Swim or Spit: Klimt’s “Goldfish”

When I gaze upon Gustav Klimt’s Goldfish, I begin to make up fairy tales: Once upon a time, four nymphs lived in a mystical watery kingdom flecked with gold. They kept giant goldfish as companions, and, should a strange traveler encounter them, he might join them and never return…

Klimt's Goldfish

“Hello ladies. My, what a fine day for a swim. The water sure does seem nice and sparkly. Are you, uh, um, well, what exactly are you doing? And who is your friend, Mr. Fish? I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced.”

detail of fish in Klimt's Goldfish

Each figure surely has a story to tell. I personally am curious about the brunette. I like her profile of curves, hair draping, just a glimpse of her face, but no real idea her expression or thoughts. If I were a character in the fairy tale, I’d want to be her–beautiful, mysterious, in reverie. I always wished I didn’t need to breathe underwater. She doesn’t appear to be holding her breath.

detail of brunette in Klimt's Goldfish

I asked my friend D. to look at this painting and tell me what she thought. She laughed at the redhead sticking her butt out at us, and said it reminded her of her first babysitting gig, ever. She was fourteen, and got dropped off at a trailer to watch a three year old terror, um, I mean, boy. Every time she tried to redirect him from unacceptable activities, he would look at her, a gleam in his eye and challenge her in a deep Texas accent, “whatcha gonna do about it? Whoop my butt?” Plainly this kid was accustomed to getting in trouble. D. said that Klimt’s redhead has the same taunting expression on her face—“whatcha gonna do, huh?”

detail of redhead in Klimt's Goldfish

I think D.’s reaction to this painting is super duper cool–especially because she was unaware of the actual backstory to this painting. Klimt painted Goldfish after having three great works (now destroyed) rejected by the university who had commissioned them. Klimt’s approach to the subjects of Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence were too scandalous for the University of Vienna. The faculty wanted safe academic historicism. Klimt’s work was too different, too arousing, so they denounced it as pornography. It was not that nakedness was unacceptable, it was that it departed from the classically stylized nudity they were familiar with. This was new and scintillating.

So, Klimt refunded the University, sold the paintings to other buyers, and set to work on To My Critics, later to be renamed Goldfish. This is the “official” art history story I found about these four wet, naked, beautiful ladies: the redhead in Goldfish is mooning the University critics. Plainly, Klimt was comfortable getting in trouble. Pornography? Kiss my… ahem.  Whatcha gonna do? Whoop my butt? Klimt never accepted another public commission, and instead did private work and also, uh, really private work (erotic drawings).

Berthold Loffler's "Apage Satanas"

Berthold Löffler, another Austrian artist, made the above cartoon. On the left you see Klimt’s redhead and her voluptuous behind, jutting out of the picture frame. To the right, a critic (identifiable by the art publications sticking out his pockets) spits at Goldfish.

There is probably another layer of meaning here, I mean, Klimt was considered a symbolist. Surely there is meaning to the inclusion of the fish. Try as I did to find “official” or “authoritative” interpretations of symbolism in this work, none had that fairy tale storyline (or detailed analysis of potential meanings) that I was hoping to find.

detail of water in Klimt's Goldfish

If you are a Klimt scholar, by all means, please inform me about the symbolism here. For the rest of us, what is your fairy tale? Would you swim or spit? Has anyone ever looked at you like Redhead?

If you want to see the range of Klimt’s work, including his “private” drawings, click over to www.klimt.com.

“Athena Goes to the Prater: Parodying Ancients and Moderns at the Vienna Secession”, Julle M. Johnson, Oxford Art Journal , Vol. 26, No. 2 (2003) , pp. 49-69,Published by: Oxford University Press, Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3600390



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