Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele: 1918 Centenary, Neue Galerie, June 28–September 3, 2018
The Austrian novelist Hermann Broch called the final years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire “a joyful apocalypse.” Vienna between 1900 and the empire’s embittered collapse in 1918 hosted one burst of creative genius after another in music, literature, and painting. Given that Vienna was the birthplace of modern psychiatry and the capital city of one of World War I’s biggest losers, however, I wonder how joyful it really was.
Surely among the giants of the arts at this pivotal moment were Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) and Egon Schiele (1890-1918). New York’s Neue Galerie has assembled a jaw-dropping show of some of their best paintings, drawings, and watercolors—mostly from private collections—to commemorate the 100th anniversary of their deaths. Klimt was Schiele’s mentor and teacher. The older artist was once criticized for “painting indecently;” the younger artist took that envelope and pushed it to new, wild places.
The exhibit’s first gallery treats Klimt through a group of full-length portraits, which command the space with their scale and brashness. First among equals—all the pictures are fabulous—is the 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, called The Woman in Gold. Bloch-Bauer was part of a rich Jewish family in Vienna with experimental taste and lots of flair. Like many Klimt portraits, the subject is a modern goddess, an icon of wealth and good taste, languid, to be sure, but with a direct, scorching gaze. Klimt’s portraits of society women often have a touch of the carnal, but only a touch. Unshrouded by Victorian mystery and diffidence, they sparkle and pulse with erotic vivacity, specimens of a high society still going strong. Often set against gold backgrounds, they glow, usually with a come-hither look, but are just forbidding enough to keep their distance, and decorative enough to seem unreal.
Klimt was also a great and original landscapist. Two examples of his work in this area have a big, square format, little dabs of highly chromatic paint, and tight close-ups. The result is supercharged energy.
The first gallery, dazzling as it is, begs the question: How do you improve upon perfection? How do curators match the splendor of all those Klimts? Well, they do it. The show goes from strength to strength. Visitors can turn left, to a gallery of paintings by Schiele, or right, to a space packed with drawings and watercolors by both artists. Attracted by the density, I turned right.
There, each wall features rows of roughly chronological work. The space shows the two artists’ differences and intersections through Klimt’s drawings and Schiele’s drawings and watercolors. The artists are kept separate, a good idea so that viewers can contrast them. Klimt straddles two centuries. He came from the circle of Hans Makart, who worked in a style part historicist and part fabulist, painting scenes from Austrian history in colors so bright and arbitrary that the word “magical” was often used to describe his effects. Makart alternated, as did Klimt, from commissions on history and medieval literature to theater decoration, itself a prestigious genre in this greatest of performance towns.
By the 1890s, Klimt was pushing Makart’s basic vocabulary, attenuating his figures, and dressing even his portrait subjects with chivalric fancy. Still, his drawings, mostly nudes of women, are private, and his work never loses its taut, academic feel. Schiele takes this style to the realm of distortion. He did lots of finished watercolors. They’re not languid and sculptural but tense and coiled, as if they’ve transitioned from playacting to a real, desperate neuroticism.
The last gallery is devoted to Schiele’s paintings. Even today, they’re strange and riveting. His cityscapes are hardly inanimate; each building seems to elbow its neighbor, as if jammed into too-tight space. His portraits show men and women looking like they’re struggling to free themselves from the prison of their frames. Their souls seem ill-suited to their bodies, which look ready to burst. His lovemaking couples cling to each other greedily and eerily. Schiele abandons Klimt’s theatrical ornament and surface sparkle; his vocabulary is largely linear, with lots of jagged edges, and his palette more earthen, with only small bursts of bright color. Klimt is modern, too, but stands on the shoulders of past generations. Schiele seems beholden only to Klimt, and even then only when his original vision reveals its roots.
This raises the question, which no one can answer, on where the two artists would have gone had they lived longer. In terms of originality, Klimt was finished when he died. His world, rooted in a glorious, rich, hyper-creative Vienna, was shattered. Schiele died young of the Spanish Flu, days before the Armistice, the emperor’s exit, the country’s breakup, the resulting civil war, and the birth of Red Vienna, all following on at once. He was an artist with time to grow, and a space messy enough to accommodate his instincts.
Mixed in with the flat art is furniture, silver, and jewelry. Viennese art, architecture, and home decoration reinforce one another in fascinating ways. The jewelry’s sparkle mirrors the illusion of lit stained glass projected by the paintings. Silver and jewelry twist and turn. Furniture is often boxy, with lots of warm wood, as if to stabilize all the shake, rattle, and roll happening elsewhere.
I doubt that visitors could have the same intimate experience in Vienna, where celebrations of both artists are also taking place this year. These celebrations either consider Klimt and Schiele in separate shows or treat them with the architect Otto Wagner and the designer Kolomon Moser, who also died in 1918. Seeing the very best of these two distinctive but intertwined artists is a unique and illuminating experience.
Top Photo: Gustav Klimt (1862–1918) Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907 Oil, silver, and gold on canvas Neue Galerie New York. Acquired through the generosity of Ronald S. Lauder, the heirs of the Estates of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer, and the Estée Lauder Fund