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I resisted the idea of writing about Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection at the Met Breuer because I’ve published two pieces on Egon Schiele within the past two years, one in June and the other in April 2017. Both covered blockbuster retrospectives organized by Viennese museums to commemorate the centennial of the artist’s death, and each offered a very different perspective on his work. The first, at the Albertina, was a chronological accounting of his drawings, and the second, at the Leopold, was a thematic survey weighted toward his paintings. Prior to these two, in November 2014, I had written a review of Schiele’s portraits at New York’s Neue Galerie.
But here we are again, less for the sake of Schiele than for what he and fellow Austrian Expressionist Gustav Klimt represent vis-à-vis their exhibition-mate, Pablo Picasso. Ignoring, for a moment, the differences between Klimt and Schiele, what they do share is so at odds with Picasso’s shape-shifting output that their joint billing seems aimed not so much at addressing the treatment of the naked body at the dawn of Modernism, but rather at pegging Klimt and Schiele’s centennial to an even bigger box-office draw.
The exhibition’s introductory wall text doesn’t do much to explain the logic of the selection beyond its provenance in the collection (bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1982) of Scofield Thayer — the co-owner and editor of Dial, the influential American journal of avant-garde art and literature — who bought art that fascinated him with little attention to its market value:
While Pablo Picasso’s work had been shown in America, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele were unknown in this country at that time [the early 1920s]. Both artists were remarkable for their frank portrayals of female nudity and sexuality. Indifferent to cultural norms, they were committed to capturing exactly what they saw in its stark, unadorned, and, to some, shocking essence.
The 53 drawings and paintings by this unholy trinity span 20 years, from 1903 to 1923. The offerings by Klimt and Schiele (which end, obviously, in 1918, the year of their deaths from the Spanish flu) are installed alongside each other in the exhibition’s large entrance gallery, while Picasso fills a room of his own on the other side of the wall. The physical layout, however, serves to throw into relief the crucial difference between Klimt and Schiele, while underscoring their incompatibility with Picasso.
From his stately, heavily symbolic Beethoven Frieze (1902) to the society portraits that effervesce into pure sensuality in the last decade of his life, Klimt seemed determined to perpetuate classicism’s symmetry and balance despite the convulsions wracking the first two decades of the 20th century.
Sitting on the opposite end of the generational divide, Schiele, who injected his self-portrait drawings with grotesque, even freakish distortions and crammed his paintings with densely rendered, vertiginous forms, appeared hellbent on destroying it.
Picasso, who was almost nine years older than Schiele but whose career lasted twice as long as Klimt’s, is credited with both destroying and restoring the Western tradition of image-making. But thanks to Thayer’s disdain of abstract art, the destruction part doesn’t make an appearance in his collection.
Made over the course of two decades, the works by Picasso consist of two unrelated groups. In the first, dating from 1903 to 1908, encompassing the artist’s Blue, Rose, and Iberian — that is to say, pre-Cubist — Periods, there are three drawings of nudes, one gouache of horses and riders, one drypoint of same, and two oil paintings (a soft-core memory-tableau of a prostitute administering oral sex on the artist as a moon-faced teenager, and a portrait of a nonagenarian innkeeper — one of several departures from the exhibition’s focus on the nude).
The second group, six drawings made between 1920 and 1923, hail from the artist’s Neo-Classical phase, which was part of a general “return to order” in culture and the arts following the ravages of World War I, a predominantly conservative movement that set the stage for the imperial styles of Nazism and Italian Fascism.
The exclusion of Cubism from the most crucial 20 years of the artist’s career creates a curious framework for the work of the two Austrians, whose drawings, despite their stylizations (and Schiele’s drawings are much more stylized than Klimt’s, while the opposite is true of their paintings), are graphic evidence of an artist grappling with what is directly in front of him.
Schiele’s declarative, sinuous contours, fixing the body to the page, couldn’t be farther from Klimt’s whispery, tremulous lines that seem to vanish, like a moment in time, before our eyes, yet the drawings of the two artists represent a consistency of vision. In contrast, Picasso’s work quickly and famously takes a much more varied approach in both medium and influence — a restlessness born of teeming ideas, but also one that would skate across the surface if not for the artist’s profound grasp of volumetric form.
The Cubist chunk that has gone missing from Picasso’s portfolio isolates the two early phases of his career, leaving them if not quite irreconcilable, then distinctly distanced from each other. One chronicles youthful exploration, open to both observation and imagination, while the other — in line with society’s “return to order” retrenchment — derives entirely from art history.
This is not to take away from the beauty of the works. The early gouache, “The Watering Place” (1905-06), and the charcoal drawing “Old Man and Youth” (1906) achieve a tender classicism — Ingres by way of Degas — while the later chalk drawing, “Head of a Woman” (1922), is an intoxicating mix of sculptural rigor and sentimental decadence. Yet Picasso’s youthful efforts never achieve the scorching power of the drawings Schiele did at the same age, nor did he, at any stage of his career, come close to the velvety eroticism Klimt infuses into his ghostly croquis.
Tastes change and what matters in an artist’s oeuvre fluctuates over time. Picasso is reflexively considered the colossus of 20th-century art, and while it would be inaccurate to call Klimt and Schiele marginal by comparison, they have never played a decisive role in the now debunked Modernist narrative that wends its way from the School of Paris through Conceptualism and the End of Art.
But in the summer of 2018, roaming among the pictures of nudes by these three artists — humanity literally stripped bare — the lacerating visions of the Viennese painters turn Picasso’s Neo-Classicism increasingly frivolous. Perhaps our own social retrenchment has sharpened our awareness of nostalgia’s platitudes and falsities. And perhaps it has heightened our craving to repel its fabrications with a good, hard dose of reality.
Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection continues at The Met Breuer (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through October 7.