Gustav Klimt is best known for his famous golden paintings, portraits of society women adorned in jewels and cloaked in gold, and for the flat two-dimensionality of his work that led many to declare it superficial and merely decorative. The Getty exhibition “Gustav Klimt: The Magic of Line” puts a lie to that characterization, demonstrating how Klimt’s work conveys complex emotions and even allegorical ideals.
The Getty’s show features more than 100 drawings from throughout the Austrian painter’s career — a few from the Getty’s own collection, but the majority on loan from the Albertina Museum in Vienna in conjunction with the celebration of the 150th anniversary of Klimt’s birth. The exhibition runs until Sept. 23.
“I thought I knew Klimt, but I didn’t,” said Marian Bisanz-Prakken, curator at the Albertina and the reigning expert on Klimt drawings, discussing what surprised her most about the exhibition. “He was an artist who goes into the elemental situations of life. The cycle of life is presented in a modern approach, a new approach. He brings his subjects to life, and it touches the viewer with immediacy.”
The exhibition is chronological and reveals Klimt’s early talent at rendering scenes and people with a facility many artists never achieve. As an adult, Klimt drew from live models almost daily. It is amazing to see how he used his natural gifts, at first academically and then with precision, and as he matured, how his drawings became the laboratory where he studied human perspective and tested different approaches for his large-scale portraits. It was also where he expressed the inner yearnings of his subjects.
Klimt had a budding career of large public commissions, such as the frieze to honor Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (a facsimile of which has been installed at the Getty for this exhibition), and as president of the Vienna Secession arts movement he had a great say in the décor of its building headquarters. However, when commissioned to create paintings for the University of Vienna’s Great Hall — the university was hoping for historic, allegorical or heroic depictions of law and medicine, for example — Klimt, who had come to believe that true progress for mankind was a chimera and that man was destined to an endless cycle of suffering, war and death, painted works of such nihilism that the university rejected them. In response, Klimt withdrew from public engagement and turned his focus increasingly to portraits.
The Getty exhibition is called “the magic of line” because of Klimt’s uncanny ability to render his models as living, breathing creatures while conveying emotion and, in his later work, to explore the vanishing point where desire, eroticism and dreams meet.
Picasso’s late work is well known for its erotic content, but it appears in his signature style — it is more about content than form. In Klimt’s case, his late drawings, intensely intimate and erotic, represent a new mode of interpretation — his lines change, they become choppy, frenzied almost — as if Klimt is trying to capture a chrysalis in the process of transformation.
Bisanz-Prakken spoke of Klimt’s “respect for Eros,” while Klimt, who rarely commented on his work, did favor the epigram “Nudas Veritas” — in nakedness is found truth. This begs the question: What truth was Klimt actually looking to find in his drawings of women floating, in a dream state, or lost in the throes of autoeroticism? Though there is no sure answer, there are clues to be found in the particular milieu of the society that surrounded Klimt, his subjects and patrons in Vienna at the start of the 20th century.
In the mid-19th century, Vienna had torn down its medieval city walls and built the Ringstrasse, a circular road that centralized the city’s governmental structures along with its cultural institutions and the homes of its wealthiest citizens. Largely financed by Jewish families, the Ringstrasse also became a symbol of the Jewish middle and upper-middle classes’ arrival in Austrian society. By the turn of the century, Vienna was in many respects a city dominated by highly cultured, highly assimilated Jews in most walks of life. This was the Vienna of Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Arthur Schnitzler, of Karl Kraus and Theodor Herzl.
Klimt was not Jewish, but many of his patrons were (among them Wittgenstein’s sister), as were his portrait subjects and models, some of who were believed to also be his lovers. As Klimt drew his highly intimate works of women in an erotic dream state, Freud was treating women from the same social milieu for hysteria and developing psychoanalysis from the interpretation of their dreams; while Schnitzler, with whom Freud corresponded, was writing his stories of sexual dalliances known as “Reigen,” or more popularly as the basis for the Max Ophuls film “La Ronde.” Schnitzler’s novella about an erotic dream state, “Traumnovelle,” would be the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.”
Perhaps the newly wealthy Viennese Jewish upper-middle class experienced too much freedom in which to explore sex, drugs (Freud was a cocaine evangelist) and Wagnerian music. Regardless, Klimt’s drawings are themselves indications and portents of the ferment Vienna would yield.
In Klimt’s drawing, these dark-haired Jewesses are the objects of desire, the temptresses, but they are also “the other.” They are desired and often beyond reach. The sexual desires, actual and fantasized, among Vienna’s Jews, whom Schnitzler chronicled and Freud made a science of, would also be cause for critics such as Karl Kraus to call the age corrupt and without morals. Wittgenstein would champion a movement of “pure” philosophy. This backlash against the rising Jewish middle class in Vienna would also find expression in virulent anti-Semitism.
Freud would forever recall his father being called “Dirty Jew” and having his hat knocked off his head, and Herzl, for his part, would conclude that anti-Semitism was so entrenched, so impossible to combat, that the only solution was to found a Jewish state. At the same time, the desire for truth and beauty found in nature and the healthy expression of sex, as idealized in Klimt’s work, would also find its most perverted expression in the tenets of Nazi ideology as promulgated by that Austrian would-be painter, Adolf Hitler. Moreover, the same pseudoscience underlying Hitler’s veneration of nature would be used to condemn Jews as “unclean” and characterize the Jewish people as demonic. Freud is often cited as saying, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” but for Klimt, a drawing was more than a collection of lines — it was the portrait of his age’s unconscious yearnings and of a Jewish society that the 20th century would mark as indelibly as the magic of a line on a paper.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears here regularly, and his blog can be found at jewishjournal.com/tommywood.