Sexuality, nudity, and the line are on view at the exhibition of Gustav Klimt’s drawings now in Paris until May 30th. They are on view at the Fondation Dina Vierny – the Musée Maillol (61, rue de Grenelle, 11-6, every day but Tuesday). It is a site that I particularly enjoy because Maillol has always appealed to me. His women do not adhere to the late twentieth-century male fashionista aesthetic of the lean, lanky female body. On the contrary, Maillol out-Rubens Rubens. If I want to feel svelte and validated as a woman, I hang out with Aristide Maillol’s nude statues. But Klimt is another case entirely. His figurative work is decorative, his nudes lean and long. Of what interest could he be to the Fondation Vierny, the repository of Maillol’s work on the rue de Varenne? When you see this show of Klimt’s erotic drawings, the interest becomes clear: both artists concentrate on the sensual beauty of the female form.
But while Maillol’s statues and paintings were meant to be seen by others, Klimt’s drawings were clearly done for his own pleasure, both artistic and sexual. Almost exclusively done in pencil on inexpensive brown paper, the drawings in the show date from 1898 to 1918 and are not arranged strictly chronologically. The earliest drawings are in the second room to your left after you enter the exhibition. They clearly show Klimt’s academic background, especially his reliance on female models in a life class. But he soon arranged for more personal poses seldom seen in academic art. These models recline their heads angled away from the viewer, legs spread, knees apart the better to see the female pudendum.
The pose is not only unacademic, but the pudendum is as well. Nary a hair visible on an academic crotch: the Realist movement led by Courbet put an end to such obfuscation, and the hairy pubis was the triangle of choice. One of Klimt’s drawings is the slightest outline of a body, but the hair on the head is done in detail and the hair on the pubis is equally dark. At first glace that’s all you see: head hair and pubic hair. There’s an entire study of the sexual meaning of hair written in New York in the 1950s. Klimt knew what hair meant without having to read any psychoanalyst’s musings.
In fact, Klimt knew what he liked and he knew how to get it. Unlike Toulouse-Lautrec (died 1901), who drew his love-making women as he found them in the maisons clos of Paris, Klimt clearly posed his women, putting them where he wanted them and how he wanted them. Languorously they pleasure themselves and one another, men on women, women with women, yet it all seems frozen, detached, without tenderness, without the frenzy of heavy breathing or sexual climax. Maybe that’s because these are not the drawings of an adolescent but date mostly from his forties, when a man’s ardor can calm and passion abate.
Yet, this is a man who loved women. He wasn’t angry like Picasso, or depressed like Vuillard, who had only his Martha to model for him. He seemed to have an infinite variety of women available to him, and it turned him on. Of course, we’re not supposed to know that, and we were not supposed to see these drawings either. In some instances that’s still the case because the pencil line is so light and indefinite that it is hard to read. But these are not preparatory drawings, or presentation drawings made for some patron or a friend. They are neither signed nor dated and were meant for his own joy of sex; most of the 120 drawings on exhibit would fit that category.
The drawings also have in common the artist’s dependence on line rather than on chiaroscuro, shadows in shades of gray and black. And while his line can appear unsure, as Klimt goes over it to correct a curve or the position of an arm or a shoulder, he never darkens a line to give a form rondeur or volume or curvature in space. The bodies risk the appearance of two-dimensionality, the kind of flattened forms we know from his paintings of women. But when he wants to show a leg as it projects towards us, or an arm flung over a head, he is perfectly capable of rendering those limbs foreshortened so we are convinced of their projection into space. Strangely, he accepts one kind of space but rejects another.
The exhibition, which begins on the ground floor, continues on the first floor with his last works from 1913 to 1918, when he died. His subject matter is unchanged, his medium is unchanged, but his line seems far less tentative and, for me, much easier to read. He leaned more heavily on the pencil as if no longer afraid to draw his sexual fantasies out loud.
It is here, on the first floor, that the interest of the Fondation Vierny becomes clear. When you leave the exhibition, before you go downstairs to leave, just make two quick detours with me and I think I can show you some analogies between the permanent collection and this temporary exhibition. First stop, off to the right past the first room with the statues, in the second room with Maillol’s paintings of nudes. Suddenly, Klimt’s drawings have come alive. They are fleshed out and round and fully made whole. No, these are not sexual but they are the same matter-of-fact approach to the female form, devoid of romanticism or academic purification. Maillol’s evident love of the female form is a perfect match for Klimt’s adoration of his women’s bodies.
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