Schiele and Klimt: the Academy’s Battle of Comparison

Alfie Robinson 19 January 2019
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I think we are all familiar with the principle of scientific method – that when comparing two things, there should not be a factor that distorts only one of the variables. In common sense, this gives us the following wisdom: two things being compared should actually be comparable. Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele are very frequently compared, by convention. And not without reason: the careers of the two overlap at the turn of the twentieth century, the latter is known to have looked up to the former, and his early work was heavily influenced by him. After some evocative sepia and black-and-white photographs of the two Viennese personalities, this early influence is one of the things that confronts the viewer in the Royal Academy. The first nude displayed, in spite of appearances, is actually by Schiele, but is intensely derivative of the art nouveau giant, Klimt. Yet once Schiele reached his artistic maturity, a considerable mismatch between these two artists is revealed. The basic problem is that Schiele’s works in the show are really highly considered, finished paintings, on paper. Klimt’s works are drawings proper, that is, preparatory studies, the sort of things that one could only produce after a hefty academic training, but drawings nonetheless.

Equally, the overall tenor of Klimt’s work is at odds with Schiele’s. And this is no more evident than with Schiele’s most notable works, his erotic paintings. Schiele’s paintings are famously explicit, to a degree that is well beyond Klimt’s offerings. Indeed it has to be said that Schiele’s paintings, now at the centenary mark, are more explicit than almost all images that can be seen within an art gallery. Yes, there are works like Jeff Koons’ ‘Made in Heaven’ series, but the sheer gloss of these images negates any impressive effect. A closer contender would be the figurative works of Tracey Emin. In equal and opposite measure, however, Emin’s drawings are so interminably scratchy that their subject hides behind a veil of meaningless texture. They are the twee conclusions of someone trying desperately to shock. And it is odd that, a few years ago, this artist decided to show her work alongside Schiele’s. This seems to be a huge own-goal, since to my eye, all this comparison would show is that, to arrive at Emin’s work, all one has to do is subtract all visual content from the senior artist, and leave only the genitals. A hundred years earlier, Schiele both produced some of the most formally taut and interesting compositions of Expressionism, and represented women who do actively confront the viewer. The unusual dynamic between the viewer and the sitters of Schiele’s works has been much discussed, and I do not have anything to add. It is easy to make an image erotic. What is much harder is to do is create an illusion of human agency in two dimensions. Of course the vast majority of artists before and after Schiele have failed to do this, Emin included.

Back to Klimt. On the other hand, Klimt’s drawings seem somewhat easy going. It would be unfair to describe them as tame, since they are still something beyond the euphemistic hypocrisy of nudes earlier in time. The exhibition labels seem to try and argue otherwise: one describes a drawing as ‘Reclining Nude With Legs Raised’, when it undeniably shows its subject masturbating. It is not inaccurate, but it is not sufficient either, and it hardly grasps the point of the image. Still, Klimt’s works have a healthy academic smokescreen about them. Frequently there is confidently executed and difficult foreshortening, in one instance di sotto in su, ‘from below, up’. This particular device instantly cons us into thinking of prestigious mural works like Mantegna’s ceiling of the Mantuan Palazzo Ducale, thus putting our puritanism at ease. More pointedly, there is simply less variety in the forms Klimt seems to have taken notice of. In Schiele, elbows can be right angular, or pyramidal, hands can look like mousetraps. In Klimt, thighs are always trapezoidal, breasts basically spherical. This is not to say that Klimt is idealising reality, it is more likely that Schiele is distorting it to make it as peculiar as possible, but these distortions have to come from initial observations, and the creative act of emphasising them.

In the light of this, and in particular with the above question of the (perceived) agency of his sitters, it is very easy indeed to put Schiele above Klimt as an aesthetic and moral forward thinker. This would be a mistake. We might like to speculate about Schiele’s values, but this hits the brick wall of an uncomfortable fact. Schiele made explicit images of girls who are, by any modern measure, hugely underage. There are two such depictions in the exhibition, and they are nauseating. This fact of course makes any positive assessment of the ‘overall’ Schiele dissonant. And if we are to take the view that an ethic of Schiele’s work can be judged, then to herald the positives of his images, but at the same time ignore the exploitation of juvenile people, would be wrong.

The question of whether Klimt was aesthetically a reactionary compared to Schiele is moot. It is more interesting to treat this historically obvious but formally troublesome comparison as giving a very particular cross-section. If a curator sets up two artists, one who uses works on paper as his main creative output, and the other just as preparatory studies (an approach essentially unchanged from the fifteenth century), is it possible to have a neutral critical view? Does it instead just reveal whether our tastes will be progressive or traditionalist? And is it possible to make an argument that one or the other approaches is superior? Go to this exhibition and work out who is the better artist. And then work out whether you are being channeled towards this conclusion.