The sensitively rendered drawings currently on view at the Royal Academy allow visitors to peer into a pivotal moment in history, after which the world and its art never looked the same again. The works on paper by Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) and Egon Schiele (1890-1918) are complementary in the gallery space: there is a sense of familiarity, which undoubtedly stems from their work being hung opposite one another in exhibitions such as Berlin’s Weiner Kunstschau in 1916.
Klimt, almost thirty years Schiele’s senior, represents the beginning of the move away from conservative portrait painting towards a more expressive and erotic style of depicting the human form. There are hints of the mystical, medieval world of the Pre-Raphaelites in his preparatory sketches, in the study for ‘Medicine,’ c.1900.
This piece is not immediately outstanding; however, when understood within the historical context in which it was born, lived and then brutally murdered, it quickly becomes one of the most important works on show.
Klimt was commissioned to paint Medicine in 1894, by the Ministry of Culture for the new Great Hall of the University of Vienna. By the time he began working on the three monumental canvases depicting Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence, his opinions on painting styles had changed. When Medicine was unveiled to Viennese society, it caused an uproar among the university physicians.
In 1938, after spending almost three decades in the hands of Jewish private collection, the painting was seized by the Nazis. In May 1945, the painting was destroyed when retreating German SS forces set fire to the Schloss Immendorf, a castle in Lower Austria in which it was kept. All that remains is one monochrome photograph from its final exhibition in 1943 and a few preparatory sketches, the best of which is on view in this exhibition.
The reality of the brutal political context in Vienna during the early twentieth-century is visually personified in Schiele’s works on paper. Unlike Klimt, Schiele’s sketches are completed works, beautifully rendered with black crayon, watercolour and gouache. The delicacy Schiele employs to illustrate his nude figures opposes the graphic, uncompromising positions in which they are placed.
The fragile and skeletal rendering of the female form alludes to the hardships faced by the working class at the turn of the century. Similarly, hardship is redolent in his self-portraits which depict his signature, gaunt, near-death facial expression.
Schiele had at least two mirrors in his studio, which he used when experimenting with contortionist like poses. Here he depicts his body in a twisted pose dramatically splayed across the page, revealing his groin and genitals. The risks taken by Schiele in making such erotic drawings reveal a clear and controversial departure from conservative portraiture. Schiele and Klimt’s work together signify the undercurrent of Abstract, Expressionist and Surrealist painting that would emerge shortly after World War 1.
This year marks the centenary of the deaths of both artists, whose life and work has been commemorated in this drawing exhibition at the Royal Academy. Their influence and legacy are no longer overlooked, as due attention has been paid to their ground-breaking work done in a tumultuous time and space.