting this biblical story, he had a passion for Greek art and mythology. But instead of celebrating the rationalism of the Greeks, he evoked their dark side.

A profound influence on his work was Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1872 book The Birth of Tragedy, which argues that Greek tragedy grew out of music, the purest of the arts because it taps into the deepest, most primitive parts of the psyche.

Among the destroyed pieces at Immendorf were three huge paintings commissioned by the University of Vienna from 1900 to 1907  for its ceremonial hall. Philosophy, Jurisprudence and Medicine were designed to be fixed to the ceiling and seen from below, painted one by one in increasingly embattled circumstances.

The trilogy was too controversial. Klimt paid his fee back to the university in 1904 and terminated his contract.  A Jewish factory owner named August Lederer bought Philosophy; and later Jurisprudence and Medicine.

Philosophy, the first to be finished, was an explicit Nietzschean manifesto. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche argues that western culture is driven by a superficial confidence in facts and a coarse drive to manipulate the world: this “optimistic” rationalism, he writes, must now give way to a tragic sensibility that accepts the uncertainties of our perceptions. 

Music, Gustav Klimt, 1895

In other words, while science as it was understood seemed to offer certainties, Nietzsche championed a more subjective understanding of the world. Klimt’s Philosophy makes this idea movingly visible with its great, agonised column of human bodies – loving, longing, being born and dying. The universe through which they cascade is a vertiginous empty space dotted with stars.

Of course, Jones says, he knew this painting only from looking at a black and white photograph. He had consulted a portfolio of Klimt’s paintings, published in Vienna in 1914, at the British Library in London. A lavish volume with gold lettering and big, clear reproductions is an invaluable record of the lost works.

The black and white photograph of Philosophy can also be found at Gustav Klimt’s Lost Paintings along with Jurisprudence and Medicine.

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