Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Biologist identifies embryos in painting by Gustav Klimt

(Note: painting is a nude. Just sayin'!)

Zeus covertly impregnated Danaë, the legendary princess of Argos, by disguising himself as golden coins, which streamed into the princess's locked chamber and ran down her thighs like raindrops as she slept. Danaë's father had imprisoned the princess to shield her from men because of a prediction that his future grandson would one day kill him. The disguised Zeus gave Danaë a son, and destiny took its course.

Austrian painter Gustav Klimt's 1907 depiction, however, differs from the others in that it mirrors Zeus's stream of golden coins with another stream of circular forms that have eluded art historians for decades. It took the eyes of developmental biologist Scott Gilbert at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania to identify these shapes as early embryonic forms drifting down the right side of Klimt's Danaë, over the naked, supine princess.


To find out where Klimt acquired such knowledge, Brauckmann sifted through the Viennese archives and concluded that Klimt had soaked up embryology at soirees held by a leading anatomist in Vienna, Emil Zuckerkandl, and his wife Bertha. Bertha, a writer with a passion for the arts, would invite her talented circle of friends over in the evenings for scientific lectures accompanied by slides of blood vessels, brain cells and other microscopic wonders. Klimt was among the artists, musicians, writers and scientists in attendance.

What is striking to me about the painting is the shape of a woman. Not only is she curled up like an embryo, her head and her should together look like the head of a 7 week-old embryo.  The left shoulder in the painting corresponds to the top of the embryo's neck in the image to the left.

 I wonder if Gustav Klimt had an opinion on when life began. :D