The Royal Academy of Arts commemorates the centenary of the deaths of Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt with an exhibition of their drawings from Vienna’s Albertina Museum, which emphasises their close artistic relationship as the ‘father and son’ of Viennese modernism (Schiele was 28 years Klimt’s junior). Their untimely deaths in 1918, by extension, have long been construed as the symbolic end of Viennese modernism – an interpretation that CRAACE aims to challenge.
Klimt/Schiele emphasises the importance of drawing from life for both artists, even though they used this practice for different purposes: while Klimt’s sketches most often served as preparatory work, Schiele’s drawings are ‘finished’ works, not translated into another medium. Many of Klimt’s drawings on display are so soft that, sometimes, his lines are difficult to trace with the naked eye. Almost transparent, they offer, quite literally, no more than a faint outline of the sumptuous paintings Klimt made them for. By contrast, each of the strong lines drawn by Schiele lies open for us to trace, exposing its maker’s every move. Their rawness and ‘honesty’, intersected by a careful placing of dabs of colour, is what makes Schiele’s work so striking – even before touching on his favoured subject matter of the nude.
Women played a significant role in the work of both artists, juxtaposing Klimt’s allegorical figures and ladies of the haute bourgeoisie with Schiele’s street urchins and underaged prostitutes. The fundamental class difference of the models and the mode of transaction that underlies the production of the works of Klimt and Schiele that we know best – Schiele paid the models, while Klimt was paid by the depicted or their relatives – created strikingly different images: Schiele’s models are undressed and pathologized, Klimt’s elevated as icons of beauty.
Yet in the exhibition’s focus on drawing, Klimt’s high-profile clients, like the famous Woman in Gold, Adele Bloch Bauer, are almost entirely absent. Enlisted in their place are Klimt’s anonymous paid models, sprawling across sheets of paper in explicit poses: predecessors to Schiele’s radical nudes. As the exhibition reminds us, even though Klimt may predominantly be known for his portraits today, life models were crucial in the formulation of his work, while sketches also formed the basis for his paintings of the haute bourgeoisie.
What was preparation for Klimt’s method of image-making, by contrast, represented finished work for Schiele. Drawings were more affordable, faster to produce, and thus also easier to sell – important factors for an upcoming artist like Schiele, who had to find his place in Vienna’s rich art scene. The economic differences between Klimt and Schiele – and their models – are clearly ingrained in their processes of image-production, whereby drawing clearly was of different significance to them: for Klimt, it was preliminary work, for Schiele something he could sell. Klimt maintained what may be deemed the traditional distance between the nude model as the depicted and the artist as the male creator. Schiele drew himself as he drew his models, unforgiving, raw and brutally fragmented. Talented and scandalous, Schiele’s unusual treatment of the human body, his own or that of others, touched the nerve of the time – to an effect that lasts until today, as high visitor numbers evidence.
The artists’ differing treatment of the body emerges as the dominant focus of the exhibition, closely related to Schiele’s visual emancipation from Klimt after a period of intense preoccupation with his work, which lasted approximately until 1910. This symbolical cutting of the umbilical cord supports the exhibition’s main narrative: Klimt was Austria’s leading artist, a founding member of the Vienna Secession and the most fashionable painter of the haute bourgeoisie – the father figure of Austrian modernism. Schiele, whom he supported, was his successor as the enfant terrible of Austrian expressionism. Set within the socially and politically charged environment of Vienna 1900, watched over by Kaiser Francis Joseph, and analysed by Sigmund Freud, Klimt and Schiele are part of a fin-de-siècle Vienna, in which their radical ways of depicting (especially the female) body and sexuality challenged the taboos of conservative society: Klimt, the kaftan-bearing forefather of Austrian modernism, Schiele his tormented ‘son’, whose pathologizing work neatly serves to illustrate Freud’s psychanalytic theories. This is the myth of Viennese modernism – a myth that the exhibition gladly perpetuates.
The selection of works from the Albertina chosen for Klimt/Schiele is truly exceptional, and will please even the most reserved critic, even though it does seem to slightly favour Schiele: it cannot be overlooked that his drawings are ‘finished’, while Klimt’s are a promise of the monumental paintings he is known for. Nonetheless, the brilliance of both artists fully comes to the fore and shows why their unprecedented reworking of the human body was a cause for celebration and scandal. Yet, the exhibition’s strength in showing these two exceptional figures alongside each other is also its weakness: closely tracing why Klimt and Schiele were such a significant part of Vienna 1900’s art scene, it seems to revel in connoisseurship without much consideration for the wider social and political circumstances under which these works were created. In so doing, Klimt/Schiele perpetuates the myth of ‘Vienna 1900’ and the myth of the artist-genius, rather than acknowledging Klimt and Schiele’s status as aware and critical artists who knew how to work within competitive market forces.
Klimt and Schiele, along with Freud, the Kaiser and Vienna around 1900, have been mythologised for the past decades. Their colliding biographies and exceptional productivity, as well as their drive to renew Vienna’s cultural scene, naturally lend themselves to grand narratives that still draw a mass audience. Because Klimt and Schiele have become household names (ever-accompanied with a variety of merchandise to suit every taste), exhibitions would represent an ideal space for critical reappraisals of their work on a grand scale. Yet while Klimt/Schiele provides an exciting range of works with the potential to do so, it does not tell us anything new – and leaves the development of Austrian modernism mystified within the oedipal relation of its two most prominent figures.
Klimt/Schiele: Drawings from the Albertina Museum, Vienna (Royal Academy of Arts, London, 4 November 2018 to 3 February 2019)