We like to think we know the artwork of Gustav Klimt; painted figures trapped in gold geometries that seem to exude from their flesh, nebulous and suspended in darkness. The images he painted are captivating, at times haunting. Yet it’s a shame that for so long the public has only been largely familiar with these works alone, as there is so much more to discover within the drawings of this master artist.
For the 150th anniversary of his birth, the Getty Center has assembled a rare treat – a stunning collection of over one hundred of his drawings. It is no hyperbole to say that these sketches are a true visual feast of anatomical studies. Here the spectator can truly appreciate the work of not merely a competent life drawing artist, but become lost in a lifetime of work dedicated to exploring the human form and how the body communicates emotion, passion, and ideas.
This particular exhibit is organized chronologically, and it’s exciting to witness the progression of Klimt’s style. Some of his earliest work, dating from the 1880s, is shockingly full of depth and three-dimensionality. Simple line work reveals a wealth of subtle lighting and shading, with highly articulated studies of amazing delicacy. Preparatory Drawing for the ‘Allegory of Sculpture’, with Studies of the Athena Parthenos at the Bottom, 1888 – 1889, contains just such a fascinating amount of detail. Merely within a sketch the difference between sculpted and living forms is clearly defined, both texturally and through lines. Walking around this room the spectator can see illustrated historical and mythological figures, popular with Historicism of the 1880s, act out their dramas with all the clarity of living actors. Necks and faces frequently twine away from the viewer, and a fragility of form is often combined with a strength of shading that seems to reflect the inner strength of the characters Klimt drew.
The second room of the gallery reveals a series of sketches from Klimt’s time as a Secession artist, where he and a group of other Austrian artists, sculptors, and architects began to explore their own interests – including Symbolism – devoid of direct historical influence. Here figures begin to appear and disappear within the page, almost a kind of drawn magic trick, as the artist seems to pull forms from the paper itself. Fish Blood, 1898, is an ink drawing where female figures recline and writhe above a plane that suggests water without definitively indicating it. Despite the absence of shading, the human forms clearly project forward in space within the illustration – a bold feat for any sparsely sketched figure to accomplish.
Klimt was a renowned muralist of his time, and the Beethoven Frieze, created for the Secession building in Vienna between 1901 – 1902, is reproduced at the top of the third room in the gallery with a series of sketches that were used to develop the piece below it. Inspired by the final choral movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the figures vary from the emaciated and sorrowful to the swarthy and ecstatic. The face of the Getty Center’s exhibition is Impurity, or Study of a Woman’s Head in Three-Quarter Profile for ‘Impurity’ in the ‘Beethoven Frieze’, 1901 – 1902. Her features are cunning, hungry and carnal, a fitting emblem for the themes of sensuality and female corporeality that entwine throughout much of Klimt’s work, and become even more prominent within the rest of the assembled collection.
From the Floating Women room on, Klimt clearly unifies eroticism and sensuality with figures softly worked in line. The Floating Women – a series of sketches exploring lesbian love and female sexuality – are drawn in light graphite, a vivid contrast from the stark black chalk of the sketches from the Beethoven Frieze. Female Nude Lying on Her Back, 1916 – 1917 illustrates a woman reaching for her clearly – but not crudely – displayed genitals. Despite this frankness which may disconcert some viewers, the illustrations are never exploitative or crass. The delicate lines depict sexuality directly, and it is often the expressions of the figures themselves, rather than their physical nudity, which seem explicit and truly naked.
The sketches in The Cycle of Life room grow increasingly spare in line work, and the generative potential of women comingles with themes of intimacy and the emotional world. Figures of men and women share lines that shiver and vibrate along the page. The aging body, as depicted in Transfer Sketch for The Three Ages of Women, about 1905, shows a remarkable closeness in physical proximity to youth and pregnancy, and all three forms complement each other naturally. There is a unity, a beautiful one-ness that blends the lines together and implies a quiet strength among the women depicted here. They could not be separated from one another, for to do so would greatly unbalance the careful composition, let alone the natural anatomic flow and implied distribution of weight from one form to another. In this way what the sketch represents becomes a part of the artwork itself; it is fascinating in its power and masterful execution.
The final room of the gallery featuring the artist’s work is the Klimt’s Sitters space. Here the shine of the graphite lines are again ghost-like, winking in and out of existence among the pages. Yet now his lines are unpredictable, shifting in direction and assuming different qualities with ease. There is a frenetic power in these figures, a raw energy to the unrestrained lines that become jagged or placid, broken or steady, at whim. These sketches are studies not only of the women he drew, but of his relationships with these women. Carnality is here once more, but so too is respect for the person knit to the flesh he drew. Eyes stare directly and unwaveringly forward in communion with the artist, and thus with the viewer – tying us more intimately than ever to his subjects and art.
Fans of animation will feel at home here – this is an exhibit all about the communicative potential of the human form. Lovers of anatomy will relish charting Klimt’s evolution of translating the human form into the linear form. Devotees of Klimt’s paintings will likewise be enchanted, as this is a chance to examine yet another facet of this sensual artist. It is difficult to not leave under a spell; Klimt created a world so well-defined that it persists in every dimension of the mind despite being limited to a flat plane of paper, and that is indeed the very magic of art.
To examine more of the artwork at the exhibit, click here.