The Royal Academy’s latest exhibition traces the artistic influence of Gustav Klimt on his protégé, Egon Schiele, by displaying their drawings side-by-side.
The artistic production of ‘fin-de-siècle’ and early twentieth-century Vienna is often defined by its celebration of sexual energy, insisting on a liberating modernity but pinned down under the lense of psychoanalysis and dark, disruptive political developments. While Arthur Schnitzler, Stefan Zweig and Robert Musil shaped crucial literary narratives, the style and innovations of artists Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele encapsulated the tensions of visual engagement with the spirit of their time, their names inextricably tied to Viennese art. Both sympathetic and obsessive examinations of the beauty and ugliness of the human figure are evident in their drawings. These extremes have tended to characterise the differences between the two artists in the popular imagination, but this exhibition revealed how closely Klimt influenced Schiele’s early work and how far the younger artist had travelled by the end of his career.
Both artists, the mentor and the pupil, died not as military heroes on the battlefield but as civilian victims of the Spanish flu pandemic which swept away up to fifty million people in 1918, a less discriminating and under-commemorated tragedy of the time which lends pathos to the artists’ deaths. The Royal Academy exhibition concluded an anniversary year which highlighted Schiele’s work. An impressive number of other exhibitions were staged at Tate Liverpool and in galleries across New York, Boston, Paris and Vienna, although examples of Schiele’s work regularly feature in exhibitions on the nude, sexuality, the self-portrait, or on asylums and prisons for example. His radical and unnerving portrayal of the figure eclipses many extreme current interpretations in its uncompromising candour which imparts a fresh modernity and relevance to his vision.
Though given equal billing at the Royal Academy, and on occasion it would have been a challenge to differentiate their work without descriptions, Schiele was clearly the triumphant successor to Klimt’s foundational originality. Klimt is mainly acclaimed for the scintillating oil paintings of his ‘golden period’ from around 1898 to 1908; his drawings, on the other hand, are less well-known. The exhibition offers a chance to examine their importance in light of both artists’ careers. The flattening and decorative effect of techniques used in the best known of Klimt’s ‘golden’ paintings such as The Kiss (1907-8) relates his work to the innovative graphic art and illustrations of the time which treated subject and background as part of a single flat picture plane.
The drawings on show highlight the use of cropping in the drawings by both artists. This technique was a conscious manipulation of the space which, as Jane Kallir’s essay in the exhibition catalogue suggests, called into question the ability of the picture plane to contain the subject (p.37). Cropping was a typical motif of poster and journal design; it featured as a crucial style element of the Vienna Secession, of which Klimt was the first president, and in the pages of its journal Ver Sacrum (1898-1903). In Klimt’s drawings, however, it has an unsettling effect. Bodies and limbs flow off the edges of the paper, refuse to conform to the strictures of the rectangular page, instead inviting an unexpected contemplation of the abstract qualities of the shapes.
Studies for Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze (Standing Clothed Woman in Profile, 1901, cat. 28); Embracing Couple, 1901, cat.29) show a clear emphasis on the line and pose of the body but the absence of feet destabilises them as autonomous figures. The latter study and others for The Kiss (Standing Lovers, 1907-8, cat.31; Standing Lovers, Seen from the Side, 1907-8, cat.30) chart the painting’s development from a depiction of intertwined sexually engaged bodies of a man and woman into one in which little of their bodies remains and they become an amorphous whole subsumed by the overpowering patterned fabric that binds them as one. The resulting painting distorts the bodies still further and increases the space given to the angled cliff-edge on which the lovers are balanced, a perilous pose in spite of the suggested colourful flowers that cover the precipice, or perhaps because of them.
The exhibited works on show by both artists wove through the trauma and joys of the whole panoply of human rites of passage, though it is the female form that remains fixed in the peripheral vision of memory’s inner eye. The perplexing boundaries of female bodily representation were recurring subjects of work by contemporaries of Schiele identified broadly as Expressionists, such as Munch or Picasso (and how would Schiele’s work have developed if he had lived as long as Picasso?). But his studies of nudes from around 1910 in the exhibition evoked further disturbing references. Schiele’s Female Nude (1910, cat. 34) with truncated body and lurid signature blood-red watercolour and gouache details conjured up the eighteenth-century anatomical prints of The Human Gravid Uterus by William Hunter (1774) in which an anatomised nine-month pregnant female body was depicted as it had been prepared for medical students to examine, splayed and cut off at the thighs. Another compelling comparison in a different medium can still be seen in the mutilated sculptures from the commissioned Ages of Man series by Schiele’s near but much longer living contemporary, Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), surviving in place in their Strand location in London. These vandalised remains evoke a sculptural agony of human form through their uncompromising depictions of the stages of human life, a strange parallel to Schiele’s drawings.
