The Motif of the Levitating Head: Reconfigurations of Genius, c. 1900

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 3:30 PM
Wilson Room B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute
This paper identifies a new formal device adopted in depictions of genius in turn-of-the-century European art, and argues for its epistemological significance. Taking as its point of departure the “Klinger-Beethoven Ausstellung” held in spring of 1902 by the Vienna Secession, the paper examines a radical reconceptualization of ponderation, in both the physical and intellectual senses, that took place across a range of artworks from this period. I highlight formal and conceptual discrepancies between Max Klinger’s Beethoven-Denkmal (1885-1902), the central object of the “Klinger-Beethoven Ausstellung,” and Gustav Klimt’s so-called “Beethovenfries,” a jeweled fresco created to adorn the space that housed it. While Klinger’s monument celebrated Beethoven’s creativity by relying on longstanding visual associations, dating back to antiquity, between contemplative intellect and corporeal, and more specifically cranial, heaviness, Klimt’s frieze programmatically inverted those associations. A seeming disregard for laws of gravity, and visual stress on corporeal weightlessness and buoyancy, are among the most striking features of the frieze, which culminates in a decorative passage where, to express the triumphant mental state evoked by Klinger’s monument, Klimt deploys what I have called the “motif of the levitating head.” I analyze this motif alongside analogous visual strategies deployed by Klimt’s contemporaries, in particular Auguste Rodin in his highly controversial monument to Balzac (1892-1897), and argue that the motif of the levitating head concretizes a transformation in understandings of creative thought in European culture before the turn of the twentieth century, as a range of disciplines, from philosophy to scientific psychology to evolutionary biology, increasingly insisted upon the role of sexuality and unconscious thinking in human mental processes.
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