6 Nov 2012

Klimt/Schiele: the borderline between eroticism and perversity

I see that Vienna is holding a celebratory exhibition for the 150 years of the birth of the Austrian symbolist painter and decorator Gustav Klimt. I have looked at some of his paintings, particularly those in the Belvedere Palce in Vienna, on a couple of occasions, and was surprised by the power and the beauty of many of them. Surprised? This may seem to be a curious choice of words, given that Klimt must be one of the world’s most highly rated artists (if the sums paid for his works are to be taken as a sign) and he is certainly one of the most widely reproduced of painters (there must be about 50 million postcards of The Kiss pinned to the bedroom walls of adolescent girls around the world). I suppose that it is this painting, or rather its over-abundant reproduction, that had previously lead me to belittle the work of Klimt, considering it to be purely decorative. I believe that I changed my mind since taking a closer look in ideal circumstances.  

The Kiss, by Gustav Klimt, just HAS to be the most widely reproduced painting in the world

Born in 1862 and dying in 1918, Klimt just about saw the end of the great Austro-Hungarian Empire. In that sense, as well as in others, he was well suited to this time of what some consider to be a period of decadence. Apart from co-founding the Vienna Secession movement, Klimt was widely criticised during his lifetime, and even afterwards, for what was described as the “pornographic” nature of some of his work. He apparently fathered about 14 children with several women and would walk around his studio in a robe and without underwear. A sort of proto-hippy, and at least a free-thinker. The strongly erotic content of some of Klimt’s work, particularly the drawings, is evident, as with Rodin, about whom I wrote not so long ago here . These examples will make this aspect of his work beautifully clear...

But there are many other aspects to Klimt's work than those of someone understandably enamoured with female beauty. The beginnings of his career as a painter were highly academic (it helps to know how to draw decently when you want to be free with your pencil!). Some of his early portraits and drawings show his ability to render skin, fabric, form and line with all the skill of the great painters from before his time.

Of course Klimt is much better known for his more directly decorative and symbolist period, during which gold leaf was heavily used, making his paintings shine to the point of appearing dazzling. The Kiss (above) is just one exemple. I prefer the painting below: Judith and Holopherne, where the almost malefic power and beauty of Judith, who appears to be in a trance, comes over so strongly that you know that Holopherne stood no chance whatsoever.

The painting below, entitled Danae, is another story. Here the modernity of Klimt's eye and approach, which has clearly used photographic composition and the kind of distortions that can provide, is very apparent: much more so than in the pseudo-archaic visions that his symbolistic leanings produced at times. The Ancient Greek gods had it all their own way, and were in no way encumbered with our "moral" visions. Danae seesm quite happy too with her golden rain of a Zeus!

But again, one cannot limit Klimt's scope to mythology and sex (to simplify somewhat what has gone before here). His vision of ageing, like in the painting below (the 3 ages), is poignant and admirably composed, even if the decorative elements dominate a bit too much for my personal taste.

And he also painted a wonderful series of large, square-shaped landscapes, some of which are visible in the Belvedere of Vienna. These are just as interesting as those of Monet in many ways, or....

...and particularly in the case of the lower one of these three called Beech Grove, of David Hockney's recent series of tree landscapes done in Yorkshire, about which I wrote a bit here

So what about Schiele and my semi-provocative title? Well, firstly, Egon Schiele was a younger protégé of Klimt in Vienna, although, curiously, he died the same year as his master. Secondly, he chose women and men, often naked, as his main subject matter. Also his style was distinctly manierist, although in a different vein, and far less decorative, than Klimt's. But I find the ressemblance ends right there, because Schiele, for me, rapidly slips from the erotic to the obsessional and somewhat sick vision of what appears to me as a twisted mind. Not everyone will agree with this, as I discovered in a recent conversation with a good friend who admires Schiele's work. But I am not alone in my impression either. There is something in Schiele's way of looking at people, and women in particular, that make me veer away from his work.

Schiele's skill as a draughtman and printmaker is undoubted. There is just something about his way of looking and showing that I find, on occasions, rather off-putting. This has nothing to do with the suject matter, but everything to do with the manner in which mind, eye and hand come together. Actually the three works I have shown here are almost ok, but some of his stuff is quite horrific to me. Klimt makes me happy to be alive. Schiele makes me wonder about where I am, and whether this is such a good place after all. Some would argue that this is part of the role of an artist. In which case, that would qualify Schiele for the part. Did you say I was ambiguous?