Klimt/Schiele: Drawings from the Albertina Museum

2 November 2018, Royal Academy of Arts

Gustav Klimt, Beethoven Frieze, 1902, 30.48 x 3413.76, Vienna Secession Building, Austria

I first learned about Egon Schiele (1890-1918) during my internship at Christie's. When a work was submitted for auction, the first thing I had to do was check for that work in the catalogue raisonnés, which are annotated listings of an artist's complete works. I was working on the Impressionist department's works on paper sale of February 2014 and was looking for Female Nude Pulling up her Stockings, from 1918. In this year, Schiele had been planning a large scale project of murals to adorn a mausoleum with three concentric chambers. The project was never completed, but Jane Kallir's catalogue raisonné suggests that perhaps the series of drawings he made during this period were studies for this project.

Egon Schiele, Female Nude Pulling up Stockings, 1918, black crayon and pencil on paper, 45.4 x 30.5 cm. Private Collection.

Female nude is a very special character for me. She introduced me to a brand new artist and I have been fascinated by his work ever since. We actually called her the Butt Lady. She is also very unlike Schiele's usual nude models; the subject in this drawing is a voluptuous woman with her back against the viewer. She is bent down in the simple act of pulling up her stocking, seemingly completely oblivious that she is being observed. It actually sold well above the asking price; the estimate was between £80,000 to £120,000 and it was sold for nearly £300,000. It is also a remarkable example of the employment of colour in his works. An element of this appears further ahead in the exhibition at the Royal Academy, which features a series of gouache and watercolour drawings from roughly the same year.

1918 was also the year where both Schiele, at the age of 28, and his pregnant wife, Edith, died from the Spanish flue, just three months after the outbreak of World War I. However, in the short span of his life, Schiele became one of the most brilliant artists in Vienna, as well as one of its most controversial figures. In this exhibition, both Schiele and his mentor, Gustav Klimt, share the same position in the spotlight. However, during his life time, Schiele appears to have lived very much in the shadow of Klimt, who was nearly thirty years his senior and had already gained a prominent reputation as a respectable artist. Schiele, on the other hand, was known for his questionable reputation as a portrayer of prostitutes. He did not have the world wide recognition he does today, but is now regarded as an incredibly mysterious, controversial and fascinating person and artist to study.


Schiele moved to Vienna in 1906 to study at the Academy of Fine Arts. The city was a mix between traditional and modern customs and values. Klimt was his role model, famous since the 1880's for painting the ceiling of the buildings at the Ringstrabe, meaning "Ring Road", a circular boulevard set around the centre of Vienna. He gained notoriety for rejecting the conventional style of public commissions. Klimt was also a leading example of the Gesamtkunstwerk, a concept in which all forms of art - painting, architecture, design- functioned together. It was first used by the German philosopher, K. F. E. Trahndorff in 1827, and then addressed by the composer Richard Wagner in 1849, using theatre as an example in which all forms of creativity come together onto a single work of art. Klimt embraced this ideology and his work is a fantastic example of this; indeed, both Klimt and Schiele's works are a beautiful, physical reflection of the fluidity and movement of theatre and music through the energy, expression and materials employed to produce their figures.

Drawing unites all forms of art because it is "the medium of spontaneity and creativity". The exhibition draws the significance of this idea and embeds it into the galleries. The first room welcomes the visitor with two photographic portraits of Klimt, by Moritz Nahr in 1907, and Schiele, by Johannes Fisher in 1918. They seem quite representative of the artists' personalities; Klimt facing away from the camera, dressed immaculately and in sombre concentration, while Schiele questioningly studies the viewer directly. Despite the dramatical design of their subjects, the way the gallery has laid out the drawings gives a sense of peace; the ambiance is neutral to match the color of the drawings, made on pale and beige paper; pale grey walls and high, arched ceilings give the galleries an air of spaciousness.

A series of academic drawings and still lives are aligned on the left wall. The studies by Schiele, including A man in profile, 1910, hang side by side to some of Klimt's Studies for Shakespeare's Theatre, produced for the Shakespeare theatre between 1886 and 1887. The room presents an academic approach to drawing as oppose to the abstract compositions of his other works. These pieces grouped together is a beautiful representation of how much variety Schiele explored. His work is generally characterized by bold colours and heavy outlines but Reclining Nude Woman, 1908, has the composition typical of a drawing of a classical sculpture, very different to his usual nudes. Stylised Foliage and Blossoms, also 1908, is a complete contrast to the previous drawing despite being from the same year. The contrast shows an academic approach to drawing as oppose to the abstract composition of the other. This work also shows Schiele's influence of Juendstil, the German word for art nouveau, the period of art between 1890-1910 that rebelled against academic art and brought forward a new culture.

