A Victorious Protégé

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