Klimt, Schiele and the meaning of art

Published 2 October 2018

As the drawings of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele go on show at the Royal Academy, Jill Lloyd reveals how these two giants of 20th-century Viennese modernism fuelled one another’s innovations on paper to push the boundaries of art and depict the human figure as never before.

  • Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele are the two giants of Viennese modernism. Their overlapping artistic careers, which spanned from the turn of the 20th century until the end of the First World War, coincided with a radical rebirth of Viennese culture. The dynamic clash between forces of modernity and tradition in Vienna generated a spirit of invention that revitalised not only the fine and decorative arts, but also architecture, music, literature and science, producing extraordinary innovators in every field. Sigmund Freud, dramatists Arthur Schnitzler and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, composer Arnold Schönberg, and architects Josef Hoffmann and Adolf Loos are among those who transformed Vienna into a melting pot of new ideas. Fired by the city’s café culture with its lively exchange of ideas, Viennese modernism took on a unique, multi-faceted form that was expressed most fully in the artistic ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk or “total work of art”, fusing all aspects of artistic expression into a grand symphonic unity.

    Klimt, who was born in 1862, and Schiele, born in 1890 and thus almost 30 years his junior, both played a vital role. The former was a founding member of the Vienna Secession, which united artists, sculptors and architects in a radical break with academic tradition, symbolised by Joseph Maria Olbrich’s revolutionary white building crowned with a dome of golden laurel leaves that housed the Secession’s exhibiting society. Klimt’s graceful mural, the Beethoven Frieze, designed for the 14th exhibition of the Viennese Secession in 1902 celebrating the genius of the great composer, merged Olbrich’s architecture and the inspiration of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to give expression to the Viennese ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk.

    This work, whose figures depict the struggle of the human soul to overcome its temporal existence and achieve joy through a fusion of love and art, was a major source of inspiration for the young Schiele, who arrived in Vienna as a child prodigy and entered the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in 1906. There he quickly absorbed the city’s artistic stimuli, cultivated by Klimt, and developed a huge admiration for the older artist. Although determined to establish his own artistic voice, Schiele saw himself as Klimt’s successor; throughout his brief and tumultuous career, which was tragically cut short by his early death from Spanish flu in 1918 – the same year that Klimt died – Schiele’s ideas about the purpose and meaning of art remained deeply inspired by Klimt. Both compared their role as artist to that of a prophet or seer, and regarded art as a spiritual calling, uniting an ideal community of artists and art lovers. In 1912 Schiele placed himself alongside Klimt in a double-portrait titled The Hermits, which fused their two priest-like bodies and depicted Klimt gazing mournfully over Schiele’s shoulder.

  • For all the differences between Klimt and Schiele in terms of generation, professional status and temperament – Schiele, for example, was narcissistically obsessed with self-portraiture, while no single self-portrait by Klimt exists – their artistic careers were intertwined. They even depicted the same model in their portraits of Friederike Maria Beer – Schiele in 1915-16 and Klimt not long after. Apparently, when Schiele engineered a meeting with Klimt on his arrival in Vienna as an ambitious young artist and asked him whether the drawings he had brought to show him revealed any talent, Klimt is reputed to have replied: “Yes. Much too much!” While Schiele took Klimt as a launching pad for the development of his own expressive style, Klimt returned the favour by integrating aspects of the younger man’s raw vision into his own later work. Their mutual respect and admiration generated a unique dialogue between two highly original lone talents.

    The Royal Academy now presents an exhibition of drawings by Klimt and Schiele, from the outstanding collection of the Albertina Museum in Vienna, accompanied by an insightful catalogue with essays from scholars including Marian Bisanz-Prakken, Elizabeth Clegg and Jane Kallir. It provides a rare opportunity to view their relationship through a medium that reveals the inventive essence of these two exceptional artists. While they both produced a relatively small number of oil paintings – relating in Klimt’s case to his slow and meticulous technique, and in Schiele’s to the popularity of his works on paper – both were prodigious draughtsmen. Although both artists underwent a conventional academic training, based on the idea that accurate drawing of figurative classical sculpture was the foundation stone on which the higher art of painting was built, both also transformed drawing into a highly personal, semi-autonomous and experimental means of expression, which gave their work a new immediacy and subjectivity.