In 1897, a new art movement was founded by a group of artists in Vienna, headed by Klimt as the first president. It was called the Vienna Secession and its aim was to rejuvenate art in Austria and create a space for the development of modern art. Its motto, "to the age its art, to art its freedom" can still be read today on the façade of the Secession building. The group was greatly responsible for establishing international connections and improving their reputation across the globe. It established independent exhibitions, its own journal called Ver Sacrum, active between 1897 and 1903, and produced their own posters for advertisement and exhibition announcements.

Although it rejected academic, traditional forms of art it embraced the symbolic power of the classics. In this room, there are two colour lithographs made by Klimt. The first, a poster produced for the 18th secession exhibition of 1903-4, shows the head of a hoplite, a greek warrior. The figure wears a Corinthian helmet, with a closed visor and face protectors. The second is the design made in 1898 for the Ver Sacrum. The image in the background is that of a sculptural, muscled young man, who could easily be Michelangelo's David. On the foreground, another greek soldier, this time wearing the more modern Chalcidian helmet with an open visor.

These pieces also show the influence of Japanese art, both in the style and the procedure. The Secessionists implemented the use of Japanese handmade paper and the qualities provided by images made with woodcut printing techniques. The subjects are minimalistic and geometric, with a composition that concentrates the images on one side of the page and the words on another. As simple as these posters are, they are uniquely different to what previous Viennese art looked like and caused a sensation. Schiele was invited to curate the 49th exhibition, and he too produced posters. However, these were very different to the ones produced at the beginning of the Secession's foundation. In contrast to the hieratic figures of his predecessors, Schiele's composition of his 1918 lithograph for the exhibition fills the whole page. He uses bolds colours and very straight lines, but there is a sense of activity among the figures around the table. At the head of the table sits a figure that looks like his own silhouette. You can compare the tilt of the head and angular face of the figure to those of his self-portraits to see the resemblance.

Due to several disagreements with commercial representatives, Klimt resigned in 1905. However, his influence and strategic mind helped him continue to organize exhibitions like the Kunstchau (art show) of 1908. It was a spectacularly accomplished project, comprising of 50 exhibition rooms showcasing paintings, tile mosaics, glassware, silverware and furniture.

Klimt's Process Room

The next gallery is dedicated exclusively to Klimt. It groups a series of drawings that formed part of one of Klimt's most important projects. In 1894, three years before founding the Secession, Klimt was commissioned by the government to paint the ceiling of the University of Vienna. These works, known as the Faculty Paintings, comprised of three main paintings called Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence and were produced between 1900 and 1907. The gallery presents a collection of preparatory sketches for the final paintings and many are the only surviving images of the final pieces. The paintings were seized by the Germans upon the invasion of Austria during World War II and housed at the castle of Schloss Immendorf. Although there is no existing proof, it is generally thought that they were destroyed in a fire that burnt down the building upon the retreat of the SS troops.

The works explore the expressiveness of poses and gestures of the human body. This expressiveness becomes iconic in both Klimt's and Schiele's drawings, not just in the subjects' gestures, but in the way the figures are developed on the page. They became extremely controversial due to their eroticism and daring views on the human body, not to mention the rejection of traditional values of academics. In fact, the faculty members at the university attacked Klimt and condemned the works as pornographic and obscene. Such opposition threatened his professional career and Klimt was never allowed to teach again. He also refused to accept further commissions from the state and continued to develop his works with the characteristic freedom and unconventional style that makes them so fascinating today.

In between this scandal, in 1902, Klimt was working on a separate project; the Secession was preparing its 14th exhibition, inspired by the German composer Ludwig Von Beethoven. To commemorate the project, Klimt painted a frieze directly onto the surface of the ceiling of the Secession building, where it still remains today, in a climate controlled basement. The preparatory sketches at the Royal Academy illustrate the continuous interest in body expressions, gestures and poses. Three particular studies of the Gorgons hang in a group, but one of them really shocked me because of of the model's resemblance with Penelope Cruz!

Two drawings drew my attention because they are very similar to Klimt's famous painting, The Kiss. However, Standing Lovers, 1907-8, though the lovers are enrobed in an ornamental fabric in the similar stance as Klimt's Embracing Couple of 1901, it is actually a finished work of art in its own right thought to have been a gift for one of Klimt's close friends.

Schiele's Process Room

The exhibition proceeds into a second gallery that now returns to Schiele. In 1911, Schiele had his first solo exhibition in Vienna. Unlike Klimt, Schiele's drawings are not used as studies but as a final process of art. He often incorporated gouache and watercolor and this room is brighter and more expressive, just like the works themselves. Overall, his drawings continue to have a minimalist composition but remain strongly expressive. They also show a much closer relationship with the sitter compared to Klimt, perhaps due to the fact that all his sitters were usually either prostitutes and lovers.

