 Laura Cum­ming

Fierce Schiele and grace­ful Klimt share the spot­light in this com­pelling Vi­en­nese dou­ble bill

The Observer - The New Review - - Agenda - Laura Cum­ming

on Klimt/ Schiele at the Royal Academy

Klimt/Schiele: Draw­ings from the Al­bertina Mu­seum, Vi­enna Royal Academy, Lon­don W1; un­til 3 Feb

Egon Schiele drew Gus­tav Klimt many times in life, but also in death. Three draw­ings ex­ist of Klimt in the morgue, his hand­some face de­formed by a mas­sive stroke at the age of 55. Not many months later, Schiele him­self was car­ried off by Span­ish flu in the space of three dev­as­tat­ing days. He was 28. Both men died in Vi­enna in the year 1918.

Death steals like a cold breath through the Royal Academy’s cen­ten­nial com­mem­o­ra­tion of their art. It is there in the gaunt faces of Klimt’s old women and his syphilitic femme fa­tales. It is there in the ema­ci­ated bod­ies of Schiele’s teenage pros­ti­tutes, pre­ma­turely aged, and in the bony fin­gers that clutch at the bare ribs of his fe­male nudes. It is the look of an era, of a so­ci­ety cursed by deca­dence and poverty, hunger, dis­ease and war. But it is also art nou­veau in late-stage mu­ta­tion, an aes­thetic of ner­vous whiplash lines and ex­traor­di­nar­ily adroit draw­ings where a whole hu­man be­ing may be sum­marised in a few in­ci­sive curves.

Klimt was an es­tab­lished star and Schiele a cock­sure stu­dent when the two first met in 1908. But it is im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous from this show that their ob­ses­sions were al­ready mu­tual. Fig­ures par­tially clothed or fla­grantly ex­posed, sub­ject to erotic rap­ture or iso­la­tion, en­twined in al­most un­read­ably elab­o­rate em­braces or laid bare on the ground (and the page): all are drawn with an ex­treme lin­ear­ity char­ac­terised by grace­ful­ness in Klimt’s case, or by Schiele’s fierce and burn­ing clar­ity.

At first this show ap­pears to em­pha­sise what they share. Klimt draws peo­ple as lithe shapes, his sump­tu­ous line re­duc­ing all the trou­ble­some com­plex­i­ties of limbs, mus­cle and flesh, let alone in­ner be­ing, to a se­quence of con­tours. Schiele takes the con­tours and makes them harsh, sharp and an­gu­lar. Klimt’s fig­ures are rad­i­cally cropped; his lean and sin­u­ous nudes, look­ing like Kate Moss with big hair, are of­ten cut off at the arms or knees, as if they were stand­ing in wa­ter. Schiele goes even fur­ther, de­scrib­ing an en­tire arm with lit­tle more than the creased sleeve at the el­bow. His wife is a float­ing face, ink-drawn and cupped in a fine sliver of hand, but so con­cise that the mind’s eye turns it into a com­plete por­trait.

But the con­trasts be­tween the two artists soon be­come ap­par­ent. Klimt’s line is all rhyth­mic flow, sweep­ing softly around the anatomy, round­ing out the sharp an­gles of pelvis, rib or shoul­der blade. Klimt doesn’t just skim, he eu­phemises. This is partly be­cause his draw­ings are al­most in­vari­ably stud­ies for full-scale paint­ings, ar­ma­tures for those ex­trav­a­gant pile-ups of gold and high-chrome pat­tern. It is quite strange to see his fig­ures stripped of the glitz, in iso­la­tion on the page, re­sem­bling faint pen­cil ghosts.

Klimt’s draw­ings of Vi­en­nese bankers and so­cialites are strik­ingly face­less, pre­sum­ably for the same rea­son. They will only come into be­ing as por­traits in oil. And the sketches of his el­derly mother es­tab­lish only the most cur­sory like­ness be­cause she is pos­ing for the fig­ure of age in some ex­trav­a­gantly over-pro­duced al­le­gory. Klimt’s paint­ings are not born of spon­ta­neous, rapid or nat­u­ral ob­ser­va­tion, some of the virtues gen­er­ally as­so­ci­ated with draw­ing. Whereas for Schiele, with all his prodi­gious graphic gifts, draw­ing – and in­deed each and ev­ery draw­ing – is an end in it­self.

It is mar­vel­lous to see what Schiele learns from Klimt: all that con­ci­sion, and edit­ing, taken to elec­tri­fy­ing ex­tremes. Here is a ter­rific red head (in both re­spects) of the artist Max Kahrer, his beard crack­ling, the hair prac­ti­cally alight. The draw­ing is in pro­file, the eye bril­liantly in­di­cated with a sin­gle dash and yet you would know him any­where, a be­lief con­firmed by a front-on sketch of Kahrer two gal­leries later. And where Mrs Klimt is a type, Schiele’s mother, Marie, is pa­tient, wist­ful, gen­tly self­con­scious in a poignant sketch in black chalk made not long be­fore her son’s death.

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