Klimt and Schiele: Drawnby Steven Pestana
MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, BOSTON | FEBRUARY 25 – MAY 28, 2018
Upon entering the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s exhibition Klimt and Schiele: Drawn, visitors can choose between two paths. One offers an airy journey through delicate preparatory sketches by Gustav Klimt, and the other, a more agitated excursion into the wiry tangles of his younger contemporary, Egon Schiele. The artists faced similar obstacles during their lifetimes, often finding themselves at odds with the moral sanctimony of fin-de-siècle Vienna. Given the artists’ penchants for provocation, it’s no surprise that their work would spark outrage. But should you doubt that beauty can be born of dissent, then look no further than these exemplars of fierce principle and technique, elegantly expressed in just a few strokes of the pencil and brush.
Klimt and Schiele’s friendship and mutual admiration has held a perennial fascination for aficionados of Viennese Modernism, each character a bewitching talent in his own right. They were kindred contemporaries during the twilight days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as Europe hurtled towards the First World War. Astride a tumultuous shift of epochs, the artists exemplified the passage from one ethos, still rooted in a version of academic Neo-Romanticism, to another marked by deeply introspective expressionism. Klimt’s figurative work generally stayed close to his symbolist background, while Schiele developed a much more raw and personal vocabulary. But both artists shared a mastery of flowing, billowing lines and forms, a mannerism used to arresting affect when portraying the nude—a favorite subject of both artists.
Klimt built his early career on fairly traditional portraits for wealthy socialites and large-scale historicist commissions, but his style grew increasingly personal following the deaths of his brother and father in 1892, with compositions awash in a singularly dreamy weightlessness. His academic facility never left him, however. Standing Female Nude (Study for the Beethoven Frieze: Three Gorgons) (1901) finds Klimt in his element as a classically trained draftsman. The model is drawn with a languid lilt, swimming in a tousle of loose curls, her faraway eyes lost in thought. Each contour has a halo of lighter, provisional markings rolling into an undulating sway. These fluid forms lay at the heart of Klimt’s Golden Period (1901 – 1910) and certainly influenced Schiele, who was just seventeen years old upon their first meeting in 1907.
A repressive facade of bourgeois propriety served as Vienna’s social backdrop, a sort of sickness that both hastened the empire’s demise and provided fodder for the burgeoning field of psychoanalysis. In spite of—or perhaps because of—the turmoil, Vienna was a crucible of innovation across all disciplines, scientific and cultural. On any given day, thinkers such as Freud, Ludwig Boltzmann, Kurt Gödel, Adolf Loos, Ernst Mach, Robert Musil, Arnold Schönberg, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and countless others could be found hard at work. Many of these luminaries’ careers were built on lifting the veil on the day’s perceived artifices.
Similar preoccupations naturally fed into the artists’ work. For his part, Schiele took Klimt’s sinuous forms, inserted his own writhing figures, and set them afloat on spare backgrounds, accented with gossamer tints of watercolor and opaque gouache. Just as Klimt used stylized forms and allegory to express existential conditions, Schiele deployed a paradoxical palette of saturated pastels and somber achromatics to probe the psyche’s darker regions. Much less tentative than Klimt’s drawings, Schiele's hand is heavy and decisive, even manic in its twisting knots and gestural color volumes. In any other setting, the pink, turquoise, and violet of Woman Hanging Forward (1917) might sing with vibrancy, but on Schiele’s melancholy nude, they feel unsettling, unwell.
The exhibition ends with a comparison between the two artists’ approaches to portraiture. Schiele’s, of course, are psychologically incisive, but more restrained than his work with models. Gerti in Front of an Ochre Colored Drapery (1910) bears many of Schiele’s hallmarks—piercing eyes, angular, exaggerated hands, and planes of color bordering on the abstract. Klimt’s are markedly sketchier than his other drawings, containing hardly a hint of facial features—surprising, given the technical virtuosity of quasi-portraits such as Man in Three-Quarter View (Study for Shakespeare’s Theater) (1886 – 87) and Portrait of a Child (Study for Love) (1895).
Drawn can occasionally feel somewhat arbitrary. It treads lightly around the artists’ erotic artwork, which, while known for its explicitness, could be equally tender and intimate. Curiously, the artists’ drawings never appear alongside one another, a missed opportunity to address meaningfully the artists’ relationship and creative influence on one another in greater depth. We might have learned a bit more, for instance, about how the artists’ use of pattern and drapery inspired one another. Another notable absence is the MFA Boston itself. Although the stellar collection of work hails entirely from Vienna’s Albertina Museum, the show might have benefited from conversation with the MFA’s own extensive holdings of Japanese art. The influence of Japanese woodcuts—techniques, presentation, and even subject matter—on Klimt and Schiele is well known and important to understanding their work.
Klimt eventually stepped away from the public commissions upon which he built his career, under critical fire for his dazzling triad of works, Medicine, Jurisprudence, and Philosophy (1900 – 1907). Schiele wound up temporarily behind bars. By sheer dint of talent, both artists managed to survive and flourish until a pandemic of Spanish flu took both of the artists’ lives in 1918, the same year Austria-Hungary was officially wiped from the world map. Klimt was fifty-five, Schiele twenty-eight. Today, their subjects retain as much electricity and potential to evoke discomfort as they had a century ago—a fact of which today’s institutions seem keenly aware, and just as eager to sidestep. With an international advertising blitz underway in celebration of the artists’ 1918 centenary and at least two more major shows on the way in New York City (at the Met and the Neue Gallerie), we can expect that this won’t be the last word on the subject of censorship. It serves as a reminder that threats to artistic, and by extension, personal freedom merit as much vigilance today as they did one hundred years ago as we try to reshape history in our own image.
STEVEN PESTANA is a visual artist and writer living in Brooklyn. He holds an MFA in Digital Media from Rhode Island School of Design and a BA in Art History from New York University.