Friday, October 30, 2015

The Women of Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka

22 October to 28 February 2016

Around the turn of the twentieth century, the traditional relationship between the sexes was challenged by a series of sweeping social, economic and philosophical changes. The incipient move toward gender parity provoked vehement counter-arguments on the part of popular theorists such as Otto Weininger. On the other hand, to the extent that both men and women wished to escape from the confining moral taboos of the nineteenth century, sexual liberation may be viewed as a shared goal. The more forthright acknowledgment of male and female sexual desire sent thrills and chills through early twentieth-century Austrian art, infusing the work of the nation’s leading artists with a mix of terror and exhilaration. 

Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka each approached what was then commonly known as the “woman question” in slightly different, albeit overlapping, ways. The Women of Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka explores these differences and similarities in depth, in the process providing new insights into early twentieth-century gender relations and the origins of modern sexual identity. Organized both chronologically and thematically, the exhibition focuses on four principal subject groupings: portraiture; mothers and children; couples; the nude. 

It is easy to understand why Klimt’s portraits—sumptuous, elegant and brilliantly colored—were popular with Viennese society ladies. But the artist’s richly ornamented surfaces almost completely obscured the sitters’ personalities. Schiele and Kokoschka turned this decorative formula inside out, thrusting their subjects into a pictorial void. In the process, they forced a confrontation with the existential anxiety that had been concealed by Klimt’s horror vacui. Defying the then-prevalent contention that women lack souls, Schiele and Kokoschka forged a new, modern form of psychological portraiture.

The mother and child, one of the oldest subjects in Western religious art, was likewise transformed by the pressures of fin-de-siècle sexual politics. In the popular imagination, females were categorized either as “Madonnas” (chaste and maternal) or “whores” (sexually voracious predators). Klimt and Schiele subverted this dichotomy by depicting pregnant nudes and naked mothers, thereby explicitly linking motherhood to female sexuality. Kokoschka, on the other hand, seemed really to imagine that maternity “cured” a woman of sexual promiscuity. He obsessed about fathering a child with his lover, Alma Mahler, and in his art repeatedly allegorized her as the Virgin Mary. 

Judging from their work, Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka shared a belief in romantic love: a union of soul-mates sealed by erotic passion. But whereas Klimt, in his paintings of couples, placed the subject on a lofty allegorical plane, the two Expressionists allowed personal experiences to inflect their work. Indeed, Schiele’s and Kokoschka’s evocations of relationships gone sour are often more emotionally compelling than their renderings of idealized, happy lovers. Because males and females were at the time deemed opposites, the two could not be comfortably joined. 
Traditionally, the goal of the female nude in Western art has been to control and subdue the subject’s innate eroticism through a process of ordering and idealization. At the beginning of the last century, men’s fear of female sexuality was expressed in the concept of the femme fatale, one of Klimt’s recurring subjects. While these brazen, provocative women were controversial in their day, overall there is little in the artist’s work to upset the primacy of the male gaze. Klimt’s nudes are seductively beautiful, and in many of his most explicit erotic drawings they are passive almost to the point of unconsciousness. 

By comparison, Schiele’s and Kokoschka’s nudes are far more abrasive. Angular lines subvert their inviting curves, and erratic cropping creates an aura of unease. Unlike classical nudes, these women often seem aware that they are being watched, and at times they appear none too pleased. Most radical of all is Schiele’s propensity for depicting recumbent women vertically, fostering a sense of confrontational engagement entirely at odds with the aesthetics of the traditional nude. Schiele’s and Kokoschka’s nudes, like Klimt’s, convey an undercurrent of fear. It would not be accurate to call any of these artists feminists. Nevertheless, all three acknowledged female sexual autonomy to a degree that was at the time unprecedented. 

Egon Schiele, The Embrace (Lovers II), 1917
Oil on canvas
100 x 170 cm
© Belvedere, Vienna

Egon Schiele, Kneeling Girls, 1911
Gouache, watercolour and pencil on paper
47.2 x 31.5 cm
© Private Collection, Courtesy Richard Nagy Ltd., London


Egon Schiele, The Red Host, 1911
Watercolour and pencil on paper
48.2 x 28.2 cm
© Private Collection, Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York

Egon Schiele, Edith Schiele in striped dress, 1915
Oil on canvas
180,2 x 110,1 cm
© Collection of the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag

Egon Schiele, Reclining woman with green stockings, 1917
Guache and black coal on paper
29.4 x 46 cm
Private Collection © Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York

Egon Schiele, Seated Woman in Violet Stockings, 1917
Gouache and black crayon on paper
29.6 x 44.2 cm
© Private Collection, Courtesy Richard Nagy Ltd., London

Egon Schiele, Mother with two children III, 1917
Gouache and black chalk on paper
150 x 159,8 cm
© Belvedere, Vienna


Egon Schiele, Portrait Gerti Schiele,1909
Oil, silver, gold-bronze paint, and pencil on canvas
139.5 x 140.5 cm
© 2015. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence


Egon Schiele, Cardinal and Nun, 1912
Oil on canvas
70 x 80,5 cm
© Leopold Museum, Vienna


Egon Schiele, Portrait of the Artist's Wife, Edith Schiele, 1918
Oil on canvas
139.8 x 109.8 cm
© Belvedere, Vienna


Gustav Klimt, Goldfish, 1901/02
Oil on canvas
181 x 67 cm
© Kunstmuseum Solothurn, Dübi-Müller-Stiftung, 1980


Gustav Klimt, Fritza Riedler, 1906
Oil on canvas
153 x 133 cm
© Belvedere, Vienna

Gustav Klimt, Eugenia (Mäda) Primavesi, 1913/14
Oil on canvas
140 x 85 cm
© Toyota Municipal Museum of Art

Oskar Kokoschka, Elisabeth Reitler, 1910
Oil on canvas
65 x 54 cm
Photo: Medienzentrum, Antje Zeis-Loi / Von der Heydt-Museum Wuppertal, © Fondation Oskar Kokoschka/ Bildrecht, Vienna, 2015


Oskar Kokoschka, Standing Female Nude (Alma Mahler), 1918
Oil on paper and canvas
180 x 85 cm
Private Collection, © Fondation Oskar Kokoschka / Bildrecht, Vienna, 2015, Photo: © Courtesy of Caroline Schmidt Fine Art LLC


Oskar Kokoschka, Martha Hirsch, 1909
Oil on canvas
88 x 70 cm
Private Collection, © Fondation Oskar Kokoschka/ Bildrecht, Vienna, 2015

Oskar Kokoschka, The Slave Girl, 1921
Oil on canvas
110.5 x 80 cm
Saint Louis Art Museum, © Fondation Oskar Kokoschka/ Bildrecht, Wien, 2015, Photo: © Saint Louis Art Museum

Oskar Kokoschka, Lovers with cat, 1917
Oil on canvas
93,5 x 130,5

© Kunsthaus Zürich, © Fondation Oskar Kokoschka/ Bildrecht, Wien, 2015, Photo: © Kunsthaus Zürich

Oskar Kokoschka, Dancing young girl in a blue dress, 1908
Watercolor, tempera and pencil on paper
44.8 x 31.5 cm
Private Collection, © Fondation Oskar Kokoschka/ Bildrecht, Vienna, 2015