Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele were among the most influential artists of the 20th century. Their drawings, shown in this new exhibition, were a vital source of inspiration and creative training.
Why see drawings when you could see paintings? Well, for some of the greatest painters in history, drawings give an insight into their polished work. For Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, active in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century, drawing was a kind of artistic exercise, and a taster of what was to come, whether further down their careers or the particular project in hand. So for anyone wanting to understand modernist art, the Klimt/Schiele display at the Royal Academy is a must-see.
On loan from the Albertina Museum in Vienna, these drawings are so sensitive to light that this is realistically the only chance you’ll get to see them. And it will pay off. The rough paper and visible strokes give these drawings an intimacy with Klimt and Schiele as human beings, thrashing out their ideas in front of you.
The first belief to go, when you step into the exhibition is “style”. Klimt and Schiele had patterns in their work, both across their careers and between them as a pair, but they also show versatility. One of the early works you’ll be confronted with is Klimt’s Ver Sacrum, which actually draws on a swirly, Renaissance-style of painting as well as Greek ceramics. As you progress, you see Klimt and Schiele’s experiments with contours. When given free reign, the artists come up with bare outlines of human figures without much shading, so that pose and gesture jump out at you more than “realistic” bodily details. Reclining Female Nude (1908) is an early example on display. But as businessmen who either had or sought patrons, Klimt and Schiele both show an ability to adapt their contour techniques for regular portraits: flat and catatonic faces become smoother and more expressive, even eyeball-y, for instance in Maria Steiner and Marie Schiele (both 1918). Klimt’s Studies for the Three Gorgons (1901) put contour and curve side by side, where they can be clearly distinguished. Likewise his studies for the Faculty Paintings of Vienna University, for which he was commissioned in 1894: it’s easy to see how his daring experimentations caused a scandal.
You’ll witness Schiele’s swift move from youngster starstruck with Klimt to a mature artist ploughing his own furrow. Klimt-inspired contours leave space which Schiele learns to fill with bright colour, such as in The Cellist (1910). Women’s bodies end up with a white, halo-like glow, such as in Female Nude (1920). Sometimes this colour is cloudy like watercolour in The Cellist, other times thick and oily, as in Max Kahrer in Profile (1910). Unlike Klimt, Schiele adored the countryside where he grew up, and produced landscape drawings. The hills of Carinthian Landscape (1914) are warped and flattened, the patchwork fields of Field Landscape (1910) are almost neon in colour.
Another key difference between Klimt and Schiele was self-portraits: Klimt wasn’t interested, but Schiele drew a lot. Schiele’s body in these drawings is made up of square-like angles, and marked with special gestures such as the hand over the face, like in Self-portrait with Eyelid Pulled Down (1910). Schiele’s erotic nudes are almost like striptease, with dresses hanging halfway down legs whose body is out of the frame. Both artists dealt with taboo themes in their nude drawings: homosexuality in Schiele’s Two Men (1913) and masturbation in Klimt’s Reclining Nude with Leg Raised (1912-3). These are in the last room of the exhibition, and give a climactic sense of two artists with free minds, thinking out loud in sketches with no regard for the social norms of their time.
As you’ll sense, the exhibition offers an amazing variety of insights into Klimt and Schiele, despite only covering a few rooms. The curators have succeeded in capturing the depth and complexity of their drawing, so easily lost behind labels like “modernist”, “Viennese” or “Secession”. One tip: go with a sharp eye, because some sketches are very faint. You’ll probably recognise Klimt’s Lady with Cape and Hat (1897-8) when you see it, so there’s at least one work to jog your memory.
The Royal Academy
Burlington House, Piccadilly, Mayfair, London W1J 0BD