One of a group of striking and revolutionary symbolist paintings from Klimt's celebrated "gold and silver" period, Irrlichter (Will o'-the-wisp) is a rare and important work from 1903 that remained largely hidden for most of the twentieth century. The painting emerged from a private collection in 1978, having been previously known only through a photograph showing it at the Secession exhibition of the same year (fig. 1), where it had hung alongside Klimt's other major works from this period, such as Musik II, Philosophie and Medizin. Early references to Irrlichter appear in publications of Die Kunst, Ver Sacrum, and Hervesi's Kunst und Handwerk in 1903 and 1904. These magnificent paintings, among which Irrlichter was installed, are among the most important of Klimt's oeuvre, and were tragically destroyed in 1945. For decades, it was thought that Irrlichter had suffered the same fate.
The subject matter of the present painting links it to Klimt's famous friezes for the faculty hall of the new University of Vienna dedicated to the subjects of Philosophy, Medicine, Jurisprudence and Theology. Klimt caused a public scandal by using nude women as a pictorial means of conveying the abstract concepts he had been asked to portray. While working on the faculty hall paintings and the Beethovenfries that Klimt completed for the Vienna Secession building in 1902, the painter created several small-scale symbolic pictures which, in terms of composition as well as the type of women, have a close connection to the studies for the monumental works. Indeed, the more than four hundred sketches and studies that Klimt executed for the faculty hall paintings have helped scholars determine that the concepts of the artist's small works from this period, including the present painting, correspond to his larger public projects. Some were done immediately, while others had to wait for years before being completed.
In Irrlichter, Klimt again portrayed a seemingly abstract but scientifically respected phenomenon through the use of the female form, the will o'-the-wisp: a flame-like phosphorescence caused by gases from decaying plants in marshy areas. Foolish travelers were said to try to follow the light and were then led astray into the marsh. An 18th-century fairy tale described the Irrlicht as one "who bears the wispy fire to trail the swains among the mire." The light was first known, and still also is, as "Ignis Fatuus," which in Latin means "foolish fire." Eventually, the name will-o'-the-wisp was extended to any impractical or unattainable goal. As an article on the subject in Meyers Lexikon of 1896 points out, Irrlicht manifests itself through small firefly-like flickering specks of light that usually appear on moors and in meadows or churchyards. Like fireflies, these Irrlichter are scattered throughout Klimt's composition. The effect of this phenomenon on the viewer was seductively disorienting, and could lead to confusion and madness. In folklore, Irrlichter were often thought to represent the souls of dead children or mischievous fairies. The subject of Irrlicht in 19th century art is not as uncommon as one might think, having been treated by several painters including Carl Spitzweg; while in the realm of music it was the title of a song in Franz Schubert's magnificent cycle Winterreise, as well as a 1894 opera by Karl Gramman and Kurt Geuke and a 1918 ballet by Julius Lehnert.
As a pseudo-scientific phenomenon that crosses over into folklore, the Irrlicht was an appropriate subject for Klimt to tackle in the aftermath of his work on the university murals. The notion of seductive and mischievous spirits leading one astray through a magical sparkling light that appears at twilight, was also one that lent itself easily to the mystic symbolism of his art and his love of siren-like women materializing out of the ether. The pictorial form of Irrlichter echoes that of Klimt's symbolist masterpieces such as Medizin and the Beethoven Frieze (fig. 2) in its highly stylized juxtaposition of empty space with a condensed ascending tower of naked female forms, and indeed, drawings for the present work were originally executed for the composition of these two grand works. Against a cascade of deep flowing color that defines an empty mist, the long flowing locks of the female spirits mimics its watery flow and outlines an attractive female face, each of whom has their eyes turned provocatively on the viewer. The red hair of the figure to the right is itself a flame-like beacon and also echoes the figures to the right and left of the Erinyes in the Jurisprudence faculty painting. Speckled with the brightly shining mysterious Irrlicht of the title, Klimt's sensuous line and subtle color blend together to create a haunting Jugendstil image of gentle psychic seduction.