    • Klimt undeniably laid the foundations for this seismic shift towards a modern world view in his preparatory drawings for the controversial ceiling paintings, Medicine and Philosophy (1897-98), intended for the auditorium of the University of Vienna, which were rejected by the official patrons and the conservative public because of Klimt’s revolutionary depictions of nudity and human sexuality. Not only did Klimt counteract the rational, scientific attitudes that guided university learning by presenting mankind cut adrift in the cosmos and at the mercy of fate; he also took an entirely new approach to human nakedness, depicting taboo subjects like pregnancy alongside ugly and diseased bodies, rather than the ideal, classically inspired nudes that were dictated by academic tradition. In his many drawings for the university paintings, Klimt adopted a new working method, producing swiftly executed sequences in black chalk – and sometimes red or white – on cheap packing paper (Floating Female Figure), which allowed him to probe the expressive essence of a pose as his models moved around the studio, and to build up a repertoire of nude motifs that he reused in later years.

      Gustav Klimt, Floating Female Figure with One Arm Hanging and One Outstretched (Study for the oil sketch for Medicine)

      Gustav Klimt, Floating Female Figure with One Arm Hanging and One Outstretched (Study for the oil sketch for Medicine), 1897-98.

      Black chalk on packing paper. 38.2 x 28 cm. The Albertina Museum, Vienna.

  • In his preparatory studies for the Beethoven Frieze (1901), Klimt took his essentially modern approach to drawing a stage further, eschewing interior tonal modelling of the figure in favour of subtly differentiated, expressive contours. In his drawings for The Three Gorgons (1902), whose lascivious bodies are among the hostile forces that must be overcome in order for humanity to attain “pure” joy, Klimt alternates sensuous, fluid contours with vivid, angular outlines to convey the temptresses’ dangerous sexuality. By placing the figures against the “void” of the blank paper, often cutting their bodies off at the lower edge above their feet, Klimt creates a distinctive tension between the body and the surrounding space. His sensitive, varied contours have been perceptively described by Marian Bisanz-Prakken as “psychological boundaries” separating the inner life of the figure and the surrounding emptiness of the paper – or, in a deeper sense, of the cosmic void.

    This distinctive expression of mankind’s existential isolation attracted Schiele when he began to push his own drawing style in an expressionist direction in 1910. After seeing the Klimt room at the Kunstschau exhibition in Vienna in 1908, which included several of the artist’s masterpieces such as the portrait Adele Bloch Bauer (1907) and The Kiss (1908), Schiele fell increasingly under Klimt’s spell. Still a student at the Akademie, he was encouraged by Klimt to exhibit his own work at the second Kunstschau in 1909 and, doubtless emboldened by Klimt’s support, he launched his own artists’ group of young contemporaries, the Neukunstgruppe which exhibited at the Kunstsalon Pisko later that year. Among the new patrons attracted to Schiele’s work by these events was the collector Carl Reininghaus who had acquired not only Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze but also many of its preparatory figure drawings. The opportunity to see Klimt’s drawings, which rarely left the artist’s studio, in Reininghaus’s collection must have given Schiele a new insight into the older artist’s work. His own drawings, such as The Painter Anton Faistauer (1909, below) and some portrait drawings of his sister Gerti, show the impact of Klimt’s subtle, volatile line, while his expressive focus on the sitter’s head and hands mirrors Klimt’s own portraits.

  • Egon Schiele, The Painter Anton Faistauer

    Egon Schiele, The Painter Anton Faistauer, 1909.

    Pencil, coloured chalk and gouache on packing paper. 29.6 x 31.3 cm. The Albertina Museum, Vienna.

