NEW YORK — It is hard to say who is my favorite visual artist — one might as well ask which is my favorite book, to which I reply that it depends on which day I am asked. Despite that, there are several that always appear on the list in some order – Paul Klee, Willem de Kooning, Caravaggio, Franz Kline, JMW Turner — see the list is endless. But I never miss a chance to see any show with drawings by Egon Schiele. Fortunately, I made it to New York the final week of “The Woman Question: Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka,” a small exhibition at the always-wonderful Galerie St. Etienne.
The gallery, not much larger than a reasonably-sized doctor’s waiting room, specializes in German and Austrian art. I make it a point to go every time I am in the city and I am never disappointed.
This show featured drawings and works on paper by the Austrian contemporaries. Of the three, Klimt has the highest profile with his sumptuously-patterned paintings — his painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer was the subject of the movie “The Lady in Gold” (one of his sketches for the painting is included in the show). His drawings are more immediate and show a different Klimt. His “Pregnant Woman and Man,” a 1903-04 drawing in blue crayon, is a beautifully rendered sketch that has intimacy and sweetness. “Standing Nude Girl With Bowed Head,” from 1902, is a demur side-view sketch of a young girl with a slightly protruding belly. There is a softness to the image, but her pose is deferential.
It should noted that the exhibition seeks to address fin-de-siecle Viennese intellectuals obsession with sex, and the Madonna/Whore question. There is an excellent essay on the gallery’s website which I encourage everyone to read. I am concerned here with the different styles of drawing among the three men.
Kokoschka is the more Expressionistic of the triumvirate, his paintings eschewing the slickness of his elder contemporary’s work. He did not have the classical training of Klimt, nor were his interactions with women as numerous as Klimt and Schiele who, the museum’s text argues, saw no difference between the roles of lover and model. Kokoschka had an affair with the most desirable woman in Vienna, Alma Mahler, wife of the composer Gustav.
Alma and Kokoschka’s first love, Lilith Lang, a fellow student at the Vienna Art School, were both above his station. His drawings of the women he loved were strangely aggressive and lack the smooth interpretation of Klimt.
The nude does not have the prominence in Kokoschka’s work that it does in Klimt or Schiele’s, and the musuem’s literature argues, “Fear of adult female sexuality continued to haunt Kokoschka’s later nudes, which are largely devoid of erotic appeal.”
Schiele, on the other hand, is quite a different animal. His line work is immaculate, bold and sure-handed, and each individual line is thing of beauty that goes on and on, way past the point where a lesser artist has picked up his pencil. One can follow an unbroken line from the neck to the wrist, from the thigh to the ankle — and each new line crackles sensuously.
While these women were objectified under the male gaze, there is also a power that emanates from their gaze. The museum’s essay, “Schiele was only twenty when he executed his first artistically mature works, and emotionally he was still an adolescent. Simultaneously terrified and enthralled by the erotic potency of his lover/models, the artist granted the female nude an unprecedented degree of autonomy.”
Schiele has no equal when it comes to pure drawing. His nudes are contorted, and sometimes they are almost pornographic, yet they never lose their dignity under the artist’s gaze.
I have long been a fan of Schiele, whose output is as prolific as any in his short career (he died of pneumonia at 28). His drawings are magnificent, his paintings are gorgeous, and his line work is something I have, vainly, sought to emulate my entire artistic career.
The most striking of the images in the entire exhibition is, ironically, not a nude, but a simple drawing of Elisabeth Lederer, from a well-connected Vienna family, whom Klimt had introduced to Schiele after the latter’s arrest and jailing on pornography charges in an effort to rehabilitate his reputation.
The linework, of course, is immaculate. She stares out slightly to the right with a bold confidence, her expression almost mischievous. This is a woman who is feisty, strong, confident. The minimal coloring perfectly accentuates the features. It is a portrait of a woman whose sexuality derives directly from the strength of the gaze.
The exhibition, which is an abbreviated version of one which Galerie St. Etienne co-director Jane Kallir curated for the Belvedere Museum, Vienna, in 2015-16, offered a wonderful glimpse into the three contemporaries who were pivotal parts of the Vienna Seccessionist movement.
Klimt died in 1918 of a stroke, and Schiele and his pregnant wife died in the 1918 pneumonia epidemic. Kokoschka lived to 1980 and became a well-respected giant of expressionism. Klimt’s reputation was cemented as the century progressed and Schiele’s reputation has grown in leaps and bounds over the past quarter century.
The trio is worth discovering and a great start would be the catalogue for the show, which is $60 but is great value for the 231 full-color illustrations.
And Galerie St. Etienne, located at 24 West 57th Street in New York, is a gem worth unearthing.