At first sight, Klimt's Hygieia seems to be put another representation of the femme fatale. Hygieia confronts the viewer almost scornfully, her haughtiness is implied by her upraised chin and inscrutable gaze and her posture is slightly ominous, the golden snake twines sinuously along her upraised arm and it is unclear whether she offering the bowl or withholding it. The stylization of her encompassing red and gold robe serves to hide her body and her hair is covered beneath her rich headdress, the only indication of humanity and feminine sensuality lie in Hygieia's bare face and arms, and even here, her sensuality becomes a source of power, though she stares out of the painting, her eyes are hidden in shadow. It is clear that Hygieia is powerful and dangerous in her own right.
Hygieia, according to Greek myth, was the goddess of hygiene, of health, cleanliness and sanitation. In fact, the snake and the bowl remain symbols of pharmacy to this day. In this context, Hygieia was not a femme fatale but belonged rather in the traditional categorization of women as caretakers. This explanation of Hygieia contrasts with Klimt's powerful, inscrutable and even ominous depiction of her.
At the same time, it is clear that Hygieia is not the only figure in this painting, hidden amongst her elaborate headdress are the reposing faces of two women and the bare torso of a naked pregnant woman is partially hidden by Hygieia's red robe. Behind Hygieia, or perhaps within Hygieia, are very human very vulnerable women whose downward gazes, flowing hair and nudity speak much more to traditional depictions of women than Hygieia's strange defiance and power. Is Hygieia protecting these women? Is she instead threatening such women? Are these women another side of Hygieia, is she both vulnerable and powerful, innocent and mysterious? These questions are swallowed in the inscrutable gaze of Klimt's Hygieia.
1. Hygieia's realistically conveyed bare arms and face speak of human warmth and beauty. Yet her enveloping red robe is decorated with stylized gold patterns and her hair is hidden beneath stylized headdress. Why this contrast between stiff stylized patterns with its metallic gold and unnatural reds and purples and the warmth of her skin and her feminine features?
2. It is clear that the title of the work, Hygieia shed light upon the subject matter. Why would Klimt choose to depict Hygieia as a powerful, inscrutable woman rather than more conventionally as a caretaker or nurse? It is clear, after all, that one would think twice before turning to this Hygieia for comfort or succor. What does Klimt think of Hygieia? Can we infer any views of women from this depiction?
3. The figure of Hygieia was actually a detail from a much larger painting, Medicine destroyed during WWII. According to Wikipedia, the painting supposedly illustrate the powerlessness of medicine and was soundly attacked by critics when first shown. Indeed, although Klimt had been commissioned to produce this painting for the University of Vienna's Great Hall, it was never even hung up. Given this background, does this shed any new light on the figure of Hygieia?
Does this theme of a powerful inscrutable woman and human fragility resonate in other works we have studied? For instance, Rossetti's Helen comes to mind as another inscrutable, powerful, beautiful woman, but one who clearly wrought disaster. Moreover, are there any similarities between Klimt's femme fatale and Rossetti's, or any other Pre-Raphaelite's depictions of such women?
Who are the women in the background? Are they other representations of Hygieia? Do they represent humanity or conventional womanhood?
"Hygieia." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Viewed 6 December 2006.
"Bowl of Hygieia" Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Viewed 6 December 2006.
Medicine." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Viewed 6 December 2006.
Last modified 7 December 2006