Taken from our Feb/Mar 2019 issue.

Will Stone

Free Radicals

Klimt / Schiele: Drawings from the Albertina Museum, Vienna, Royal Academy of Arts, 4 November 2018 – 3 February 2019

Schiele and Klimt, how familiar they sound, almost like a brand name, a double act, formed not so much in the 1880s but the 1980s when they became poster boys for a generation. Every bedsit it seemed had their print of Klimt’s The Kiss, or Schiele’s Seated Woman with Bent Knee. Now they return to London for their centenary (both died in that seismic year of 1918) in this outstanding commemorative exhibition at the RA. 2018 saw a raft of exhibitions of both these Viennese pioneers of modernism throughout Europe and the US, but this one is special for its superlative collection of rare drawings loaned from the Albertina in Vienna. So anyone thinking ‘Oh not them again, I’ve seen all I need to of those angular, flushed and bruised nudes of Schiele or of Klimt’s stylised hermetic reveries’ should think again, for there is much here unknown to an English audience.

I first encountered Klimt two decades ago in his home from home, the Belvedere Museum in Vienna, but Schiele’s work is particularly familiar to me, for I reviewed an exhibition of his drawings ‘Egon Schiele – The Radical Nude’ at the Courtauld in 2015 in this magazine and the Richard Nagy Gallery in Bond Street has also intermittently shown a number of works by Schiele from private collections. I have also had the privilege of co-translating the artist’s modest but invaluable collection of impassioned expressionist-inclined poems, of whose existence most remain unaware. In fact, I had initially decided I would not review this exhibition at all, and would merely visit it, leaving my critic’s head at home. This nonchalant ‘seen it all before’ attitude I also discovered was working its way through art lover friends I spoke to, for the over-familiarity of Klimt and Schiele, the sense that they have been ‘done to death’, along with the modish obsession with Vienna’s golden age, has served to obscure their still breathing radicalism. In the same way that Munch’s The Scream has been somehow de-sensitized by ‘mass man’ into something less in terms of art and more in terms of an easily appropriated symbol its originator never intended, the works of Schiele and Klimt have through over-exposure been shorn of discovery, of freshness.

However, on entering the RA exhibition, I was rudely awakened to my folly. For no matter how often you stand before a work by Schiele, especially one you have not seen before, it feels as if this is your first hugely significant primal encounter with his genius. In every image Schiele states quite explicitly, ‘This is the entirety of me and my unswerving take on the never satiated human soul, its ebb and flow of desire and corruption. You will look and you will be profoundly affected’. No retreat is possible. One remains rooted before this endlessly replicating revolutionary event in crayon and pastel, in chalk and watercolour. The breath-taking craftsmanship is a mere bonus. Both Schiele and Klimt were inspired draughtsmen who drew every day; it was their daily bread, like the violinist who mechanically practices his Bach sonatas before breakfast. Both were exceptional painters but it is arguably in the graphic dimension that they really excel and this made them the leading exponents of visual art in Vienna, the city which permeates their work. 

Where Schiele is ultra-expressive, Klimt is hermetic and stylistically concerned. Klimt is self-evidently an artist of the late nineteenth century eager to stride across into the twentieth, whereas precocious Schiele daringly leapfrogs over him, using his older idol as a necessary bridge. Yet Klimt in his time was no less a revolutionary, helping to forge the required rebellion against the stultifying atmosphere in Austrian art of the 1890s, which culminated in the forming of the breakaway Secession movement in 1897. This clearing away of the old order in art can be seen coalescing across Europe between 1890 and 1915, from Belgian symbolism and proto-expressionism, to the French Fauvists and most spectacularly the passionate strivings of Die Brücke in Berlin and Der Blaue Reiter in Munich. Schiele, who only settled in Vienna from 1906, saw Klimt as a natural leader, an artistic game changer to be emulated, a father figure, though Klimt himself did not appear to adopt Schiele as a favourite son over any other upcoming younger artists. Schiele not only wished to mimic Klimt’s stance as a radical presence, he sought to actively borrow his style and subject matter and experiment with them. Klimt’s work was showcased in Ver Sacrum the legendary journal of the Secession and there Schiele would certainly have seen it, relishing Klimt’s graphic design qualities and experiments with space, symmetry and asymmetry. Schiele knew he had to make his mark in a period of febrile artistic upheaval and through Klimt’s earlier example felt himself destined to be the prime mover. In 1909 he initiated the Neukunstgruppe at the Vienna Akademie der Bildenden Künste. The assault on their professor echoed what Klimt had been arguing late in the previous century: ‘Was it right for the conservative establishment to determine what constituted art?’ The young creators of Schiele’s generation like those of the Blaue Reiter in Munich around the same time, felt stymied, suppressed by tradition. These young bloods were anxious to jettison the demands of their professors, those desiccated wardens of the past, and embrace the birth pangs of the modern world literally being created around them. As in the 1960s, the youthful art movements were jostling for position at the helm of change.

