The Royal Academy’s exhibition of Klimt and Schiele drawings from the Albertina is erotic, manic and morbid

Daniel Johnson

Above left: “Cellist”, 1910, by Egon Schiele. Right: “Seated female nude, elbows resting on right knee”, 1914, by Egon Schiele (© The Albertina Museum, Vienna)

The Royal Academy’s exhibition of Klimt and Schiele drawings from the Albertina is the most important show of graphic works by either artist ever to be seen in London. Both Viennese masters are absent from any British public collection, thanks to the provincialism, prudishness and prejudice of critics and gallery directors in the last century, when their works could be bought for a song. The few exceptions prove the rule: I first encountered originals by Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele in the Chelsea flat of the late George Weidenfeld. Refugees from the Nazis loved the art that the Nazis thought degenerate — and some brought it to Britain.

Christopher Le Brun, the Academy’s president, a distinguished artist in his own right and an ardent lover of Austro-German art, has given his imprimatur to the catalogue by writing its introduction. The art establishment in this country is belatedly atoning for its philistine past. So the RA show is unmissable.

Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt were among the greatest draughtsman of their or any other time. Klimt generally drew in pencil, with subtle strokes that have an evanescent, dreamlike quality. Schiele drew in sharp, bold, dramatic lines, holding his black, red or white chalk vertically to the page. Klimt’s drawings are mostly preparatory studies for larger-scale paintings; Schiele’s are more often finished works in their own right, sometimes with touches of colour.

It was no accident that both artists explored the erotic, the manic and the morbid, living as they were a few yards away from Freud’s consulting rooms. But we can now see the achievements of Klimt and Schiele, who both died in 1918, as much more than the backdrop to the last years of the Habsburg Vienna. Klimt still captivates us with his unabashed celebrations of feminine sexuality. Schiele was a pioneer in depicting such contemporary preoccupations as anorexia and adolescent angst.

Left: “Standing Female Nude (Study for The Three Gorgons; Beethoven Frieze)”, 1901, by Gustav Klimt. Above, right: “Study for ‘The Dancer’ (Ria Munk II)”, 1916-17, by Gustav Klimt. (© The Albertina Museum, Vienna)

What this show does very well is to transport us back to a time when the moral collapse of the Austro-German world was foreseen but had not yet happened, when artists of genius could make the best of the worst. In retrospect, they seem like the last blossoming of a dying tree. Yet Klimt transcended all the influences of his time and place, from Symbolism to Jugendstil, to create an art of universal appeal. Schiele, who was just 28 when he succumbed to the Spanish flu epidemic, might have escaped the Nazis, like his great rival Oskar Kokoschka. He might even have lived long enough to see his viscerally figurative art make a comeback, as the abstract or conceptual fashions faded, in the shape of his spiritual heir, Lucian Freud. 

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