For its spring exhibition, the Galerie St. Etienne has installed The Woman Question: Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka. As a showcase of figure draftsmanship, it’s a master class in linear economy. The quality of the titled artists’ draftsmanship is so well acknowledged that it’s taken for granted, so the gallery’s accompanying essay doesn’t risk belaboring the point: instead, it goes straight to sexual politics in Vienna a hundred years ago, then makes the case that things haven’t changed a lot since then. This is an awkward juggle, promoting art that objectifies women while simultaneously criticizing the artists for making it.
Among the three heavyweights, Klimt’s work best represents the dramatic class divisions in pre-war Vienna. His portraits of wealthy women now demand regal sums—a small early oil, Woman with Fur Collar, hints at his high-end future. But to Klimt’s patrons, the artist may have been just a gifted laborer. Friederike Maria Beer, the subject of a pencil study here, sniffed, “He even smelled like an animal.” Whether she was referring to pheromones or hygiene remains a mystery.
A prominent subset of Klimt’s drawings speaks to feral impulses, those which could be indulged in the studio with models from the demi-monde. His drawings of women pleasuring themselves are, like those by Schiele, plainly pornographic, and could be dismissed as such if they weren’t so well done and so truthful to the artist’s mode of being in the world. They take elegant delight in eroticism, and are offered without judgment or condescension; small wonder that he ruffled bourgeois feathers. The question of whether Klimt’s libidinous sketches celebrate or demean women is a knotty one, which I won’t pretend to answer. It’s worth underscoring that his erotica was a private endeavor—whether we stand before it as connoisseurs or voyeurs, we are eavesdropping. Even in the chastest circumstances the artist and model partake of a shared venture that functions best in a spirit of complicity. It’s safe to say that the women who posed for Klimt and Schiele did so of their own volition. Yet even when artist and model are in sync, the balance is tenuous. In the midst of a breakup, a girlfriend once went through my sketchbooks in order to remove and keep nudes she’d posed for during happier times. She wasn’t about to relinquish control of her image to the possibility of a public viewing at some point down the line, and though I had no such intention, I didn’t blame her.
As a teenager, Schiele’s sensibilities were too radical for the art schools in Vienna, and he sought out Klimt as a mentor. While nominally following the same dual channels, those of public portraitist and private sensualist, Schiele was less discrete. He acted out psycho-sexual traumas in his art, using his younger sister and underage girls as nude models. He was a frank exhibitionist whose self-portraits are both confessional and theatrical. Schiele seems to have had few filters between his perceptions and his expression, which got him into predictably hot water, including imprisonment as a pornographer. As with Klimt, there’s no doubting the sincerity or the brilliance of his work. Where the older artist’s line is unfailingly delicate, sinuous, the flow of Schiele’s calligraphy is electrified by desire and self-loathing. Schiele’s women are even more stylized than Klimt’s, and often more aggressive in posture. A pat way of describing the difference is that Klimt was a product of the nineteenth century, Schiele, the twentieth. Under Klimt’s guidance, art nouveau blossomed into glorious decadence; for Schiele, that decadence was a point of departure. For both, women are often sexual ciphers (there are exceptions here, in the guise of portrait studies that demanded a more urbane approach, or when Schiele drew his young bride, an exploration of mutual confusion). Their art was a reflection of the era’s attitudes. That’s not to absolve the artists, but it does provide necessary context.
Kokoschka, too, is sometimes a great draftsman, though not so responsive to sensuality. Still, he had his share of issues; when an affair with Alma Mahler ended, he made a manikin in her image and carried it around Vienna. ”Fear of adult female sexuality,” the gallery notes, “continued to haunt Kokoschka’s later nudes, which are largely devoid of erotic appeal.” His portraits, less precious and more animated than those of Klimt or Schiele, are among my favorite drawings in the show. In Annie Knize and Seated Female Nude, Facing Left, Kokoschka comes across as naturalistic in the Modersohn-Becker style. When treading into Schiele territory, as in Two Studies of Lilith Lang in Profile, the erotic charge is mitigated by the girl’s averted stance. It’s discomfiting territory nevertheless. This was, after all, the Vienna of Freud, with its oleo of decadence and burgeoning interest in psychology.
The show raises another question besides that of misogyny: what if the work was never intended to be seen? Historically, works on paper served preparatory or exploratory purposes. Most of the master drawings that are exhibited or reproduced were not meant for public dissemination. The same holds true for many of the drawings in The Woman Question, wherein we may vicariously, disapprovingly, or hypocritically pore over the artists’ private lives. The erstwhile and unconvincing interpretation of Klimt’s explicit drawings was that they evidenced his rejection of bourgeois morality; the more recent reading is that his figures were presented for the leering eye of the male viewer. Either art historical view, whether arising from patriarchal or feminist scholarship, is based on the implicit premise that the artist was drawing for us, when he was doing nothing of the sort. I’m not saying that an artist’s private work should be forever held under lock and key—if that were the case, the history of visual art would look vastly more barren. But the dispersal of said work is usually driven by motives independent of the artist’s intent, and we have a responsibility to understand the circumstances in which artwork was, and is, created. (A famous exception was Andrew Wyeth’s shrewd marketing of the ‘Helga’ series, which pretended to be naughty and private, complete with whispers of adultery, and was thus eagerly devoured by a happily gullible public).
We demand unfettered access to the personal lives of strangers, a curiosity no less intrusive than an artist’s obsessions. This creates a hall of mirrors that, at the least, suggests we level judgment very carefully: the artist violates decorum in the privacy of the studio, and we, in turn, violate the artist’s and model’s privacy when viewing the work created therein. The irony is that Klimt avoided public self-revelation, insisting we know him only through his paintings. “I have never painted a self-portrait,” he said, not imagining that we, assembling his drawings later, might paint one for him.
The Woman Question: Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka is on view at the Galerie St. Etienne through June 30, 2017.