Civilization may be faring as poorly in Ireland as here, but there's an exhibit at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts to remind us of the potencies of the West: "Klimt and Schiele: Drawn." It closes Monday.
I have more prints of Klimt than of any other painter, and the power of Schiele's art has long moved me. So it was asinine of me to wait until the last few days before seeing this presentation of drawings from the Albertina in Vienna. This is the centenary of the deaths of both men (two of the 50 to 100 million casualties of the Spanish flu), and the MFA worthily marks the occasion with its first major exhibition of either artist..
The utter craft of Klimt is on display, and indicates why his golden works have the power they have: not because of gimmickry, but because the man could draw. His most impressive pieces here are the nudes, apotheoses of the sensuality of line and the captivation of womanly form. He stimulates a question about the depths a woman attracts in a man, for these drawings abstract the woman's form from almost all of the cultural context. Even without the prop of the lifestyles and inflammations that capitalist society wants to use "sex appeal" for, a man is moved. It would be interesting to hear what a woman's reaction is. (Alas, I went alone.)
But Schiele steals the show. His habit of adding watercolor to his drawings is part explanation, but it's more than that. No matter how innovative Klimt was (and he forged truly new life out of the decadence of fin-de-siècle Vienna), Schiele's vision radically reorients (sometimes literally, with paintings quarter-rotated).
Schiele is one of those great artists of the memory of suffering (like Rouault or Leonard Cohen). Of course all great art bleeds from suffering, but for some artists, that becomes the theme. Schiele shows us the agony of existing, of desiring while decaying, of desiring while having decay in our souls. Every beauty dies (and most loves here below hardly escape that fate). Schiele has made great art from the decadence of the world.
The exhibit quotes Schiele: "I really prefer the autumnal state of men and things, and of towns too. The transcience of human life is paralleled in the visible signs of the transitoriness of inanimate objects. In the autumn, nature seems to be filled with a vegetal melody that also exudes from old walls and fills the heart with sadness reminding us that we are but pilgrims in this world."
There is ripeness in decadence, much sweetness, but also terror breaking through. In Schiele's blotchy skins, you see the human fruit already dropped to the ground.
Some of the most powerful paintings included here stem from his being jailed for 24 days because a local teen girl had run away from home seeking refuge with him and his girlfriend. The only charge the town could get to stick on Schiele had to do with not hiding nude drawings in his studio from the girl. His vision had disrupted convention too much. The title of one of his prison paintings says it, "Hindering the Artist Is a Crime, It Is Murdering Life in the Bud!" But the human bud gets aborted all the time. Decaying himself, on the outside of this great decaying globe, Schiele records the terrible sublimities of life's pleasure within death's embrace.