One is immediately struck by the preponderance of female subjects portrayed by both artists in the RA exhibition. Portraits were key to an artist’s commercial success in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Vienna, as elsewhere. Patrons were essential and Klimt had maintained himself comfortably by rolling out portraiture commissions for members of Viennese society. Schiele took a similar tack, but stumbled initially due to the unflattering images he produced. No society lady wished to appear as if death was working beneath her skin. It was only later after his marriage in 1915 that Schiele began to treat the female form with greater sensitivity and the less abstract style he adopted in the year before his premature death saw a sudden rise in commissions from both sexes. The female form was paramount for both men, but in markedly different ways. Klimt’s women are feminine archetypes in the manner of Corot. His Portrait of Fritza Riedler in oil from 1906 is typical of the genre. It harks back to the past in that it features a sitter for a portrait, but ends there. Klimt tears up the rule book. He employs daring new forms which meld unconventional spatial experimentations with vertical and horizontal lines, further challenging the viewer with bold colour juxtaposition. A liberated collage like effect is produced with elements of Art Nouveau, we see Mondrian and Kandinsky not far away. Schiele’s The Painter Anton Peschka from 1909 is almost a simulacrum of the Riedler, but with the sitter in an armchair, face turned away. Schiele employs the same deft experimentation of colour and form, impressing with his subtlety and command of all elements. There is a refreshing languidness and restraint here, a delicately poised sensitivity, enhanced by the reclining Peschka, the soothing lavender and grey tones of his clothes.

Such works are the exception however in this exhibition since it is the drawing, preparatory or otherwise, which proliferates. Klimt’s pencil sketches of the dancer Ria Munk (1917) and studies of Friedrich Maria Beer (1915-16) are later works, quickly hatched and fluid. The patterns of the dress of Ria Munk fairly dance themselves with movement. But then in a flashback of twenty years, we see that in the masterful study for Sonja Knips (1897-8) Klimt was equally restless, threshing out the sitter’s hidden emotion through those assiduously applied pencil strokes of the facial features and in the ‘living hand’ grasping the chair arm. This same hand we might propose is seen in deliberately accentuated angular form proliferating in Schiele’s works years later. It is all too easy to overlook Schiele’s brilliance in more conventional seeming portraits, for example that of his friend the scandalously neglected Hungarian artist Max Kahrer from 1910. This impressive work captures the sitter’s vulnerability in a way which echoes similar portraits by Van Gogh, at least to this reviewer. Similarly, the drawing of Johann Harms (1916) reveals a gentleness and restraint which seems untypical of the brand Schiele.

Gustav Klimt, Study for ‘The Dancer’ (‘Ria Munk II’), 1916-17
Pencil on paper, 49.6 x 32.4 cm
The Albertina Museum, Vienna
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the Albertina Museum, Vienna

The RA exhibition confirms that it is in the depiction of the nude that we have most to learn from these artists. The explicitly erotic nude for which Schiele is celebrated was of course no less an obsession for Klimt. The rendering of the feminine nude in western art can be viewed almost as a way of measuring its changing epochs. Klimt took his cue from the old masters, his forebears Manet, Corot, Degas, Courbet et al, but his spare minimalist pencilled nudes from 1911-12 shown here seem to echo those of Rodin more than anyone, glowing with that same low flame of erotic suggestion, which is why when we then encounter Reclining Nude with Leg Raised (1912-13), as with Rodin’s more graphic erotic watercolours, it comes as something of a shock. If this was a photograph it would of course be labelled pornography and probably carry a nannying alert such as ‘this work contains scenes which some viewers may find upsetting’. Ditto countless Schiele drawings whose titles leave little to the imagination; Reclining Nude with Legs Spread, (1914). The Schiele ‘indecency’ story has been told and retold, becoming almost a comic strip of art history. Prostitutes and waifs from the streets were employed as models, and Schiele was imprisoned briefly on obscenity charges, with the judge famously ordering the burning of one of his perceived lewd works in court. But if all that had to happen so a masterpiece like Black-haired Nude Girl, (1910) could come into being, then let us applaud fate’s judgement. Was Kirchner not doing the same at that very moment in Germany?

