I have already featured paintings by two of the great Austrian artists, Egon Schiele (May 26th and 27th) and Oskar Kokoschka (Dec 10th), and today I would like to present a painting by an artist, who has been termed by many, as the greatest Austrian painter who ever lived. Between 1900 and his death in 1918, Klimt dominated the art scene in Vienna.
The featured painting in My Daily Art Display today is entitled Three Ages of Woman which he painted in 1905. It is also sometimes referred to as Mother and Child. The painting is housed in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome. This was one of the artist’s most beloved paintings. For Klimt, although he had painted smaller allegorical pictures, this was to be his first and one of his last multi-figured large-scale allegorical painting, which simply put, is a painting in which there is a pictorial representation of abstract ideas by the depiction of the characters or events in the painting. It is a visual symbolic representation. This painting by Klimt is about the transience of life and the permanence of death.
In the painting we see three women at different stages of life. The youngest is the baby, representing infancy, who in turn is being cradled in the arms of the mother, who although is an adult, is a young adult, representing motherhood. The third figure, on the left of the group is the old woman who represents old age. These three figures have appeared before, slightly altered in form, in some of his earlier and later paintings, such as Medicine which he first exhibited at the 10th exhibition of the Secession Group in Vienna in 1901 and Death and Life which he completed in 1911.
The background of this is a sea of silver bubbles but the three figures are closely surrounded by unusual shapes. So what are the shapes? It is believed that Klimt had a great interest in the science of microbiology and the shapes floating above the head of the younger women resemble colonies of bacteria, whilst the older woman stands amid the elongated protozoa, which is associated with death and decomposition. This painting is about transition – birth to death. It reminds me of the words uttered at a graveside when the coffin is being lowered “while we are in life we are in death”. It is the thought that on the day you are born you start the dying process.
Let us first concentrate our gaze on Klimt’s portrayal of the old woman. There is nothing endearing about his depiction of the woman. Some would have us believe that Klimt based his depiction of the old woman on Rodin’s sculpture called The Old Woman. In the painting, the head of the elderly woman is bowed as if she has lost all her strength, both physically and mentally, and the will to carry on with life. She is withering away. Her right arm lies limply by her side. Her breasts have sagged. Her stomach muscles can no longer hold in her belly. The veins and arteries in her hand and arm stand out. Her left hand covers her face and by this gesture we take it that she wants to see no more of life. She wants to close it out. She has had enough. She just wants to hide away from all the trials and tribulations that come with life. In her mind she has lived too long.
The mother with the child in the middle of the group represents beauty and the way she lovingly cradles the baby is a representation of the unconditional love of a mother. See how she rests her head on the head of the child. She is the personification of contentment and this look of contentment is mirrored in the face of the baby as she peacefully sleeps in the knowledge that the arms that hold him and the sound of his mother’s heartbeat offer him safety and affection.
So did the painting receive with universal acclaim? Not really. Many feminists viewed the painting with disdain pointing out that Klimt’s “message” is that a woman’s life is over after the young motherhood stage of life. The overall feel to this painting is one of isolation. The three women look as if they are trapped inside a column surrounded on both sides by a void. After the death of his baby son, Otto, in 1902, Klimt became preoccupied with the subject of death and the passage of life on its unstoppable journey towards death.
This is a truly wonderful and yet disturbing painting and once again I would like to have been in the head of the artist as he painted this picture so as to understand what was going through his mind.