Klimt, Picasso, Schiele at The Met Breuer
If I told you that the Metropolitan Museum of Art was presenting works on paper from three long-dead artists in their collection, you wouldn’t immediately think sex. However, Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection is an exhibition that revels in eroticism.
Organized by Met curator Sabine Rewald, Obsession contains about fifty pieces of provocative work that all come from Thayer’s collection. Gifted from the chic and cosmopolitan Scofield Thayer, these artworks were collected in just a few years in the early 1920s while he was living in Europe. The artworks in his collection numbered in the hundreds after this massive buying spree. In addition to this, Thayer essentially launched the work of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele into the American public’s imagination, who were unaware of the two Austrian masters.
The exhibition itself is a showcase for each of these artists. For example, Pablo Picasso’s contributions in this exhibition are wide ranging in style and subject. At this time, Picasso returned to more classical forms of figuration. Three Bathers by the Shore from 1920 is a rendition of classical western beauty with three Rubenesque women. However, the quality of the line is extremely economic and modern. Nudes for Picasso may appear erotic at times, but it was more of a template to explore new styles and technique. As the name of the exhibition may suggest, the nude was a mainstay in the hundreds of works Picasso created throughout his life.
Picasso may have used the nude as a jumping off point, but his Austrian peers handled the nude much differently. Klimt was one of the most significant members of the Vienna Secession, which provided non-academic artists with a platform. Klimt often used narrative and allegory, and could be described as Symbolist. However, the collective shunned labels. The nude was one of the most significant themes in Klimt’s work. He often used them symbolically, but he was radical in also showing the body in an openly sexual manner. His cloistered home and studio offered him the privacy to create his own world that resembled his paintings. Like snapshots, Klimt would draw models who appear languid and serene. Reclining Nude or Reclining Nude with Drapery show women who clearly are not goddesses or Biblical figures. These are modern women, and they are shown with real bodies, not idealized ones. The other fact of modernity is that these women are in states of sexual pleasure and clearly reveling in it.
Schiele is often considered Klimt’s protégé. The artists ran in the same circles, and Schiele had many thematic and stylistic qualities in common with Klimt. However, Schiele was less focused on allegories, and much more interested in the modern world. If Klimt was a Symbolist, Schiele was an Expressionist. His depictions of thin bodies (including his own) were often sexual and very intense. In the midst of World War One, Schiele was an artist of his time. The cultural and political illusions of the nineteenth century were being destroyed, and Schiele used this as fodder for his paintings and drawings. His works feel the most obsessive of the three, with the body always on display, almost painfully contorted and emaciated. His body of work is woefully small due to his premature death in 1918, but one can hardly imagine what he might have created as he matured. The raw energy in his work is startling, even now.