I went to the RA on Saturday to view an exhibition of drawings by Klimt and Schiele, which are currently on loan from a collection owned by Vienna’s Albertina Museum. The pictures are on display in the Sackler Wing of Galleries on the 2nd floor and it is advisable to book an advance ticket as it is very popular.
Who were Klimt and Schiele?
Klimt was a sensualist who was known for portraying Vienna’s elite in gilded finery whereas Schiele was known for depicting the human body in a contorted manner, which sometimes shocked contemporary audiences.
Klimt and Schiele appreciated each other’s work but they had different artistic visions. They were firm friends until the flu epidemic killed them both in 1918.
Klimt’s paintings hinted at the corrupted ways of the so called ‘elite’ in society which was disguised by the gilt in his paintings. Adultery and prostitution were rife and the men who were guilty of these sins publicly vilified the women who provided these ‘services’ to them.
During the time that Klimt produced art works in Vienna it was ‘the done thing’ to belong to an artists’ society called the Künstlerhaus, but he shunned this organisation and became part of a ‘break away’ art movement known as the Vienna Secession. Some of Klimt’s work was viewed as pornographic and at one time the public prosecutor was called in. His work was very controversial and was even debated in parliament! In 1902 he painted a picture entitled ‘Goldfish’ in which a woman shows her bottom to viewers - rumour has it that he would have liked to have entitled it, “To My Critics”.
Klimt’s rebellious attitude appealed to Schiele, who was 30 years his junior. Schiele was a talented student at the Academy of Fine Arts but found the discipline challenging. As a teenager he sketched his young sister naked and his parents were horrified. He also trained as a psychotherapist and his fascination with adolescent girls caused a great scandal.
Klimt recognised Schiele’s talent and took him under his wing. Schiele initially painted in the style of his master but his paintings were viewed as unremarkable. He sought new avenues of expression and in 1907 painted his first nude self portrait which portrayed him as vulnerable and isolated. His style progressed towards tortured and twisted figures which were unpopular at that time. Schiele moved to a small town called Krumau with his partner Wally (who had previously modelled for Klimt). The couple garnered lots of attention from the youth in the area and Scheile drew many pictures of them. He was discovered sketching a naked young girl and had to leave town. He fled to Neulengbach where a young runaway girl moved in with him and Wally and he was then accused of abduction and arrested. The police confiscated lots of nude paintings from his house and he was sentenced to three days imprisonment. His experience in jail made him stop painting naked adolescents.
During the war he married Edith Harms and painted portraits of clients introduced to him by Klimt. After the war he formed an artistic society with the aim of helping to build the damaged world around them. An unfinished painting from 1918 called ‘Friends’ celebrated artistic unity and depicted Klimt and Schiele seated around a table with six other artists. Klimt’s death In February put paid to these dreams. A devastated Schiele drew him on his death bed and when he was asked to organise the Secession’s Spring exhibition, reworked 'Friends' as the exhibition’s poster design with Klimt’s seat now poignantly empty. Schiele was now the most prominent artist in Vienna but sadly he died eight months later from the flu.
The RA Exhibition
The Klimt and Schiele drawings on show at the Royal Academy offer an insight into their different creative processes. This exhibition marks the centenary of both artists’ deaths and is a very rare chance to see their work in progress. The pictures on display comprise portraits, landscapes and erotic nudes. I prefer the softer lines of Klimt’s drawings, especially where he depicts couples embracing but I was fascinated by the twisted way that Schiele drew his subjects, it made me feel like the subjects were fragile and isolated. I highly recommend a visit if you have the time!