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Pallas Athene expanded Klimt's use of women for symbolist themes
Pallas Athene uses classical mythology but contrasts markedly from Klimt's more feminine depictions of women. Here, this is a powerful goddess, a woman of strength and courage, sporting traditionally masculine qualities.
Gender ambiguities in Greek antiquity were actually very common, not just here in Athena.
Pallas Athene of 1898 continues his use of mythology as seen in the likes of Danae, though in this new direction of female strength. Sexuality is also hidden here, where as Judith, Danae and The Kiss positively focused upon it, indeed celebrated it.
It's contrast from the rest of his career makes this a significant work, whilst at the same time also incorporating common features of his work, such as the bright, gold-leaf artwork and the use of symbolism and greek mythology.
Klimt’s Pallas Athene, painted in 1898, is a depiction of the martial aspect of the Greek God, a representative of wisdom (note the owl behind), craft and war, and the guardian personification of ancient Athens.
Athene appears before us in defiant stance, one hand clutching at the shaft of a spear, her invariable weapon. She regards the viewer with a steady and penetrating gaze; the impression is of being evaluated. Her eyes are wide and pale; the look calm and controlled. She carries her head high and her mouth is drawn tight and thin which accentuates the heavy, straight jaw line. These attributes, coupled with the helmet which covers the other areas of her face and head, lend her a decidedly masculine appearance which the lank hair, trailing beneath, does not attenuate.
The air of powerful determination is further heightened by the square format and the horizontal and vertical lines that are inherent in the composition. Her breastplate is a rectangle, the spear a vertical line, the arm a right angle, the mannequin stands upright upon the orb, even Athene’s hair comes straight down to frame the grotesque face leering from the gorget.
However there are some mitigating notes which temper the overall tone of rigidity. The breast plate edges, especially at the lower edge are composed of curved forms, the mail is made up of scallop shapes, the orb and the owl’s eyes are round. These curved elements soften the lines and give balance to the square rigidity of the composition. Most tellingly her left hand supports the spear in a delicate and loose grip. The flesh itself is portrayed in the nacreous manner that Klimt excelled at, its pallor standing out in sharp contrast to the dark backdrop, which seems to give the god an entirely human frailty that we can just glimpse behind the armour and the mask-like face.
The use of mythological themes was common in Klimt’s work of the time, as it was with many of the Symbolists.