Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele are having a moment. An exhibition of the two artists’ drawings concluded late this May at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. This month, exhibitions at The Met Breuer and the Neue Galerie New York opened. At least five other major museum exhibitions are currently on view throughout Europe, as well as a number of other small exhibitions in galleries around the globe. The reason for this proliferation is a centenary, but it’s not a happy one—both artists died one hundred years ago this year, in 1918.
Tied by more than their shared year of death (both were felled, along with upwards of fifty million other poor souls, by the infamous Spanish flu), Klimt and Schiele were close friends and professional confidantes. As a student at Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts in 1907, Schiele, the younger artist by nearly thirty years, sought out the renowned but nonconformist Klimt, who represented opportunity away from the conservative neoclassical proceedings of the academy. Klimt sensed a precocious talent in Schiele and took him under his wing.
Artists have always benefited from the advice and encouragement, both aesthetic and moral, of mentors. The practice has been institutionalized throughout history, whether in Renaissance master workshops, nineteenth-century ateliers, or the MFA programs of today’s academy. But just as often these mentorships arise from more organic circumstances, as was the case with Klimt and Schiele. The relationships are fascinating to study because they can shed light on the complex matters of influence and development, friendly competition and mutual dependence. But rarely does history give us the example of a mentor–mentee relationship cut so drastically short by early death—Klimt at the age of fifty-five and Schiele at twenty-eight.
On view through September 3, “Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele: 1918 Centenary” at the Neue Galerie allows us the chance to compare these two truncated careers. The exhibition takes up the three rooms of the museum’s second floor. One room is devoted primarily to Schiele, one to Klimt, and in a third, smaller gallery, a number of drawings and sketches by both artists hang, salon-style, to compelling effect. But despite this on-paper parity, it is Klimt who steals the show. Given the more open and central gallery space, Klimt’s portraits and landscapes preside over the exhibition, with the famous Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907) acting its customary role as crown jewel.
Though trained as an academic painter in the neoclassical style, Klimt by the 1890s seems to have detected a calcification in the cultural bloodline of Viennese historicism. Embracing the cosmopolitan influences of both Western European and Asian art, Klimt in 1897 fell in with the architects Josef Hoffman and Joseph Maria Olbrich and the artist Koloman Moser to found the Vienna Secession. Klimt’s friendship with Hoffman proved to be particularly influential on his paintings. He began to employ more abstract modes of decoration, anticipating the De Stijl and Bauhaus focus on flatness and visual plasticity. In Park at Kammer Castle, a 1909 landscape included in the exhibition, Klimt creates an open field of pointillist-esque marks, but the painting’s peculiar color and grid-like composition imbue it with an uneasy naturalism. On the same wall hangs Forester’s House in Weissenbach II (Garden) (1914). Klimt more clearly demarcates space within this summery view of his friend’s home and garden, but the work’s graphic emphasis on horizontal and vertical line similarly bears compositional kinship with Mondrian.
Opposite these contemplative landscapes hang a number of the elder painter’s exuberant, even hedonistic, portraits. The aforementioned Adele Bloch-Bauer I radiates with a force that no other painting could match. His more restrained, unfinished portrait The Dancer (1916–17) gives us a sense for Klimt’s laborious process at the time of his fatal sickness.
Perhaps most instructive is the shared room of sketches, drawings, and studies. Absent wall labels (laminated checklists are available at the entrance of the gallery), the room allows for unfettered comparison of the two artists’ control over line and composition. In places, the boundary between mentor and mentee is blurred; elsewhere, one may parse out essential differences.
In this room of works on paper, Schiele pops off the wall in a way that Klimt does not. Schiele’s compositions are graphic; his lines are powerful. They know no eraser, no hesitation. But Schiele wields a virtuosity that can become glib, mechanical even, in its delimitation of form and value. Less sensitive to the particularities of experience, his line teeters toward the rote. Klimt draws with a more self-critical eye. This is borne out in his oil portraits, which took many months to produce. His sketches forgo power and verve in favor of exploration and discovery.
Ultimately, Schiele comes off as the more one-dimensional artist. His spindly figures must have been revolutionary for their sexuality and modular deformity at the time of their creation, but their formal interest and psychological depth felt limited to my eye. By contrast, Klimt envelops his transgressive subject matter with an aesthetic originality that reaches for heights unknown to Schiele. Klimt’s maximalist, horror vacui approach is itself a manner, but one that nourishes the eye in a way that Schiele’s emaciated lines and reductive compositions do not.
To note these shortcomings is not to admonish, but to lament the untapped potential of a promising career cut unfathomably short. At the time of his death, Schiele was experimenting with an expanded color palette and a more expressive application of paint, indicating an interest in breaking free from the limitations of his youth. One wonders where these experimentations might have led, just as one wonders how both Schiele and Klimt might have reacted to postwar developments in European Modernism. If I left feeling that “Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele: 1918 Centenary” is in some sense incomplete, it must have been because of this profound and pervasive absence.