As two leading early modernists, Gustav Klimt (1862–1918) and Egon Schiele (1890–1918) make for a perfect pairing. Klimt may have been Schiele’s senior by 28 years, but they both worked in Vienna at the start of the twentieth century. When Klimt died in February 1918, Schiele was widely regarded as his successor, before he too passed away the following October. With 2018 marking the centenary of both their deaths, the Royal Academy could hardly pass on this fortuitous opportunity to present these two artists together.
For Klimt/Schiele: Drawings from the Albertina Museum, Vienna the Royal Academy has brought together some 100 works on paper by the two artists, allowing visitors to compare their drawings. This focus on a single medium is certainly logical, but it is hardly a fair one. Although both artists held a high level of draughtsmanship, it quickly becomes clear that the medium had quite a different purpose for each of them. For Klimt, drawing was mostly used as preparatory stage for more important works. We thus see drawings he made as a preparatory study for his monumental Beethoven Frieze (1900–02). These may be interesting for what they reveal about his creative process, but it is hardly surprising that they pale in comparison to Schiele’s drawings that were, in contrast, intended as finished works. Klimt’s Standing Lovers (1907–8), is the exception the proves the rule. Unlike the artist’s other drawings in this exhibition, this is a finished work. The highly stylised depiction of two lovers in an embrace makes for an interesting supplement to Klimt’s ultra-famous work The Kiss, painted at around the same.
Notwithstanding Klimt’s Standing Lovers, Schiele’s drawings are more intriguing and provide a glimpse into the artist’s complex personality. In Field Landscape (Kreuzberg near Krumau) (1910), blocks of colour and bold brushstrokes create a far greater intensity than expected from a peaceful landscape painting. His portrait of Johann Harms (1916) offers a similar paradox. Drawn in thick pencil, it is finished with little delicacy. Yet somehow it is also a carefully considered drawing, with the sitter’s wrinkles and chin hairs being meticulously depicted.
The Royal Academy saves what Schiele is most infamous for – his unapologetic nudes – until the second half of Klimt/Schiele. Viewers are presented with several of his nude self-portraits in which he revels in examining his own body. In Nude Self-Portrait (1916), he takes pleasure in the folds of his skin, outlining the outlines of his muscles and taking pleasure in his filthiness. The gallery’s description of the work speaks about the artist’s odd crouching position, but it is had to take notice of that when we are faced by Schiele’s inescapable stare.
Schiele is equally shameless in his portrayal other nudes. Man and Woman (1917) presents viewers with a violent rather than arousing portrayal of sexual intercourse, while Reclining Nude with Legs Spread Apart (1914) is so brashly erotic that it becomes ugly. It is difficult to decide what Schiele is trying to say with such explicit images. They could be dismissed as porn, but the eroticism of these paintings hardly make for pleasant viewing. Schiele forces his viewers to question why we look at nudes, especially when they can be as unsightly as this. Sex sells, but Schiele reveals what we are really doing when we buy into it.
‘Klimt / Schiele: Drawings from the Albertina Museum, Vienna’ was on at the The Royal Academy from 4 November 2018 to 3 February 2019.