A glorious exhibition currently at the J. Paul Getty Museum—Gustav Klimt: The Magic of Line—celebrates the 150th anniversary of the birth of the celebrated Viennese artist. It is largely drawn from the Albertina, one of the world’s greatest collections of works on paper, established by Duke Albert of Saxe-Teschen in 1822, and housed in his Viennese palace ever since. The collection comprises masterpieces by Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Dürer, and Rembrandt as well as photography and modern and contemporary art, including a magnificent collection of drawings by Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka. The Getty’s exhibition—originating last March at the Albertina—presents almost a hundred of these, along with some choice drawings and associated objects from other public and private collections.
The Getty is to be congratulated on securing such a meaningful exhibition for Los Angeles. The city provides a modern context for these treasures from Vienna. Ex-pats from the Imperial City have been among the most renowned émigrés to L.A., immutably enriching the cultural scene of the new metropolis. Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra spent much of their architectural careers in Southern California, both having moved here to work for Frank Lloyd Wright in the ‘20s. Franz Werfel and his wife Anna Mahler-Werfel, like so many other German-speaking intellectuals fleeing Nazism, found themselves in L.A. Anna, former wife of the composer Gustav Mahler, was herself a great friend of Klimt’s. And Arnold Schoenberg, the composer who upended the Western musical tradition with his serial 12-tone row compositions, found a home in Los Angeles, dying here in 1951.
There is even an extended Klimt connect in the Holocaust restitution case of the much loved portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (along with four other Klimt paintings), three studies for which are included in the present exhibition. Her nice Maria Bloch-Bauer Altmann eventually moved to L.A. and her lawyer, E. Randol Schoenberg (yes, of course the grandson of the Viennese composer) successfully represented her against the Austrian government to reclaim the paintings then in the Austrian National Gallery. After many years’ litigation, the Klimts left Vienna and were displayed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2006. The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I was acquired by Ronald Lauder and is now ensconced in his shrine to turn-of-the-last-century Viennese art and design, the Neue Galerie in New York.
Before Klimt was a revolutionary, he was trained in academy and produced beautiful life studies—nude academic drawings—and two of his important early commissions, including the murals for the Burgtheater (City Theater; 1886-87), are displayed in the first gallery. Seen here are gorgeously rendered compositional studies for the painting devoted to Shakespearean drama.
Soon, however, Klimt was to transition from academic artist to Symbolist by 1900. The upheavals of the 19th century produced in its waning years an artistic movement—Symbolism—which, alongside Aestheticism’s related “cult of beauty,” used veiled meanings to convey ideas about modernity—societal roles, sexual desire, life and death, the beautiful, the mind and dreams—in ways ambiguous, esoteric and sometimes “decadent,” across literature, music and the visual arts. The fin de siècle saw realism and historical revivalism replaced with non-literal, sexualized imagery. Early in the exhibition, a prime example is the exquisite finished drawing, alongside its preparatory study, for the Allegory of Sculpture (1889), made to illustrate a deluxe presentation volume. For all its fine finish and archaeological detail, the fully nude allegorical figure representing the art of sculpture is shockingly real—a contemporary woman—set against the marmoreal finish of the ancient sculptures. The detail of the gold leaf-painted jewelry set against the raven-black hair of the figure turns her Pygmalion-and-Galatea-like from statue into flesh and blood.
Here we observe in miniature two elements that set the course for the rest of Klimt’s career. The judicious use of gold leaf in his paintings led to the increasingly flattened, abstracted and decorative “Golden Style.” Secondly, the depiction of the femme fatale, a stock character in Symbolist art and an important motif for the artist. The “dangerous” woman—Klimt by all reports was a great womanizer—was depicted by him and other artists of the day in the guises of the biblical and mythological figures Judith, Salome and the Sphinx, among others. On view here is a terrific blue pencil study for his 1909 painting known alternatively as Judith II or Salome, either way, she is fresh from her lover’s decapitation. During the “feminized” late 19th century when the representation of the woman trumped all, varying from the glamorous actresses and calendar girls of Alphonse Mucha and the hothouse women in black and white of Aubrey Beardsley to the mysterious femmes fatales of Fernand Khnopff, Jan Toorop, Ferdinand Hodler and Franz von Stuck.
