To Look, to See, to Finally Feel

Review: 'Klimt and Schiele: Drawings' by Katie Hanson

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Let's face it, most books that come along with art exhibits usually are too academically strenuous and boring for laymen. A lot of people buy them for the pictures. But Katie Hanson's Klimt and Schiele: Drawings, a companion guide to a just-concluded exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, breaks the mold. Hanson, the assistant curator of Paintings and Art of Europe at the MFA, writes with style, simplicity, and—even more rare—a goal for her readers. She wants you to learn how to admire and experience art the way Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele hoped we would.

"You, too, can embrace weird art!" Hanson seems to declare. Schiele's and Klimt's works are certainly not ordinary, dentist office landscapes. Like the Impressionists and the Expressionists, Schiele and Klimt shattered the 18th and 19th century ideals of portraiture. To them, a portrait is not about pleasing the subject with a simple likeness, in the manner of their era's most popular portraitist, John Singer Sargent. John Updike said Sargent's work had "Something Missing." Schiele and Klimt delved deeper. They found what was missing and presented a solution of aesthetic tenacity and emotional vibrancy.

"Klimt's and Schiele's nudes turn academic convention on its head," Hanson says. "The contemplation of the human body perfected and vaulted into the realm of ideas and of art is overturned by base impulses, instinctual urges, and corporeal presence."

Though the exhibit is closed, the book is well worth a read for more than the pictures. It is mostly made up of their drawings and watercolors from the show, which was an impressive collaboration between the MFA and the Albertina Museum in Vienna. But the precise, informative essays provide an account of both Klimt's and Schiele's lives, their professional relationship, and the play between their respective drawings and paintings.

Like literature, drawings and paintings have the potential to tap into the timelessness and immutability of human nature. Audiences can look at art through the ages and still see reflections of their own experience. "Even after a hundred years," Hanson writes, "[Klimt's and Schiele's] drawings have a compelling immediacy, a sense of energy and presence, of searching and questioning that still feels fresh."

Both were born in suburbs of Vienna. Klimt, born in 1862, was 28 years older than Schiele. Klimt began studying art at 14 and used commissions to support his family. That family would get much larger in time: He was rumored to have as many as 14 children, although only 6 are identified (with three different mothers). Schiele did not academically train in the arts until he left high school at 16. He achieved success very quickly within his very short lifetime; he died at 28 from influenza.

Klimt and Schiele are often paired together because of their friendship and professional relationship. Their drawings, however, couldn't be more different. Klimt's are delicately rendered with thin strokes of charcoal, Schiele's are bold and dappled with watercolor. "And yet," Hanson writes, "their works are related in ways that highlight what makes both artists' drawings rewarding and challenging to contemplate."

The two artists developed a style of portraiture founded on displaying an emotion, rather than a likeness. They both preferred figure drawing, though Klimt, unlike Schiele, never made a self portrait. Each used spatial disorientation to make their drawings more engaging and plucky, even confusing or troubling to the eye. They rebelled against their roots in academic art, which is traditionally centered on realism. Hanson writes that Klimt and Schiele concentrated on rendering the posture of the subject to represent "a sense of tension or energy."

"I know that one can create qualities with colors," Schiele said. "In late summer, when you see a tree showing signs of the coming fall, you experience it deep inside with your entire heart and soul; I want to paint this wistfulness."

Schiele's watercolor figures, gnarled like tree roots, bruised with color, find their opposite in his early charcoal portraits. He softly renders faces with smoky shadows. That softness is absent from his watercolor drawings, whose subjects erupt with erotic color and sinuous, theatrical poses. The sweet charcoal angels trapped on Schiele's pages would look in curiosity or scorn at his wildly sexual painted figures; they collide like Macbeth's two spent swimmers. Klimt's drawings, on the other hand, are foreshadowings of his paintings, preparations waiting to be plumed in shimmering gold and carefully placed color.

As they moved past the confines of academic art, each was met with controversy. Luckily for them, controversy in art normally leads to post-humous popularity. Klimt was commissioned to design ceiling paintings for the University of Vienna on themes of philosophy, medicine, and jurisprudence. Critics rejected the paintings for their supposed "crudeness of conception and aesthetic deficiency." The pieces, which were lost in a fire in World War II, were assumed to "offend the general public."

Later, Klimt's "Beethoven Frieze" was criticized for having "pornographic obscenity" due to its unidealized, twisting nude bodies. Schiele, however, was inspired by Klimt's nerve. Most of Schiele's drawings, Hanson notes, are "uncomfortable to look at and difficult to look away from."

Schiele accumulated harsh accusations of his own. To put it mildly, the #MeToo movement would have easily taken him down. While he was living with his girlfriend Valerie, he was arrested in 1912 for using children as nude models and charged with abduction, molestation, and immorality. Although the two former charges were dropped, the latter held, as the nude portraits in his studio were deemed unseemly for adults and children alike. Yet those portraits of children may be his most haunting and mystifying work, where doe eyes contrast with sharp, jutting shoulders or frothy folds of material.

"Both artists' drawings embody a tension between artifice and authenticity," Hanson writes, "between a graphic quality that draws attention to itself and a sense of raw and authentic psychological presence."

There is no documentation on how Schiele and Klimt met. Klimt introduced Schiele to his most important sponsors and pushed him to display his work in Vienna's multiple art showcases. When Schiele wanted to exchange several of his drawings for one by Klimt, Klimt said, "Why do you want to exchange with me? You draw better than I do."

All we are left with, Hanson says, is the ability to see the mutual inspiration in their work. Their pieces enforce Hanson's, Schiele's, and Klimt's belief that the relationship between art, the artist, and the audience is essential to what makes art engaging. Klimt and Schiele understood that many viewers of portraiture don't want to just look at the face of someone they don't know, no matter how accurately it is painted. They gave their audience what it didn't even know it wanted: strange, sometimes awkward, compositions of unidealized subjects that evoke a relatable attitude. Their pieces require more than just looking, Hanson says. One must "see and feel."

"Not only those who create, but those who enjoy," Klimt said, "are also artists to us, because they are capable of deeply experiencing and appreciating what has been created."