This brought him trouble in 1912, when he was accused and imprisoned for child abduction and seduction - a young girl asked Klimt and his partner at the time, Walburga Neuzil, to take her to her grandmother's house. While there is no doubt today of the illegality of having intercourse with a minor today, the legal age for prostitution in Vienna at this time was 14 and a great majority of his models were prostitutes. Walburga herself was only 17. The girl's father reported him and he was accused, and since then, he gained notoriety and troubled reputation.

Egon Schiele, Black-haired Nude Girl, 1910, © The Albertina Museum, Vienna

I have to admit that as fascinating as I find his work, I am deeply disturbed by some of the watercolours. Black Haired Nude Girl portrays a girl with underdeveloped breasts and a disturbingly young face, yet the genitalia is heavily exaggerated and raw. It doesn't help either that I have been doing separate research on the Rape of Berlin during the Soviet liberation of the Nazis in 1945, but unfortunately it is a subject that remains taboo in a lot of countries, especially in Russia, who continues to deny accusations of this. Despite the accusations, Schiele continued with his sexually expressive works right up the end of his life.

The room also presents several drawings that seem quite uncharacteristic for Schiele because they do not feature any people. Many were made during his two weeks of imprisonment. They are drawn with the same skill he uses to interpret human figures, with twisted compositions and heavy, lead outlines. At the center of the room, Schiele's sketchbook from 1912-13 is on display. He was living in Krumau at this point with Walburga and two works depicting this part of Austria are shown. There drawings were made within seven year gap and the development of his style is evident; Field Landscape is one of the few works with a composition that fills the whole page, while Old gabled houses in Kumau is drawn across the center of the page with very bold lines and simple details.

Portraits and the erotic figure

After introducing each artist individually, the exhibition brings them together in the last two galleries. Both Klimt and Schiele used portraiture as a source of stable income while it was still a mode of representation. It slowly started to become out of fashion since the introduction of photography, but they both produced a large number of commissions and the sketches for final paintings are present in the exhibition. However, while Klimt was an established artist with a prominent position in high society, Schiele was an emerging artist with a questionable reputation. It was thanks to Klimt's support that Schiele was introduced to future patrons such as Friederick Maria Beer, a Viennese socialite with a passion for art. She was also one of the few society women to be portrayed by both Schiele, in 1914, and Klimt, two years later.

Klimt made many portraits for ladies of the upper class and the room shows a collection of various preparatory sketches, just as elegant and sophisticated as his sitters. One of the ladies was Serena Lederer, the wife of the powerful Industry Magnate, August Lederer, who was a close friend of Klimt. The artist introduced them to Schiele and the Lederer's became huge supporters of his work. A preparatory sketch for a portrait of Serena Lederer is displayed in the exhibition. The final painting, is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Both men had a long line of love affairs and illicit liaisons; Klimt never married, and is said to have fathered several illegitimate children through all his mistresses. Unlike Schiele, though, Klimt's reputation was somewhat salvaged because kept his affairs secret and led a mildly discreet love life. He did however make several sexually explicit drawings, as raw and expressive as Schiele's. He produced fifteen erotic drawings to illustrate Lucian's Dialogues of the Courtesans, written in 1907, a collection of antique erotic texts. There are also two editions of this book, today at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Schiele's process room is an immediate contrast to Klimt's; where Klimt's galleries are characteristically pale, with very faint outlines, and the works blend with the walls, Schiele's bold use of color in his series of minimalistic drawings have movement and bold outlines of the figures. Where Klimt's portraits of female nudes are quiet studies of gestures, solemn expressions and almost academic, Schiele produced raw representations of sexuality and expressiveness. However, the two styles also merge in this room, which studies the erotica explored by both artists through out different periods of their career.

Klimt/Schiele is on view at the Royal academy until February 3 2019. Book your tickets here.

Further information:

The Albertina Museum, founded in 1776, is a fantastic institution dedicated to the conservation and care of art works from all over the world, including all mediums. It houses over one million drawings. Because works on paper are so delicate, they cannot be displayed permanently. The Museum uses temporary exhibitions to alternate the presentation of their collection to visitors. The retrospective at the Royal Academy is a unique opportunity to see a part of their grand collection outside of Vienna.

Accessibility information

  • 100% accessible, with lift access and completely flat, parquet floors

  • All art work information at eye level for wheel chair users

  • Large print books in every room

Photo credits:

All images have been obtained from online sources from the Albertina Museum, the Royal Academy and museums around the globe of paintings I have featured in this piece. I have ensured the information is as accurate as possible, but please contact me should anything be misleading.

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