  • However, it is Schiele’s nude drawings of 1910 that first demonstrate an exciting and original development of Klimt’s drawing style. By this time Schiele had adopted Klimt’s practice of drawing in black chalk on packing paper (although Klimt himself drew on finer Japan paper with pencil after 1904). Unable to afford professional models, Schiele’s unconventional subjects included himself, young prostitutes and street children from the working-class districts of Vienna. His drawings of these emaciated models, shown from behind to heighten a sense of their vulnerability, or in provocative sexualised poses, wildly exaggerate and intensify the unsettling “existential” effects that Schiele discovered in Klimt’s drawings. The cropped limbs in Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze studies, for example, take on the appearance of violent amputations in Schiele’s drawings. The fragile “psychological” contours that separate Klimt’s figures from surrounding space become incandescent boundaries in Schiele’s Female Nude (1910), heightened by auras of white gouache that seem to set off electric shocks around the figure. Whereas Klimt limits himself to pencil and occasionally coloured chalks and crayons, Schiele uses washes of watercolour to evoke what often looks like putrescent flesh. Subtle indications of humanity’s lonely state in Klimt’s figures are transformed by Schiele into a full-blown existential crisis – everything pushes in the direction of an extreme form of expression that infuses Schiele’s drawings with raw, explosive energy.

    Schiele considered his work of 1910 a turning point that separated him from the early influence of Klimt; that year he wrote, “I went by way of Klimt until March. Today I believe I am someone entirely different.” Schiele brought to life the symbolic potential he discovered in Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze drawings in a radically new way. However, even in Schiele’s mature drawings, raw energy and extreme expression are balanced by a linear stylisation and geometrical order that ultimately derives from Klimt. In his turn, Klimt looked towards Schiele to breathe fresh energy and freedom into his later work.

    • Gustav Klimt, Reclining Nude with Leg Raised

      Gustav Klimt, Reclining Nude with Leg Raised, 1912–13.

      Pencil on Japan paper. 37.1 x 56 cm. The Albertina Museum, Vienna.

      A case in point are the erotic drawings of sexually taboo subjects which both artists explored, like masturbation and lesbian love-making. Although Klimt had begun to draw his “harem” of studio models before he became aware of Schiele’s erotic drawings, it is often suggested that images such as his Reclining Nude with Leg Raised (1912-13) owe their explicitness to Schiele’s example. But even here the two artists occupy different worlds. While Klimt’s quiet, voyeuristic images depict women entirely absorbed by their own desires, Schiele’s bold, confrontational nudes meet the viewer as equals, and as Jane Killir argues, undermines the authority of the male gaze while affirming the autonomous power of female sexuality. Whereas Klimt kept his erotic drawings privately in his studio, and indeed rarely exhibited or sold any of his drawings, Schiele made a commercial success of his works on paper, which were more highly sought after than his paintings, especially those with complex allegorical themes.

  • For both Klimt and Schiele drawing emerged as a highly expressive medium that was ideally suited to new ideas of modernity and subjectivity. While Klimt pushed the boundaries of the medium in his innovative preparatory drawings for his major figure compositions, Schiele took things a stage further by producing fully autonomous works of art that elevated drawing to a new, independent status. Both artists were master draughtsmen, and both renewed the European tradition of figuration, placing the human body and human destiny at the centre of their concerns. The resulting dialogue between these two outstanding Viennese modernists throws new light not only on their own work, but also on the changing role of drawing and its special significance for modern art.

    Jill Lloyd is a writer and curator specialising in 20th-century German and Austrian art.

    Klimt / Schiele: Drawings from the Albertina Museum, Vienna, The Sackler Wing, Royal Academy of Arts, 4 Nov–3 Feb 2019. Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy and the Albertina Museum, Vienna.

    Friends Previews, 1–2 Nov, 10am–6pm; 3 Nov, 10am–10pm. To ensure the best possible experience, Friends are required to book a free, timed ticket for both the Friends Previews and during the normal run of the exhibition. Book online or call 020 7300 8090.