One hundred years after their deaths in 1918, some one hundred drawings by the Austrian artists Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele from Vienna’s Albertina Museum have been brought to London. The Royal Academy’s Klimt/Schiele: Drawings exhibition has an obvious comparative premise. Hanging side by side, extraordinary works by each artist share the space throughout the exhibition. This creates compelling juxtapositions – both Klimt and Schiele experimented with linearity, bringing new visions of the body to early-twentieth century Austria. Where Klimt’s line is curving and sensual, however, the mature Schiele’s darts and veers across the paper surface, almost visceral in its force. Within this exploration of the stylistic parallels and divergences of these innovative artists, the elegant Klimt is eclipsed by his brilliant young protégé, who pushed the line to its expressive extremes of erotic and psychological potency.
Broadly chronological, the show commences with a scene-setting exploration of the two artists’ drawings made in the years before 1910. Klimt, twenty-eight years Schiele’s senior, was at this point firmly established as Austria’s most famous artist, having rejected the academic painting of the Künstlerhaus to establish the Vienna Secession in 1897. This avant-garde group forwarded the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or ‘total work of art’, in which architecture, sculpture, painting, design and the applied arts formed a thoroughly modern synthesis. In the selection of his juvenile works on display in this exhibition, Schiele’s debt to Klimt is very apparent. A drawing of 1908 shows a reclining nude figure transformed into a taught two-dimensional design, held together by a typically Secessionist decorative-ornamental line. We are soon informed, however, that 1910 was the year in which Schiele, aged twenty, found his ‘unique style’, and from this point onwards he dominates the narrative.
Gustav Klimt, Standing Woman in a Patterned Gown, c. 1908-10, Pencil on paper
Egon Schiele, Seated Female Nude, Elbows Resting on Right Knee, 1914, Pencil and gouache on Japan paper
The nature of Schiele’s work makes this almost inevitable. Every work by the young artist, from studies of the Austrian landscape, blooming chrysanthemums to a raw and unnerving sketch of a naked adolescent prostitute, has immense graphic power. In another Schiele portrait of an unnamed sex worker, who is at once both promiscuous and vulnerable, the erotic charge is heightened by sparing crimson highlights on mouth, nipples and labia. His is an intensely sexualised and objectifying vision, but simultaneously a particularised and emotive rendering
of a specific individual. The bourgeois women of Klimt’s drawn studies for painted portraits, by contrast, are conspicuously faceless. Morphing into fields of pattern, they become generic types lacking physical description. A stranger to this lifestyle of easy hedonism, Schiele could not afford professional models, relying on family, friends, street children and sex workers to provide subject and inspiration for his art. Diligently stopping short of caricaturing Klimt as institutionalised former rebel and Schiele as impoverished young genius, the exhibition nevertheless infers such a dialecticism between the artists that cannot be shaken from the mind.
It is when confronted with Schiele’s famous self-portraits that one feels most the contemporary appeal of the younger artist in comparison to his esteemed elder, that makes him the star of this show. Whilst Klimt never made a self-portrait, in a 1916 drawing, Schiele presents his naked body to the viewer; angled limbs lead the gaze from face to torso to genitalia. A primal exploration of the sexuality of the self, this work is imbued with all the confessionalism that Tracey Emin brings to her own sketches of the body today. Alongside such visions as this, Klimt’s drawings feel resolutely historical. Before he is condemned as belonging to an older, less relevant aestheticism, however, the senior artist’s own acutely erotic works come to light in the final room of the exhibition, devoted to both artists’ representations of sex. The soft pencil lines of Klimt’s voyeuristic sketches of self-pleasuring women evoke an enrapturing sensuality. These abstracted visions of the body-in-pleasure, daring in style and subject, are timely reminders of the artist’s profoundly avant-garde sensibility.
On finishing this exhibition, it is hard not to feel that Klimt’s invariably aesthetic drawings are largely present as context for a more favoured focus on Schiele’s tumultuous creative trajectory. Perhaps this imbalance was inevitable. Klimt had been prominent in the 1880s, before Schiele was even born; by using Schiele’s emergence as a starting point and tracing their intertwined practice for just a decade, much of Klimt’s earlier work goes un-noted, or is at best only paraphrased. Equally, it must be remembered that Klimt regarded himself as first and foremost a painter. Almost all of the works on show here were preparatory studies for larger painted projects. For Schiele, by contrast, drawings were always autonomous works of art. His works have a higher level of finish than Klimt’s in this exhibition, which lack the graphic power to stand out against the beige walls of the space. Make no mistake, what we get of Klimt’s opulent line certainly has the power to enthral, and both artists play a part in making this show essential viewing for anyone interested in the expressive power of the figure within modernism. It is in the drawings of Schiele, however, that we find a captivating vision of true life observed.
Egon Schiele, Nude Self-Portrait, 1916, Pencil and gouache on packing paper
Gustav Klimt, Reclining Nude with Leg Raised, 1912-13, Pencil on paper