Strangely, few question the explosively expressive male nudes that Schiele produced, perhaps because they are almost all deigned to be himself. They are here, convulsing and squirming in their tortuous self-regarding theatre. Black-haired Nude Girl appears four years before the catastrophe of a world war. Does this extraordinary image harbour a premonition of destruction, of the unforeseen assault on innocence? Here we regard one of the painter’s young models, her barely developed body already exploited by men, a flower that never made it out of spring, become a grey vertical stem topped with a lonely crown of black hair on a cocked head. The half-disembodied hand supports this head with those grotesque extended fingers darkening at their extremities, as if frost bitten. The other claw-like hand grasps the bony naked shoulder. The lips, nipples and sex are touched in with red, a holy trinity of truthfulness, pleasure zones become wounds. Even the pubic hair has a message. It is not soft and discreet, a mere discreet shading, but mean, wiry, like the hair on one of Dix’s German soldiers rotting in a trench. Yet the face is of a young girl tender and beautiful, a face left behind to ironically occupy the void left after her innocence departed. The contrasting elements of human physical and psychological failure together with its rarer potential for transcendence seem here as in other similar Schiele nude portraits to suggest a range of existential permutations.

Schiele’s related pair of Standing Female Nude with Green Garment, 1913 and Standing Female Nude with Raised Skirt 1913 lend quite a different effect. Here we see the lower half of a female body from the waist or the chest, but no visible head. There is nothing to distract the beholder, no search for personality, emotional register or soul, only the tantalisingly erotic suggestion of a body in a state of disrobement. In the raised skirt work the subject is holding the garment back behind her, raising it just enough to display her sex and similarly in the green garment work, a translucent silk scarf, wonderfully drawn, falls down the thighs revealing the same. The slight dabs of pinkish red on the sitters’ toes, kneecaps and elbows further announce the flesh. Other nudes here exude their timeless brilliance. Female Nude (1910) seems literally to burn out of the packing paper on which it was created. The heavy outlining of the head in white creates a halo-like effect, while the roughly hewn russet crimson hair is like an explosion outwards from the scalp, conspiring with the same red that covers the models breasts and belly and thighs, as if she has been mauled by hands unknown, bloodied hands. Her eyes are forming into slits, she appears drunk, drugged or worse. A solitary hand reaches around to her chest like a lame animal. The effect is withering, disorientating. How can people just walk diffidently by? The century or more between us and this work are simply of no account. Like Otto Dix in his coruscating war etchings, Schiele states emphatically ‘This is what I see, what I have honestly experienced, now make of it what you will’. Like no other modern artist save perhaps for Bacon, Schiele upends what went before, his art thirsts for an expression of inner pain. Stood before it we are required to constantly recalibrate, to rifle through every drawer of our supposed values, of morality itself.  

The breadth of work of these two artists demonstrates the momentous journey European art has taken over just two decades. Compare Klimt’s Lady with Cape and Hat (1897-98), a sublime image in black and red chalk on paper, showing a society lady turning to face the viewer out of the gloom, as if passing down a corridor to a faintly lit room beyond. We see only her wide cape and probable fur which caresses her melancholy visage. She is haunted Klimt suggests by secrets, anxieties, demons, boredoms, disappointments we can only guess at, but we empathise with her via her human gaze. The soft billowing of black chalk, the secretive atmosphere recalls something of Odilon Redon, but also the Belgian artist Fernand Khnopff and his lesser known contemporaries, Xavier Mellery and Willem Degouve de Nuncques. This is Klimt drawing on the classical tradition and applying the symbolist lexicon of his time. Viennese artists had the advantage of melding Symbolism, Art Nouveau and Expressionism, a myriad of elements which successfully culminate in Schiele’s deeply felt drawing of his mother in the year of his death. Portrait of Marie Schiele (1918) exhibits her son’s mature sensibility for the human being before him. Here he seems to combine the best of all approaches, creating masterly nuances of shading and line with only a black crayon at his disposal. Where the Klimt image of 1897 is awash with symbolism and suggestion, the Schiele purely expresses the perceived state of the sitter.

Egon Schiele, Group of Three Girls, 1911
Pencil, watercolour and gouache with white gouache heightening on packing paper, 44.7 x 30.8 cm
The Albertina Museum, Vienna
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the Albertina Museum, Vienna

If one work from this exhibition might symbolise the natural fateful pairing of Klimt and Schiele, it must surely be the latter’s Group of Three Girls (1911). This gorgeous watercolour depicts a triumvirate of female heads joining on an axis with their bodies windmilling out in a rich collage of colour blocks, like a patchwork quilt. This style recalls early Kandinsky, Marc and Gabriele Münter. White gouache outlines their feet at the base and intriguingly frosts one of the girls faces. Both artists show above all an absolute refusal to compromise, a determination to see the vision enacted whatever boundaries of experimentation need to be breached. Schiele could not have existed as we know him today without Klimt, and the latter’s hold on the public today would surely not be as potent without the existence of his even more radical descendent. The RA and the Albertina are to be commended for permitting these rare graphic masterpieces to travel to London, even more so because these works are so vulnerable and fragile they can only be released from storage for a limited time. How fitting then that they should return to the sustaining darkness of their Viennese vault, that their light might burn more brightly for future European generations.

Words by Will Stone.

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