Stuff of Scandal

Klimt and Schiele: Drawn

an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, February 25–May 28, 2018
Egon Schiele: <i>The Artist’s Mother, Sleeping</i>, 1911
Egon Schiele: The Artist’s Mother, Sleeping, 1911

As you enter “Klimt and Schiele: Drawn,” at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, you are faced with a choice. Begin on the left, with Gustav Klimt’s Seated Woman in a Pleated Dress, and you will find yourself following Klimt down one wall of the single, large room; pick the right, with Egon Schiele’s The Artist’s Mother, Sleeping, and you are in his more colorful and astringent territory. Not until you have completed the whole circuit does it become clear that these two paths are also mirror images, each organized around the same rubrics: “Inner Life Made Visible,” “The Stuff of Scandal.” It is the curator Katie Hanson’s deft way of paying obeisance to the familiar coupling of the two artists—the heroic heralds, with Oskar Kokoschka, of Viennese modernity—while also insisting on their difference, even their irreconcilability.

The show’s exclusive focus on drawings only heightens this contrast, since these two artists took very different approaches to drawing. Most of the Klimt works in the show are preparatory sketches, which give only hints of the power of the final products; and the magnificence of Klimt’s major paintings has little to do with what we ordinarily think of as the virtues of drawings—spontaneity, naturalness. With Schiele, just the opposite is true: drawings for him were frequently ends in themselves, finished with watercolors and sold to collectors. Some of Schiele’s drawings in “Drawn” stand among his most powerful work, which cannot be said for any of the Klimts.

This contrast between the show’s two subjects is already present in the first drawings the visitor encounters. Klimt’s seated figure, feet together and knees apart like a child on a kindergarten rug, is a far cry from the erect and gorgeously decorated women in his best-known paintings, such as the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. Yet there is still something monumental in the composition, which turns the woman into a three-leveled ziggurat—legs, torso, head. And there is an unmistakable excitement in her posture, leaning forward with clasped hands, and still more in her face: she has the kind of erotic avidity that, in Klimt’s great portraits and allegories, bursts into florid life. She sits on the verge of the new century—the drawing is from about 1903—waiting eagerly for something to happen, or to make something happen.

Schiele’s drawing of his mother from 1911, on the other hand, is a peaceful subject wrenched into disorienting shape. Rotated ninety degrees to the right, as it often is in reproduction, it would show a woman lying horizontally on a bed or couch. But in a favorite technique, Schiele displayed it vertically, turning a recognizable posture into an odd and tense one, as if the sitter is sleeping standing up. This effortful position seems to match, or explain, her haggard expression—if she is…

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