When commissioned by the government to decorate the ceiling of the great hall of the University of Vienna, Klimt presented a series of three paintings, the second of which, Hygieia incited critical scorn as a dangerous and subversive depiction of woman as a sexualized goddess of health and hygiene. With the inscrutable glare of Munch’s Madonna, Hygieia is depicted by Klimt as an ominous and commandingly sensual being. According to the Greek myth Hygieia was the goddess of cleanliness and sanitation, another figure in the ancient line of women as symbols of motherly care. Klimt, instead, depicts her facing the viewer with scorn, looking down on their ailments, and encompassing a number of other women and protecting them in her headdress. These more vulnerable women further assert the medicine woman’s power, as she towers over them as both a dominant, threatening force, and a godly returner of life.
Unfortunately, the figure of Hygieia is merely a detail from a much larger painting, Medicine destroyed during WWII, by the Nazi SS who were unsurprisingly opposed to Klimt’s frank and confident depiction of a dominant woman. Considering the University of Vienna’s refusal to accept the work, Klimt’s often-criticized obsession with the female form clearly provoked questions deemed too challenging for public consumption. Certainly, the artist’s decision to depict Hygieia not as a kindly nurse but a symbolist icon drenched in art nouveau finery reveals a great deal about his own ideas of what constitutes healing or medicinal qualities. Her warmth and beauty juxtaposed against elegant and stylized patterns of burnt gold and copper speak not of a bed-side manner for a patient but for a lover. Perhaps, for the early-twentieth century audience, Hygieia, spoke not only of the healing qualities of medicine and hygiene, but also the emergence of the mental health being written about by another prominent Viennese, Sigmund Freud.
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