Art Review: Klimt / Schiele: Drawings, Royal Academy ‘Easily One of the Shows of the Year’

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This isn’t an exhibition in the main galleries at the RA – we are upstairs in the smaller Sackler Wing for this one – and the title ‘Klimt/Schiele: Drawings’ may well be trying to manage expectations by defining the small area of focus, but don’t let either of these factors put you off for this is a wondrous show that not only passionately demonstrates the importance of pencil on paper to these two Austrian greats, but also emphatically proves their respective brilliance.

But wonderful as it is to see the works of two masters brought together, the inevitable compare and contrast that follows emphatically demonstrates, in my humble opinion, the extent to which the apprentice overtook and eventually outshone the master.

But before we get there, let’s start at the beginning…

2018 marks the centenary of the deaths of Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) and Egon Schiele (1890—1918), Vienna’s two foremost early modernist painters. There are connections between the two but there are also marked differences in the men, their lives and – as a result – their output. Nevertheless, the premise of using the (rather macabre) centenary of their deaths to bring the works of these two greats together is an inspired one and the result is one of the shows of the year.

The fantastic collection on show invites us to see the devotion Klimt and Schiele had for drawing, and the influence the former artist had on the latter. Drawing from life was more than a passion for both of these men. More than simply prep on the side, drawing was a fundamental element to their work, and often resulted in finished artworks in their own right.

Klimt never formally taught Schiele but his influence is clearly visible in the latter’s early works prior to 1910, and, indeed, continues to be evident thereafter. Yes, the difference in styles become increasingly marked as the years pass but both saw the medium as an opportunity for their respective unconventional explorations of the human figure.

But there is no doubting that it is the difference between the drawings that fascinates rather than their common ground. In fact, so pronounced is that difference that it’s so easy to slip into a game of guessing/knowing which artist did which drawing without looking at the wall text.

You see, Klimt is the ‘good cop’ in this set up. He was an artist of great repute in the early twentieth century and his flattering, romantic depictions earned him admiration and fans from the Austrian upper classes. He was regularly asked by women of influence to draw and paint their likeness and there’s plenty of examples on display in this exhibition to show why that was.

Society women loved Klimt because he loved them. His oils brought out their elegance and fashion. Preparatory drawings are included here, and it is impossible to describe his figures as anything other than sophisticated. The dresses are all clean lines and high waists, and their pleats drape over the women’s bodies beautifully. It’s all very chic and classy.

Even his nudes are refined – elegant arcs and curved lines. Not that Klimt was a prude by any means. Eroticism was a key element to his work and some did feel his works occasionally crossed the line into pornography (though perhaps none of the more explicit works such as Woman Masturbating, 1913, are included here). But, frankly, it was all very romantic.

The result of all of this was, Klimt was in the money, which was far removed from the desperate state of Schiele’s financial affairs. This was a young man only at the start of his career but Egon was already a man with a tricky reputation – though much admired by the older Klimt and an emerging artist of note, Schiele’s bohemian lifestyle had already seen him financially cut-off by his guardian and imprisoned in 1912 for child abduction, seduction and immorality, (which also resulted in 125 of his drawings being confiscated and one being deliberately burnt).

Schiele was undoubtedly the bad boy. A troublemaker and a radical. But, almost inevitably, when you mix a bad attitude and a radical outlook with profound brilliance you get work that stuns throughout the generations. And therein lies the paradox of the man and the brilliance of his artwork.

Schiele’s drawings and watercolours are stunning. Outrageous, radical, provocative and, at times, deeply uncomfortable. But you put a Schiele nude alongside another from any artist working today and his will still stand out a mile.

This a man who drew nudes where sensuality and primal sexuality were one and the same. Women aren’t blushing and coy but confrontational and raw. Lines aren’t soft but hard and angular, and these are not figures drawn from the upper classes but the women and men hustling to stay alive in war-torn Austria.

Schiele’s world is real, unapologetic and in your face.

Yet the sexuality drips from the paper. It’s hard to imagine anyone’s drawings standing up well alongside Schiele’s nudes and Klimt suffers that fate here. Such is the revolutionary spirit and style in the younger man;s works that it’s too easy to walk quickly past an elegant Klimt to the next gritty Schiele.

By way of example, Schiele has one woman’s thighs as fleshy and chunky – the ripples of cellulite practically tangible. In another – the notorious Black-haired Nude Girl, 1910 (the model may well be younger than the consenting age of 14 years) – the mouth, lips and labia are heightened with bright red daubs.

It’s unsettling and provocative. It is explicit and discomforting but as Schiele turns to adult models – often sex workers – and using his own reflection as a source, the uneasiness for the viewer goes and his work becomes an extraordinary, visceral and exciting experience. There is gay sex as well as heterosexual, and his bodies lose any comforting softness to be replaced with visible shoulder blades, sharp elbows and gaunt faces.

Schiele was a man who liked to provoke, that much is obvious, but there is such brilliance here, so much so that his drawings remain radical even to eyes today. Not that he lived long to build and develop his obvious and tremendous talent.

Klimt died early in 1918 from pneumonia following a stroke. He was 66 years of age. Not a grand old age but certainly a life well lived with a fantastic legacy and immense regard for his name and works. Many expected Schiele to take up Klimt’s mantle but the scars of World War One and Spanish flu ensured that didn’t happen – Schiele died in the influenza pandemic just days before the end of the war. He was only 28.

We will never know what Schiele would have gone on to produce. We certainly know what Klimt did though. Nevertheless, even in this small but wondrous exhibition, for me it is clear that in barely a decade, Schiele left him in the dust.

Royal Academy of Arts, London, to February 3, 2019.

Admission £16 (concessions available).

Image credits:

1 Gustav Klimt, Standing Female Nude (Study for the Three Gorgons, ‘Beethoven Frieze’), 1901. Black chalk on packing paper, 45.3 x 31 cm. The Albertina Museum, Vienna; Egon Schiele, The Cellist, 1910. Black crayon and watercolour on packing paper, 44.7 x 31.2 cm. The Albertina Museum, Vienna.

2 Gustav Klimt, Standing Lovers, 1907-08. Pencil, red crayon and gold paint on paper, 24.4 x 14 cm. The Albertina Museum, Vienna. The Batliner Collection; 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.

3 Gustav Klimt, Study for ‘The Dancer’ (‘Ria Munk II’), 1916-17. Pencil on paper, 49.6 x 32.4 cm. The Albertina Museum, Vienna; 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.

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