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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 in this context.
Baby by Klimt, Dead Mother by Schiele, all the nudes by Moser, and much of Kokoschka’s work deal with space by ignoring it or minimizing its importance. They do not set out, like Kandinsky, to eliminate space. Space and surface are meant to co-exist. But for these artists, Alberti’s perspectival rules of recession are ignored with impunity.
Schiele shares this pull to the surface. However he is clearly distinguished from the others because his figurative work is brutally confrontational and frequently menacing. The Man and Death (1910), The Hermit (1912) and Dead Mother (1910) treat subjects not found in the work of the other three artists. Indeed, his choice of subjects and his artistic attitude of tension, horror, and grief set him apart. You can fit him into the group on several counts, but he seems constitutionally incapable of full participation.
Kolomon Moser’s work is much prettier than Schiele’s. He is insistently classicizing. His images assert the central importance of the human figure, the classical nude, which he renders in well-modeled but simplified three-dimensionality. It’s by his colors that you shall know him, his use of a kind of cangiante colorism usually limited to a palette of three hues. He’ll use blue/yellow/purple or blue/red/orange, or blue/yellow/green. Less intense than Symbolist or Fauve colors, they are irrational nonetheless.
If Moser is prettier than Schiele and Schiele is harsher than Klimt, Kokoschka is less refined than them all. He seems to want to avoid any finished polish, any appearance of Beaux-Arts training. He is openly expressionistic in his depiction of emotions, and certainly in his application of paint – see Couple with Cat (1917). His canvases look like works in progress, where the application of paint and the scratched surface can make the figure seem scarred. The paintings frequently seem to be constructed like something done by a little boy in a hurry to finish his homework; see Veronica and the Holy Face (1909). That sense of considered chaos defines his style throughout his oeuvre.
Perhaps, now that you are forewarned, and I hope forearmed, you can view this confused but well-intentioned exhibition and enjoy the paintings displayed. You can revel in the wonderful pictures, and even ponder the intensity of the art. Just don’t expect much help from the exhibition itself.
Klimt, Schiele, Moser, Kokoschka; Vienna 1900.
At the Grand Palais, 3, avenue du Général-Eisenhower, 75008 Paris.
Tél. : 01 44 13 17 30
Metro Champs-Elysees – Clemenceau.
Mornings 10h00 (Wed. – Mon.) by reservation only (FNAC), after 13h00
Wed. – Mon. Admission open. Closes 20h00
Thurs. – Mon., Wed. 22h00.
Open admission doesn’t mean free
(10 euros without reservation; 8 euros reduced admission –
students, seniors), and the lines are very long. Until January 23, 2006.
Deb Markow’s web site is: www.artalks.com