The first years of the 20th century saw Klimt immersed in his new artistic endeavor, the Secession, being appointed its president in 1897. He designed the poster for the group’s first exhibition of 1898 which depicts an ancient drama—Theseus slaying the Minotaur—with Athena the goddess of war and wisdom looking on in profile. This “secession” was in point of fact the younger generation’s “withdrawal” from the art of their fathers. Youth here literally being the operative word as this artistic moment in Vienna aligned with Jugenstil in Germany and Art Nouveau in France. Klimt led the way, his poster a manifesto, showing the young, virile Greek hero freeing the Athenian youth from the monster. Carl Schorske, in his dense, authoritative account of Vienna at 1900, Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (1980), offers an intriguing and poetic analysis of this revival of antiquity—not in the archaeological sense that Klimt and the academics participated in heretofore—but in the spirit of infusing old forms, tropes and symbols with new life. The 1898 Secession poster and the other works from this moment announce as much with their flattened, abstracted forms. The second gallery of Klimt: The Magic of Line sings with this material, especially that for the Secession’s magazine, Ver Sacrum (Latin for “Sacred Spring”). Included are illustrative drawings, most notable among which is Fishblood of 1898 (below right). This elegant pen-and-black ink drawing—highly suitable for reproduction—demonstrates once again the Symbolists’ obsession with the sexualized, dangerous woman, here seen as creatures of the sea—mermaids or sirens. Moreover, these femmes fatales seem to appear as in a dream-state. This reference to dreams and the subconscious naturally evokes Sigmund Freud, Klimt’s contemporary and fellow denizen of Vienna, who was at that very same moment working on his epochal Interpretation of Dreams. A dreamlike—and melancholy—state is seen in two portraits taken of women at this time, both in black chalk. The first was featured in Ver Sacrum’s March 1898 issue and the other is a recent Getty acquisition (below left). The drawing style of blended (or stumped) chalk, evocative and dreamy, accented with firm, sharp strokes, provides a transition from his earlier, detailed draftsmanship to the abstracted, flattened and rectilinear style of his Secession years.
The focal point of the Secession movement was its exhibition hall—Secession Haus—designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich, opened for the first exhibition in 1898. Dazzling on the exterior, inside was equally impressive with Klimt’s masterpiece, The Beethoven Frieze (on view there yet today). It was a major part of a Gesamtkunstwerk (complete or integrated work of art) for the 1902 exhibition with interior decoration and works by Josef Hoffman and over twenty other artists. This was all built around a monumental marble sculpture of Beethoven by German Symbolist artist par excellence Max Klinger (Mahler even supplied an arrangement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for the opening). Klimt’s frieze took as its inspiration Friedrich Schiller’s Ode to Joy which Beethoven set as the fourth movement text. Not heroic in form as Klinger’s sculpture below, nevertheless the musical titan’s struggle (for art, love, living) is reflected in Klimt’s program in which humankind struggles for happiness.
The Getty spectacularly delivers in the installation midway through the exhibition, recreating a room of the Secession, with a photographic reproduction of Klimt’s mural above and with their preparatory drawings aligned below. Beethoven—artist and creative genius as liberator of mankind—is represented in the figure of the valiant Knight, who struggles with the “Hostile Forces” on the adjoining wall. Some of the finest drawings in the show are for this passage. The Three (Anti-) Graces—the Gorgons, evil stepsisters to the Allegory of Sculpture—and their handmaidens Lasciviousness (see at top), Lust and Excess, are all remarkable for their malevolence (and sheer fluidity of line).
