Three lost Klimt paintings revived thanks to Google reconstructing them

Google Arts & Culture has reconstructed Gustav Klimt's three "faculty paintings," masterpieces by the great Austrian artist that were lost during World War II.

A Google Arts & Culture project reconstructs, through a machine learning experiment, Gustav Klimt’s lost “Faculty Paintings,” known only through black-and-white photographs. The attempt is part of the online exhibition Klimt vs. Klimt. The Man of Contradictions, which Google is offering starting this weekend to the public on its platform. It is a virtual tour showing the public paintings from more than 30 museums to create, Google’s word, “one of the most comprehensive online experiences about the artist.”

The real novelty, however, is the reconstruction of the three Faculty Paintings: much of the paintings made by Gustav Klimt have been lost throughout history, and among the most painful losses are the aforementioned paintings, so named because they were executed on behalf of theUniversity of Vienna, which, however, later rejected them because they were deemed critical of science. The commission came to him in 1894 (along with him was Franz Matsch), from the Austrian Ministry of Education: the paintings were to decorate the university’s large ballroom and were to be allegories of the university’s four faculties.

Matsch was in charge of the painting of the Faculty of Religion, while Klimt was responsible for the allegories of the faculties of Philosophy, Medicine and Law. Klimt began working on his paintings only in 1898, for reasons we do not know: the artist, due to the enormous size of the paintings (over four meters in height) also had to rent a studio especially for this purpose. For the allegory of Philosophy, Klimt, choosing an asymmetrical cut, painted on the left a series of nudes of both genders and of different ages to symbolize humanity, and on the right an empty sky with the figure of a huge sphinx, an allegory of philosophy (the sphinx in fact in antiquity was believed to be the repository of secrets and enigmas). The same asymmetrical cut, though reversed, was used for Medicine: the nudes this time are on the right, while a naked woman, alone, seems to float on the left (her pose makes her a symbol of illness, while death is symbolized by the skull seen among the nudes). The allegory of medicine is the figure of Hygieia, the clothed woman in the bottom center looking at the viewer: she holds a cup in her hand and around her arm is the serpent of Asclepius, the symbol of medicine itself. As for Jurisprudence, on the other hand, Klimt chose a less populated composition: we see a naked man being judged by a tribunal and being held by a giant octopus, whose tentacles symbolize the power of fate. The women are the Erinyes, or Roman Furies, the deities who, according to Greek mythology, came down on those guilty of crimes against the family. In the upper part, three female figures appear instead, personifications of justice, law and truth.

The paintings were ready for the seventh exhibition of the Vienna Secession in 1900, but despite the fact that today they are considered masterpieces of Symbolist art, they aroused scandal at the time, because according to patrons Klimt gave a negative view of the subjects studied at the university. His art was in essence completely misaligned with the patrons’ intentions: it was particularly the painting of Medicine that raised the most controversy, because it was considered critical of science. Indeed, the patrons wanted Klimt to create highly idealized allegories of science, whereas Klimt, by inserting death among humanity in the Medicine painting, seemed almost to mean that human beings are at the mercy of dark forces against which little can be done-a pessimistic message that did not match the patrons’ intentions. In addition, there was also much discussion about the sensuality of the female nudes (no one before him had gone so far as to dare for a public commission): the paintings should not in fact be erotic in nature.

The paintings were thus rejected: the state wanted to move them to the newly opened Moderne Galerie in Vienna, but Klimt rejected this plan, preferring instead to keep the works and return the fees for the commission to the state. The painter eventually prevailed: he thus regained the works, which were sold. Industrialist August Lederer bought Philosophy in 1905, while Medicine and Law were bought between 1910 and 1912 by another of the greatest Austrian artists of the time, Koloman Moser. Moser’s family in turn sold the paintings in 1919: the Medicine was given to the Österreichische Galerie, while Lederer himself procured the Jurisprudence. In 1938, the Nazis seized Lederer’s two paintings, and the three reunited works were shipped to Immendorf Castle near Vienna in 1944. Unfortunately, however, after a few months the castle was burned down during a war action, and all three paintings were destroyed.

The works, as mentioned, are known only from black-and-white photographs taken in the early 1900s. Thus, using the opportunities offered by machine learning, reinforced by the knowledge of art historian Franz Smola, curator of collections at the Leopold Museum in Vienna and an expert on Klimt, teams from Google Arts & Culture Lab were able to reconstruct the colors Klimt might have used for the Faculty Paintings. For the first time in seventy years, it is therefore possible to see how the works might have looked. “Klimt’s three Faculty Paintings,” Franz Smola points out, “were among the greatest works of art ever created by Klimt and in the field of Symbolist painting represent Klimt’s masterpieces. Colors were essential to the overwhelming effect of these paintings and caused a great stir among Klimt’s contemporaries. Therefore, the reconstruction of the colors stands for the recognition of the true value and meaning of these exceptional works of art.”

Klimt, Smola adds, "rarely commented on his work, and rather invited people to look at the works for themselves and draw their own conclusions. The Klimt vs. Klimt project mainly uses visual and nonverbal tools to convey Klimt’s work, which is very much in line with Klimt’s character. Klimt liked to lead a rather isolated life within the walls of his studio, to which only a few had access. I’m sure he would have liked the idea of jumping from this remote and quiet place onto the Web, having access to millions of works of art, and seeing his art distributed and communicated around the world."

The virtual exhibition Klimt vs. Klimt. The Man of Contradictions and the reconstruction of the Faculty Paintings can be viewed on Google Arts & Culture, or by downloading the app of the same name for Android and iOs.

Three lost Klimt paintings revived thanks to Google reconstructing them
Three lost Klimt paintings revived thanks to Google reconstructing them

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