Art in Paris – Klimt, Schiele, Moser, Kokoschka; Vienna 1900

Art in Paris – Klimt, Schiele, Moser, Kokoschka; Vienna 1900
The exhibition is organized both thematically and formalistically with definite emphasis on the latter.  The curator even wrote in the catalogue that the purpose of the exhibition is formalistic.  But the formalism is introduced in an irrational fashion.  For example, the show focuses on Verticality well into the exhibit when it has been present from the first.  Didactic labels can be, and should be, an essential part of an exhibition.  How else are we to learn some of what the curator has learned?  There is an enormous amount of research that goes into the organization of a show.  Pictures are not borrowed haphazardly.  They are choices meant to make a point.  The writing on the wall should help make the point more obvious.  Needless to say, that is not always the case and this is where this show misses that proverbial home run.  I’m sorry to say it does not make a lot of sense.    Some of the essential formalistic points made in the catalogue are not illustrated in the exhibition.  For example, an enlightening comparison of Klimt and Schiele that shows Klimt as an artist who fills his pictures and Schiele as one who leaves them empty; Klimt as a painter of elegant and fleshy figures and Schiele as one of intense and emaciated figures; Klimt as using sublime sensuality versus Schiele as using nude erotic sexuality is spelled out in the catalogue but not explicitly illustrated in the show.  Of course we can find examples, but nobody walks through the show with the catalogue.  Nobody has read it before coming.    Which brings me to the question of how much foreknowledge a curator can assume on the part of the public.  Are museum shows, curated by art historians, only for other art historians?  Angels dancing on the head of a pin or newts in the corner of a manuscript page will only be counted by other cognoscenti.  Art historians can entertain and amuse one another and exclude the public because the research is only meant for the closed circle of intellectuals.   I’m an art historian and I call foul play.  If I cannot walk through an exhibition and understand its organization and understand the point of view of the curator, that exhibit gets a failing grade.  Museums are now public places and, as such, they need to encourage the public to visit them.  Putting together a show that doesn’t make sense, that doesn’t put across a point, that doesn’t allow a reasonably interested person to follow along, simply fails.   Vienna 1900 does not fail.  But it misses so many chances to make a point that it loses you in a vast sea of attractive painting.  It’s like watching fireworks and exclaiming repeatedly over some brilliant display.  But in the end that’s what there is, brilliant display without anything really to pull it together.   That said, you should go see the show with several things in mind.   The four artists, united by time and place, have distinct artistic personalities.  Klimt, the oldest, was the first to establish himself as a painter of decorative interiors.  Vienna 1900 begins with two early oil sketches by Klimt.  These are both allegories for different decorative commissions: Love (1895) and Music (1895).  As sketches, they cannot be used as any index of the artist’s style but they do address his concerns with earlier art.  Love uses the format of a Christian triptych and a composition dependent on Correggio’s depiction of mythological love between Zeus and Io, while Music copies the composition, if not the linear style, of a musician on a red-figure Greek vase.   It is in his Pallas Athena (1898) that we can begin to see several important aspects of Klimt’s art within the context of Vienna in 1900.  The subject matter is archeological, based on the greater-than-life-size statue of Athena believed to have been in the Parthenon.  It is the image of an all-powerful invincible woman, dressed in golden armor, who stares at us insistently.  No portrait of a Viennese woman would evince such power and confront us so insistently.  Athena, who becomes emblematic of the Secession movement in art, is meant as a symbol of a new kind of woman, as seen by the modern male: demonic, menacing, victorious – the femme fatale.  The figurine in her right hand is, in fact, the Nuda Veritas seen in the image of the same name in the same gallery.  Meant as an erotic woman, her mirror turns outwards towards us, so we can see ourselves as we face the truth.   How different from Klimt’s mature style in Danae only seven years later.  What has not changed is the subject matter, still based on antiquity. The subject is placed uncompromisingly at the picture plane, with distinct emphasis on the sexuality of the woman.  What is different is the clarity and the linear aspect of the painting style, the softened colors, and the placid, accepting, non-confrontational depiction of the woman.    Klimt will now begin to juxtapose flat, decorative passages – between 50 and 95% of the image – to the fully modeled, unstylized, naturalistic depiction of the human figure in the remainder of the image.  Baby; Cradle (1917) is a flat color patch of a triangle that only recedes into space when we see the foreshortened baby’s face at the apex.  But for that one thing, the painting is entirely flat and on the surface of the picture plane.   European artists in general, and Viennese artists in particular, were investigating new approaches to the depiction of space.  Manet flattened his Fifer, and van Gogh made you look at the paint on the surface of the canvas, while Cezanne made you balance between surface effects and recession into space.  Then in 1906 Braque and Picasso’s theoretical discussions about the relationship between form and space become concrete in Picasso’s depiction of five women in a Barcelona brothel.  The gauntlet has been thrown down.  The post-1906 style of these Viennese artists has to be seen…
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