2018 marked the centenary of the deaths of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, the two figureheads of Viennese Modernism. By 1918, Klimt (b. 1862) was an established artistic father figure in Vienna – for decades his art, affairs and breaks with various institutions have been the talk of the town. Schiele (b. 1890) was significantly younger but no less controversial: up to this day, he is remembered as the enfant terrible of Vienna’s cultural scene, shocking audiences with borderline pornographic material of naked bodies, including his own.
This narrative is taken on by the Royal Academy, which currently displays drawings by Klimt and Schiele from the Albertina Collection in Vienna. Having both heavyweights displayed together highlights their shared obsession with the same artistic issues and themes – which is primarily how to display the female, preferably nude, body. The fact that the exhibition only contains works on paper emphasises their artistic differences: Klimt‘s manner of outlining the body with singular, decisive lines is astonishing, but it is Schiele who stands out with the ability to distort the human form to its fullest and to then find beauty within it.
There is no question that this exhibition showcases incredible works of draughtsmanship. But having said that, one is again confronted the same old narrative: Klimt, the visionary father of Viennese Modernism, and Schiele, the disturbed artist genius, expressing his inner turmoil through pencil on paper. A hundred years have passed – can exhibition makers not finally question the hagiographical consideration of both artists? Their virtuosity and artistic abilities are undeniable – and their space in the canon of great artists deserved. But nonetheless, the problematics of these works need to be vocalised more. For instance, Schiele’s exploitative depiction of prostitutes, many of them below the legal age, offering their body to the male gaze in exchange for money. Or Klimt’s drawings of masturbating women, which carry questionable titles like “Reclining Nude with Leg Raised”, suggesting that art historians are, up to this day, scared of addressing female sexuality.
Klimt’s and Schiele’s works were products of their time. A time of political uncertainty, social instability, antisemitism and artistic innovation among others. But they were also products of fragile male identities and their outdated worldviews. A hundred years have passed, and it is about time that we consider these works in a new light.
By Anne Rybka