Although images of women and children are frequent in the history of art, depictions of pregnancy are rare. In Hope, II a woman with a skull nestled into her gown lowers her head toward her swelling belly. Below, three women also bow their heads—in prayer or possibly mourning. The ornate decoration in Hope, II nearly overwhelms its surface. Klimt was committed to craftwork, and was among the many artists of his time who combined archaic traditions—here Byzantine gold leaf painting—with a modern psychological subject. Klimt lived and worked in turn-of-the-century Vienna, home to Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis; Klimt's exploration of formative drives like sex and death parallel Freud's explorations of the psyche.
MoMA Audio: Collection, 2008
Curator, Leah Dickerman: This is Gustav Klimt's Hope, II, and in it you see a pregnant woman bowing her head and looking down over the curve of her swelling body towards an image of a skull and then down by her feet are three women that are hard to even distinguish from the ornamental patterns that cover her robes. And on each side of the figure are large swaths of flecked gold that seem to compress the figure. And if you think about it, the history of art is littered with images of nude women and with images of mothers and babies. But the subject of a pregnant woman is a very rare one.
Klimt was the first President of the Viennese Secession, which withdrew from the traditional Academy of Fine Arts and marked a kind of generational shift between a very staid, conservative establishment culture in Vienna and a more liberal culture that was interested in testing taboos. And one of the things that Klimt is doing is putting sexuality and its consequences on display, and that was shocking perhaps to his Viennese audience. It's also important that this picture was made in the moment of Freud's most active years. His famous book, The Interpretation of Dreams was published in 1900. And here, Klimt is making the psyche itself a subject.
There is a tension between this utterly contemporary investigation of the psyche and something that harkens back to ancient art in the use of archaic decoration, in the use of archaic media like tempera and gold leaf—even in the static pose that the woman takes.
The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 54
A pregnant woman bows her head and closes her eyes, as if praying for the safety of her child. Peeping out from behind her stomach is a death's head, sign of the danger she faces. At her feet, three women with bowed heads raise their hands, presumably also in prayer—although their solemnity might also imply mourning, as if they foresaw the child's fate.
Why, then, the painting's title? Although Klimt himself called this work Vision, he had called an earlier, related painting of a pregnant woman Hope. By association with the earlier work, this one has become known as Hope, II. There is, however, a richness here to balance the women's gravity.
Klimt was among the many artists of his time who were inspired by sources not only within Europe but far beyond it. He lived in Vienna, a crossroads of East and West, and he drew on such sources as Byzantine art, Mycenean metalwork, Persian rugs and miniatures, the mosaics of the Ravenna churches, and Japanese screens. In this painting the woman's gold-patterned robe—drawn flat, as clothes are in Russian icons, although her skin is rounded and dimensional—has an extraordinary decorative beauty. Here, birth, death, and the sensuality of the living exist side by side suspended in equilibrium.