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Gustav Klimt's only surviving study for destroyed Viennese commission acquired by Israel Museum
Gustav Klimt’, Die Medizin (Kompositionsentwurf), 1897-1898.

JERUSALEM.- The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, today announced the acquisition of Gustav Klimt’s Die Medizin (Kompositionsentwurf) (1897-1898), the artist’s only remaining oil study for a controversial series of monumental paintings created for the University of Vienna’s Great Hall. Commissioned by Austria’s Ministry of Culture and Education in 1894, Die Medizin is one of three allegorical panels representing the themes of enlightenment Klimt developed for the Great Hall’s ceiling. All three works were later destroyed by retreating German SS forces in May 1945. Blending elements of neo-Baroque and Secessionist aesthetics, the work captures the emergence of Klimt’s iconic style and unconventional treatment of subject matter and themes. Representing a seminal moment in the artist’s development, this acquisition is the first painting by Klimt to enter the collection, joining several works on paper. It is on display in the Museum’s 19th century, Impressionist, and Post-Impressionist galleries, within the context of the Museum’s presentation of fine art from the Renaissance through the 20th century.

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) is considered one of the most innovative artists of the early 20th century for his distinct style, which joined gold leaf and ornamentation in rich figurative compositions. In 1897, he became one of the founding members and president of the Vienna Secession, whose aim was to break away from historicism by providing a platform for unconventional young artists through exhibitions and publications.

A joint project by Klimt and fellow artist Franz Matsch, the paintings for the Great Hall were commissioned to celebrate each of the faculties of the University of Vienna. Titled The Triumph of Light over Darkness, the series included a large central canvas devoted to enlightenment and four surrounding paintings depicting philosophy, medicine, jurisprudence, and theology. When presented to the Ministry of Culture and Education at the University of Vienna, Klimt’s depiction of Medicine was condemned for its use of nudity and its radical treatment of the subject. This controversy continued when the final version was displayed at the Tenth Vienna Secession exhibition in 1901, which prompted infuriated responses from the public, particularly among the doctors in attendance, leading to the University’s decision against installing the works in the Great Hall.

“An early example of Klimt’s signature work and an important precursor to his ‘Golden Phase,’ Die Medizin (Kompositionsentwurf) represents a significant addition to our presentation of Viennese Secessionist art, capturing the moment of Klimt’s breaking away from traditional artistic trends and inventing his own segue to the modernism of the coming century,” said James S. Snyder, Anne and Jerome Fisher Director of the Israel Museum. “This iconic work encapsulates the spirit of the 19th century, while also laying important groundwork for the radical shifts that would come to define early 20th century art, amplifying our Museum’s narrative of the continuum of visual cultural history. We are pleased to share this ever-expanding chronicle with our public and are especially proud to become custodians of this surviving remnant of one of Klimt’s seminal endeavors.”

Likely the first oil study for Medizin, the composition is full of movement, with sweeping brushstrokes and dramatic highlighting. Captured at dawn with a hint of blue sky emanating from the upper left, the main figure Hygieia—the Greek goddess of hygiene and health—is depicted in the lower foreground. Her face is painted clearly with tight brushstrokes, the only face to be given such detail, and framed with the gold leaf that would soon become Klimt’s signature. Above Hygeia to the left floats a provocative female nude, while a swirling column of figures, described as “The Wheel of Life,” whirls to the right. Questioning the triumph of scientific achievement, the painting suggests that there is no escaping the inevitable decline to sickness and death.

Die Medizin (Kompositionsentwurf) was first acquired from the artist by Dr. Hermann Wittgenstein (cousin of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein), whose family were major supporters of Gustav Klimt among other Secessionist artists, and it remained in the Wittgenstein family until its acquisition by the Israel Museum. Purchase was made possible through the gift of Isidore M. Cohen, New York; the Edward D. Mitchell Estate, Los Angeles; Joseph Spreiregen, Cannes; Michel Goldet and Sabine Pierre- Brossolette, in memory of André Goldet, Paris; bequest of Mathilda Schwartz-Goldman, New York; and gift of Mrs. Georges Marci-Bianchi, Gstaad.

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