Another idea implicit here lies behind the repetition of figures, of motifs. It is the same repetition inherent in the 19th century’s rise to affluence and urbanization due to the Industrial Revolution. The very mechanization of industry and of society, against which fin-de-siècle artists reacted, reveals itself as the modern malaise. The flying “genii” are identical, wrapping around the three walls, and remind us of the floating sirens of Fishblood. The figures in profile—like those in Egyptian wall paintings—are angular and expressionistic, influenced by Belgian sculptor George Minne, by whom the Getty includes the marble Adolescent I (c. 1891) from its own collection. It gives a sense of Klimt’s inspiration from Minne’s Fountain of the Kneeling Boys which was exhibited at the Secession shortly before. In the fountain, the boys encircling the rim are the same figure repeated five times. Or one may recall Auguste Rodin’s works of the same moment, with the replication and interchangeability of parts with which he experimented for the rest of his career, derived from his magnum opus the Gates of Hell. Rodin and his famous embracing couples, especially The Kiss (1901, Tate Modern, London; one of three versions) are evoked by Klimt’s frequent take on the subject. In the Beethoven Frieze, the standing nude couple are the focal point of “The Kiss to the Entire World,” (below) surrounded by a chorus of angels, their faces and limbs a repetitious counterpoint to the couple. In addition to the drawing for the embracing couple of the frieze, later in the exhibition from the last year of Klimt’s “Golden Period” are pencil studies for The Kiss (1908; Belvedere, Vienna). One of them with the elegant, repeated motifs of circles within circles and swirling contours signals the flat gold and ornate geometry of Klimt’s paintings, which found its echo in Hoffman and the Weiner Werkstätte’s designs for furniture and décor.
At this moment, a freer, more expressionistic graphic style emerges; one capable of being more expressive than “beautiful.” Even so, an absolutely beautiful drawing from this time, a sheet of studies for the painting Goldfish (1901-2; Kunstmuseum Solothurn), is shown from the Getty’s own collection. Contemporary to the Beethoven Frieze, it evinces a vitality of line that traces the rotund form of a woman’s buttocks, the motif repeated twice (once again, repetition here is significant). Klimt’s draftsmanship begins another transition, from that redolent of the Aesthetic Age and Art Nouveau to the harder Expressionism later found in the works of Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka and Kathe Köllwitz—severe, planar, and stripped down, describing only the fundamentals of humanity.
These new, gutsy drawings are featured in the gallery just prior to the Secession Haus installation devoted to the Faculty Paintings. These formed a commission of 1894 for ceiling decorations for the University of Vienna begun in earnest in 1897, continuing through the Beethoven Frieze period and into the “Golden Style” and completed in 1907. The three finished canvases comprised Philosophy (1900-07), Medicine (1901-07), and Jurisprudence (1903-07); all were destroyed by fire in the Second World War. The Faculty Paintings depict in all their variety the human condition. For this reason the series was precious to the artist; he purchased them back from the state after their rejection. Particularly affecting are the black chalk drawings of an old woman in various poses for Philosophy.
Happily, there survive the preparatory drawings, photographs of the finished pictures and a precious oil sketch for Medicine (1897-98; private collection), included in the exhibition alongside the drawings. The oil sketch—as in a number of drawings on view—features the noble figure of Hygieia, goddess of medicine. Above to her to the right is seen a sinister shrouded figure with skull head. It is telling that by comparison in the photograph of the destroyed finished painting, the shrouded figure is replaced by what seems to be a medical skeleton, a common university accoutrement. It would appear that originally Klimt alluded to the looming figure of death, which then at some point mutated into a skeleton one would find in a medical theatre.
Despite being highly original and modern in sensibility, the Faculty Paintings are described by the Albertina’s curator Marian Bisanz-Prakken as echoing the “neo-Baroque” of the Ringstrasse—the monumental architectural program of Emperor Franz Joseph. They certainly do evoke the great 17th– and 18th century Italian painted decorative programs Klimt could have seen on his Italian travels, replete with floating figures di sotto in su (seen above from below). In his own backyard, he would have known Italian masterpieces in the Kunsthistorisches Museum or still in situ the decorative paintings in Vienna’s Upper Belvedere Palace commissioned in the early 18th century from the Italian painters Francesco Solimena and Carlo Innocenzo Carlone.
The balance of the exhibition contains many studies for the later paintings, especially the society portraits, their marvelous decorative, circular pencil strokes indicating the flat, geometric decoration of the finished paintings. The late, erotic drawings of women masturbating display a masterful mise-en-page even if the “magical line” was becoming a bit more labored. But Klimt was ever the magician, conjuring up visions at times golden and at others, deeply pessimistic. His last years were spent in his studio in retreat from a world lurching towards world war. He pointed the way from a glittering, imperial and external age towards a more modern, interior life.