The quotation from Schiller, “Kannst du nicht allen gefallen durch deine Tat und dein Kunstwerk, mach’ es wenigen recht; vielen gefallen ist schlimm,” loosely translated, reads “If your deed and your art do not please everyone, do it as well as you can; pleasing everyone sucks.”
The painting scandalized bourgeois Viennese art viewers because it shows pubic hair. I see a woman, possibly dangerous, possibly vulnerable, and probably blind. She stands bare before the viewer, holding a lamp, like a sage, a prophet who leads the way to the truth.
She also resembles the Hermit, the the ninth trump or Major Arcana card in most traditional Tarot decks:
This card is also associated with Joseph Campbell’s description of the hero who “ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons” (The Hero with a Thousand Faces). The Hermit has gone into the darkness, or the desert, and returned wiser, like Jesus, or the Buddha.
Klimt’s Hermit directly confronts her spectators, looking not at them, but rather within. As in the Tarot, she represents introspection, silence, spiritual knowledge achieved after much suffering. She is wisdom.
A story tells of an old hermit who carried a lit lantern around the village and the area day and night, even in daylight. One day the villagers had enough curiosity to ask him “Sir, why do you carry your lantern lit in daylight?” He said, “Because I’m searching for an honest man.” Nuda Veritas, presenting herself wholly, nakedly, innocently, demands to know which among her detractors is so free from failure that he or she may cast the first stone.
In the Bible, Wisdom is also a woman:
Wisdom speaks her own praises,
in the midst of her people she glories in herself.
She opens her mouth in the assembly of the Most High,
she glories in herself in the presence of the Mighty One…
Alone, I have made the circuit of the heavens
and walked through the depths of the abyss.
Over the waves of the sea and over the whole earth,
and over every people and nation I have held sway. (Ecclesiasticus 24: 1-7)
Wisdom also comes to humanity through a woman. Genesis 3:6: “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” In the Book of Wisdom the narrator, allegedly Solomon, refers to Wisdom as the “designer of all things” (Wisdom 7:21) and says
Although she is alone, she can do everything;
herself unchanging, she renews the world,
and, generation after generation, passing into holy souls,
she makes them into God’s friends and prophets;
for God loves only those who dwell with Wisdom. (Wisdom 7:27-28)
Wisdom is identified with the creative, shaping power of the deity as well as with divine understanding, Reason. But in Klimt’s picture, the figure represents a wisdom gained through blindness to the world and faithfulness to one’s inner sight. She stands before us, utterly vulnerable to our gaze, and utterly indifferent to it. She attends to something other than the voice of the crowd, the world, the critics. Like Sri Nisargadatta, who said,
All you need is already within you.
Only you must approach yourself with reverence and love,
Klimt’s hermit heroine urges us to say, with her, “I am,” in word, deed and art, and to accept nothing less or more than that.