“Every line is an adventure,” says Marian Bisanz-Prakken, a curator at the Albertina Museum, Vienna, and expert on everything Klimt. The exhibition “Gustav Klimt: The Magic of Line,” now at the J. Paul Getty Museum in partnership with the Albertina, showcases more than 100 of the Austrian symbolist's drawings, dating from the very beginning of his career, the 1880s, to the early 20th century. This is the only exhibit on the West Coast that celebrates the 150th anniversary of Klimt's birthday, July 14, 1862.
Rendered with pencil, ink, and black and white chalk, these drawings reveal Klimt's exquisite draftsmanship, his tension between artistic freedom and structure, and his willingness to experiment, to twist, mangle and breathe life into the line.
This is the first exhibition to focus solely on Klimt's sketches, as opposed to the work he's best known for: magnetic, golden dreamscapes laced with the cold glow of flesh, works that render dream and reality inextricable (i.e., dorm-room posters that let everyone know you're artsy).
As Lee Hendrix, senior curator of drawings at the Getty, says, “We think that we know him and his work, but this exhibit shows us that we really don't.”
Klimt created more than 4,000 paintings and drawings, including the eyebrow-raising Reclining Female, Semi-Nude With Raised Leg, and some of the drawings at the Getty have never before been displayed in North America.
What you see in this exhibit are the fluctuations in Klimt's thought process, not just piece by piece but over the arc of his prolific career.
It was clear that his earlier works conceived of space in a more traditional, realistic manner. But they also showcased a craftsmanship that would later become unmistakable — the ability to fixate on the subtlest of emotions. In the sketches of people watching Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet at the theater, Klimt was able to capture a viewer's grief, or the quiet triumph settled on Juliet's stony expression.
A shift in the nature of Klimt's drawings emerged with Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907). The sketches in this series are not as finished as his earlier drawings, but are rather rough gestures orbiting a final, radiant image “seemingly sprung from the head of Athena,” as Lee Hendrix noted.
“Every drawing is an autonomous work, but at the same time it is in preparation of the painting,” said Bisanz-Prakken.
In one of the many sketches, Adele, stripped of her vivid color and structural perfection, seems more vulnerable, almost spectral, a sensual intensity forming in her emptied, triangular mouth. As Bisanz-Prakken pointed out, Klimt's drawings tended to be more intimate, more immediate than his paintings, and thus better captured the first “moment of expression.”
Around this time period, Klimt's lines became loose and fluid, vaporous bodies stretching out past the confines of the canvas (a technique most immediately recognized in the exhibited illustration Fish Blood). This style is repeatedly called a “stream of bodies,” and seems somewhat related to the modernist notion “stream of consciousness,” in that people's actions are represented as cyclical, not progressive.
For instance, the mass of bodies in the painting Medicine (1907), which was commissioned by the University of Vienna along with Philosophy (1907), meld into one another, a cosmic, orgiastic scrambling of arms and legs with no end and no beginning. As in many of his paintings, the model's fluid brushstrokes contrast with the surrounding empty space, as if they are being “delivered to the existential void,” noted Hendrix. The University of Vienna found this painting to be not only pornographic but also pretty depressing, so it staunchly rejected it.
One of the most vibrant works in the exhibit is a reproduction of Klimt's Beethoven Frieze (1902), a narrative painting that stretches across three walls. I don't want to give away the whole plot, but it involves a restless, flowing chain of bodies in search of happiness, a few hysterical gorgons, the suffering of humanity and a terribly confused-looking storm-giant. Underneath the painting are sketches depicting the possible paths and poses Klimt could have used, each colored with a different emotion. The final image, a raw, tense, redemptive embrace between man and woman, has been said to foreshadow one of Klimt's most famous works, The Kiss (1908).
As Klimt's career progressed, he became feverishly involved with the erotic and solipsistic aspects of the female nude. This shift is reflected in his brush strokes, which grew frantic, nervous and broken. He switched to pencil and the lines became shiny and light, as if “broken into light reflections that float on the page,” Hendrix stated. In these sketches, through capturing the body's delicate suspension, the most minute shifts in body angle and facial twitches, Klimt discovers those wild yet calculated gazes that point directly to the mystery of life.
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