Will o’ the Wisps

Gustav Klimt, Will o’ the Wisps, 1903, oil on board laid down on canvas, 52.1 x 59.7 cm, Private Collection. Photo:
 Photo © Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images.

Will o’ the Wisps or ignis fatuus (foolish fire) are the wandering sparks of light seen in boggy areas. Today we know they result from spontaneous combustion of gas from decomposing plants.[1] In folklore, however, they were explained as dead children’s souls, benevolent spirits, or, more often, sprites that led unsuspecting travellers astray.[2] In this picture by the Viennese Secession painter Gustav Klimt, naked femmes fatales (seductive women) loom through drifting, violet mist. But do they personify the mischievous bog-lights, or are they their victims? Klimt surely plays on the fact that the German for ‘Will o’ the Wisp’ (Irrlichter) shares its root both with irren (to wander or be mistaken) and Irre (madwoman). For the woman with the naked torso has the lolling head, outstretched arms and glazed expression of some of the mentally disturbed patients whom Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot had recorded during his famous experiments with therapeutic hypnosis (Fig. 1).[3] Klimt had already portrayed such a figure in his Medicine mural for the University of Vienna, whose ‘columns’ of space/vapour and of floating bodies (Fig. 2) also anticipate those of Will o’ the Wisps. Hygieia, after all, the ambiguous Greek goddess of health who features at the base of Medicine, was born a snake in the primeval Tellurian swamp.

The Romantic composer Franz Schubert, whom Klimt much admired, had used the will o’ the wisp to suggest a spurned lover’s shifting emotions in his Winterreise (Winter Journey) song cycle.[4] But Klimt surely gives the theme a new psychological intensity, for the way the frame cuts the bodies and faces in Will o’ the Wisps implicitly draws us too into the bog of hypnotic trance and primal origin. Contrasting also with the Pre-Raphaelite Arthur Hughes’s more literal interpretation of Will o’ the Wisps as travellers with lanterns (Fig. 3), Klimt’s imagery links the world of folklore and myth to the ‘archaeologies of the mind’ being uncovered in Vienna at the time by Sigmund Freud, who had studied with Charcot.

Clare A.P. Willsdon

Footnotes and Figures

[1] Stuart McLean, ‘Black Goo: Forceful Encounters with Matter in Europe’s Muddy Margins’, Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 26, Issue 4, DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1360.2011.01113.x, p. 609.

[2] See ibid. and Lot essay for the painting at https://www.christies.com/en/lot/lot-5369430 (accessed 29.8.21). Other names in folklore for ignis fatuus include Jack-of-the-Lantern and Kitty Candle (see McLean, p. 609), whilst a benign version, ‘born in a ditch’, enters into a woman called Clari, so that ‘she smiles all day’, in Robert Buchanan’s poem ‘The Will o’ the Wisp’, Good Words, Jan. 1872, Vol. 13, p. 47.

[3] The head-thrown-back, mouth-open, arms-outstretched pose of the naked woman in the picture compares, e.g. with the ‘crucifixion’ phase of the ‘Hystéro-épilepsie’ attack shown in Plate VI of Bourneville and Paul Regnard, Iconographie photographique de la Salpétrière: service de M. Charcot, Paris 1877, documenting some of the cases Charcot treated at the Salpétrière hospital in Paris. This book was known in Secession Vienna; see Gemma Blackshaw, ‘The Pathological Body: Modernist Strategising in Egon Schiele’s Self-Portraiture’, Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 30, No. 3 (2007), pp. 382-3, https://www.jstor.org/stable/4500071pp (accessed 30.8.21). 

[4] Schubert’s ‘Irrlicht’ in Die Winterreise laments how ‘Our joys, our sorrows/are all the toys of a will o’ the wisp!’ (as translated at https://hampsongfoundation.org/resource/winterreise-texts-and-translations/#irrlicht, accessed 29.8.21)

Fig. 1 ‘Attack: Crucifixion’, illustrating a phase of ‘Hystéro-épilepsie’, in Jean-Martin Charcot, D.M. Bourneville and Paul Regnard, Iconographie photographique de la Salpétrière: service de M. Charcot, Paris 1880, Vols. 1-3. Plate VI. Image: Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière : service de M. Charcot / par Bourneville et P. Regnard. Public Domain Mark)
Fig. 2 Gustave Klimt, Medicine, mural for the University of Vienna, exhibited 1900 (period photograph; original destroyed), image By Gustav Klimt – tumblr, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24539912  
Fig. 3 Arthur Hughes, The Will o’ the Wisp, sold Peter Nahum (The Leicester Galleries, London)