I’ve always liked Klimt, most famous surely for The Kiss, a large reproduction of which hung on the wall in the house that I grew up in. When I had my first child I remember sending out a card featuring the charming maternal part of the Three Ages of Women. Schiele, meanwhile, equally talented, feels much darker. I’ve seen two joint exhibitions of their work. One was in Paris in 2018 at the incredible digital art museum Atelier des Lumières.
The work was recreated on a massive scale, set to music, and the images dissolved and were reassembled before our eyes. It sounded like it would be excellent, or cheesy, or some infernal combination of the two – but it worked brilliantly. Klimt was a perfect choice for this exercise in dematerialisation, because his art – as here with the Water Nymphs of 1899 – often seems to be in the process of simply melting into the air.
I was inspired, and bought a book on Klimt – whose work only achieved mass popularity in the 1960s – in the gift shop, but was then put off by all the French (bearing in mind I actually did French at degree level, go figure), and it still languishes unread in my book pile. Think of all the extra facts I could include if I only read the bloody thing.
Meanwhile my daughters found the exhibition a bit creepy, due to the dim lighting and, I think, that very immersiveness. And while Klimt’s work blown up to a massive scale is pure beauty, amplified – with its undulating curlicues and opulent gold leaf detailing – Schiele’s tortured, twisted figures were more disturbing.
The following year I went to see an exhibition of drawings by the same two artists, which had travelled from the Albertina Museum in Vienna, Austria, to London’s Royal Academy of Art. The drawings, as might be expected, were beautiful. However, the focus on young, gorgeous, barely adolescent girls made me wonder about those girl-women and what became of them. The exploitation was evident in cast-down eyes and shielding hair (#themtoo), as in the Klimt drawing below, although Schiele went in for more raw eroticism (see below). Schiele was also a fan of an agonised self-portrait, seemingly flayed, martyred (this is the man who even portrayed himself as Saint Sebastian), wrongly (maybe) imprisoned (owing to a sexual misconduct charge) and more or less crucified.
Although decades apart in age, both men died in the same year, Klimt in February 1918, following a stroke, and Schiele in October, a victim of the Spanish flu, which – unlike COVID 19 – was no respecter of youth. Schiele left behind an unfinished picture, The Family, which has been said by some to depict himself, his wife Edith and the child they were never to have. Laura Spinney suggests in her book on the Spanish flu pandemic that Schiele painted it following Edith’s death from the disease when six months’ pregnant, and that he followed her to the grave three days later. Such a frenzy of activity, while succumbing to a mortal illness, although romantic, sounds unlikely. Other sources suggest the painting actually features a sentimental depiction of his nephew Toni. Either way, Schiele’s is a tragic tale of curtailed talent.