The adolescent or pregnant, complicit or abused female of Schiele’s drawings have a raw quality, centring attention on the groin or swollen belly, the jutting pelvis or flaccid buttocks. Lacking Klimt’s financial resources, Schiele used prostitutes or friends as his models and this adds another layer of perturbing context to his work. The emaciated adolescent in his Black-haired Nude Girl (1910, cat.38) has barely entered womanhood. Her sad but knowing eyes and the telling touches of red on her lips, nipples and vagina compel our attention. Her black hair and the tops of her black stockings mark the vertical alignment of the drawing, though her right arm is missing and we only guess the structure on which her elbow invisibly rests. Grey wash defines delicate shadows and glimpsed bone structures beneath her skin. Her large hands exemplify the most typical feature of Schiele’s drawings.
He did not shirk from scrutiny of his own body, intent on uncovering the extreme possibilities of posture.
Some of the exhibited drawings revealed Klimt’s expressive use of the hands, but Schiele’s concentrated interest in their potential went much further. Sinewy fingers and tense knuckles contort in multiple uncomfortable ways throughout his work, sometimes imposing arthritic pain on a figure too young to experience its debilitating effects, or spreading, framing and signifying anxiety and frustration, and on occasion seemingly acting independent of their owners’ volition (see Reclining Woman with Tilted Head, 1913, cat.47). The gesture of his questioning hand already complements his facial expression in the portrait photograph shown in the first room of the exhibition (Johannes Fischer, Egon Schiele in Front of the Painting ‘Shrines in the Forest’, 1915, cat.4). As we followed the trajectory of his short career, we found limbs tested and representations deconstructed. The extended arm and jutting elbow, the articulated scales of mask-like faces were observed with grave and unwearied attention. He did not shirk from scrutiny of his own body, intent on uncovering the extreme possibilities of posture. Clothes were bunched, lifted or pulled down and his observing eye sought the line of the thigh or curve of the hip. Schiele believed that the artist had a serious spiritual mission and his urgent and restless drawing sought to counter the disintegration of the self which the modern world threatened.
The final room of the exhibition focuses on the erotic figure and both artists’ onanistic fantasies. Schiele’s studies were less sympathetic to the feminine and in many ways more hostile. The ambiguous title of his Man and Woman (1917, cat.110) did not describe the clear brutality of the encounter portrayed. The angular hips and hairy thighs of a man overpower the prone female figure who appears to be subdued by his threatening gesture. It is a difficult drawing and seems to belong outside the ‘erotic’ and closer to a more pitiless sexuality of male empowerment. As beneficiary in many ways of Klimt’s disaffection with the art establishment, Schiele had moved further into a darker exploration of the human condition. Yet after Klimt’s death in February 1918, Schiele was asked to organise the forty-ninth Secession exhibition and had plans to open an art school and rebuild the artistic life of Vienna before he himself died in October that year.
The Royal Academy exhibition enabled visitors to compare works on paper by both artists, to assess the influence of the older Klimt on his young follower whose emerging idiosyncratic style moved away in a few short years. Schiele’s drawings looked forward to the experimental innovations of the post war world and left behind the softer curves of his mentor’s female figures, though he always saw himself as Klimt’s successor. His drawings are still modern, challenging and disturbing, probing the human psyche with a ferocity which Klimt could not have contemplated.
Klimt / Schiele: Drawings from the Albertina Museum, Vienna, will be shown at the Royal Academy from 4th November to 3rd February 2019. Click here for more information and to book tickets.
- Feature Image: Egon Schiele, Seated Female Nude, Elbows Resting on Right Knee, 1914, Pencil and gouache on Japan paper, 48 x 32 cm
The Albertina Museum, Vienna, Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the Albertina Museum, Vienna.
- Egon Schiele, Standing male figure (self-portrait) 1914. Photograph © National Gallery in Prague 2017.