Irrlichter also reveals Klimt's fascination in his early symbolist paintings with water as a source of life and death, an idea perhaps heightened by the reflections and changing colors that he observed on summer holidays at the Attersee beginning in 1900. The theme of mythical female nudes in water first appears in his oeuvre in 1898, when the artist produced the pen and ink drawing Fischblut (Strobl, no. 675; fig. 3) for the first edition of Ver Sacrum. Like contemporary book illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley and others, Klimt depicts a group of women whose whiplash tresses are animated by both the current of the water and by supernatural forces. However, the joyous nudes celebrating water as a symbol of life in Fischblut appear quite different to those in Irrlichter, whose sly visages and potentially ensnaring locks emphasize water's potential to bring destruction. Klimt followed this illustration in the same year with the oil painting Bewegtes Wasser (Weidinger, no. 128; fig. 4), which he executed during one his trips to the Salzkammergut and which was first shown at the second Secession Exhibition in the fall of 1898. Like the present canvas, Bewegtes Wasser displays a darker, more somber atmosphere; the mysterious female head with dark tresses in the lower left hand corner and the almost hidden water spirit on the right suggest an ominous quality that becomes more overt in Irrlichter. As Alfred Weidinger has explained, the similarities between these two canvases stems from the fact that a preparatory compositional sketch for Irrlichter already existed at the time. The image of women in water remained an important one for Klimt, and inspired similar small format paintings such as Nixen (Weidinger, no. 146), which was also shown at the Klimt Collective Exhibition in 1903, and his darkly seductive water serpent paintings from 1903-1907.
Despite the early inception of Irrlichter, its composition changed dramatically before the small sized picture with a wide bronze colored frame made its first public appearance. In the four studies for the painting, Klimt includes both the women from the final work and a nude girl hopping forwards, even jumping on the head of another figure in one version, a posture that the artist had likely admired in Edward Burne-Jones' 1869 painting The Wine of Circe, which was published in a monograph in 1901. However, Klimt ultimately sacrificed this action in favor of a more abstract rendition, one that both acknowledges the influence of Jan Toorop's symbolist sphinxes and completely assimilates the floating figures into the landscape. This colorful symbiosis adds to the sense of the figures manifesting and dissolving, thereby emphasizing the appearance and disappearance of the tiny flames that characterizes the will-o-the wisp. Commenting on the work's formal transformation, Weidinger has noted:
"The painting Klimt created in 1903 follows the original compositional sketch very closely, but the appearance and importance of the main figure have changed completely. In his sketches, Klimt was principally interested in the properties of the will-o'-the-wisp, the hopping, forward movement over the moor, whereas in the painting the main emphasis is on the enticement of a seductive woman to follow her and be engulfed by the moor. With the exception of the small bluish flames flickering out of the brown moor, the depiction in the completed painting focuses on the portrayal of the female nude with her red hair and the girl's head on the right side where the disaster caused by this phenomenon is reflected" (op. cit., p. 77).
Smaller works such as the present painting were extremely important to the artist; it was by means of these symbolist subjects he had been working on since 1895 that he wanted to present his most creative and innovative face both at the Secession in the spring of 1903 and at his Collective Exhibition in November and December of the same year. Irrlichter appears to have been well received at the time of its initial exhibition; in her essay on the painting, "Klimt's Irrlichter Phantombild eines verschollen Gemäldes" published to coincide with the work's re-emergence in the public domain, Alice Strobl cites Ludwig Hervesi, the only art critic to have formerly written about it. Hervesi, writing in 1906 had described the work as a "fantasy-scene of Irrlicht (a false, madness-inducing light), where women and ornaments intertwine in a uniquely Klimtian way," finally asserting that "its effect overall is delightful" (Ludwig Hervesi, Acht Jahre Secession, Vienna, 1906, pp. 420 and 426.)
(fig. 1) Photo of Irrlichter at the Klimt Collective Exhibition Hall, 1903.
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(fig. 2) Gustav Klimt, Beethovenfries (detail), 1902. Österreichische Galerie, Vienna.
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(fig. 3) Gustav Klimt, Fischblut, 1898. Private collection.
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(fig. 4) Gustav Klimt, Bewegtes Wasser, 1898. Galerie St. Etienne, New York.
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