Halfway through the J. Paul Getty Museum’s exhibition Gustav Klimt: The Magic of Line, viewers craned their necks back to take in Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze (1901–02). The monumental painting was reproduced some twenty feet off the ground in the museum’s lofty galleries. The installation approximated the original 1902 display in the Viennese Secession Building where Klimt and his collaborators paid homage to the composer. As one scans the work, gaunt, floating genii on the first wall give way to severe, cowering gorgons on the center panel and an enormous primate glowering dumbly out of a pile of auburn hair. On the final wall, a couple kisses before a chorus of angelic figures, embodying the liberation of humanity. The frieze juxtaposes pagan mythology, sexual union, and Christian redemption, setting figurative representation next to abstract, geometricized patterns; placing the most miserable next to the most euphoric of human expression; and creating a harmonious relationship between architecture, painting, and music. How did these disparate elements come together in a single work of art? Gustav Klimt: The Magic of Line sought to explain by way of Klimt’s drawings.
Klimt was little known in the United States until the 1960s, and since then most presentations of his work have been in New York. Even with the Klimtomania that drives museums to sell mugs and posters with details of his iconic painting, The Kiss (1908), the first comprehensive, monographic Klimt retrospective in the United States did not occur until 2008. The closest Los Angeles came to having a Klimt exhibition was in 2006 when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art placed five Klimt paintings on view. Gustav Klimt: The Magic of Line originated at the Albertina in Vienna under the direction of renowned Klimt scholar and author of the exhibition catalogue, Marian Bisanz-Prakken. Curator Lee Hendrix and assistant curator Edouard Kopp oversaw the installation in Los Angeles. The exhibition coincided with the 150th anniversary of Klimt’s birth and was complemented by a series of lectures and performances in addition to two related exhibitions at the Getty, Messerschmidt and Modernity and Works by Contemporaries of Gustav Klimt. Museums often shy away from large-scale loan exhibitions of works on paper owing to the fragility of the works and the strict limits on the duration of their display. By contrast, the Getty’s department of drawings spared no expense to gather 170 exquisite, light-sensitive works from collections across the globe to display in a city that has never been exposed to anything quite like them.
The exhibition proved just how difficult it is to discuss Klimt’s modernism without stretching modernism into a catchall term. Bisanz-Prakken championed Klimt as “the leading figure of the modern movement in the arts” (12) at the turn-of-the-century. She defended this claim in terms of Klimt’s grid-like compositions, use of bare canvas and negative space, and modern ideal of slenderness. The simulation of movement in a still image and the attempt to illustrate an inner, subconscious experience also appear to presage much of twentieth-century art. In their diversity, these quintessential characteristics of modern art point to the indeterminacy of the term modernism within the history of art. They also follow from the exhibition’s focus on form and technique. Turning to the content of Klimt’s graphic oeuvre, one notices another modernist trope in abundance, namely music. In the final decade of Klimt’s life, music was the force that propelled visual artists like Wassily Kandinsky into the realm of abstraction.
Throughout his career Klimt grappled with the visual depiction of sound. One of the first works in the galleries was a watercolor and gouache study for The Auditorium of the Old Burgtheater (1888–89). Klimt spent an entire season observing from the audience of the hall in order to transfer the experience of concertgoers onto a flat and silent surface. The result is a feat of synesthesia, uncannily evoking pre-concert chatter and musical instruments tuning in the pit. Not incidentally, the exhibition’s wall text, audio-guide, and catalogue repeatedly invoked the term lyricism, an oblique reference to the vocal recitation of poetry. Klimt’s desire to imbue his line with lyricism was nowhere more apparent than in his work on the Beethoven Frieze. The Vienna Secession response to Beethoven included twenty-one painters, sculptors, designers, and architects. With the exception of a statue by Max Klinger, the works in the Secession exhibition conformed to the architecture of the room, creating a harmonious, synthetic environment that subordinated its component parts to the whole effect. Klimt based his program for the mural on Richard Wagner’s interpretation of the redemptive impulse in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Wagner’s artistic theories were well known in Klimt’s circles, and the composer’s Gesamtkunstwerk had much in common with Klimt’s ideal of Raumkunst, a fusion of art’s various media and dimensions. In Klimt’s early historicist work, to which the exhibition dedicated the substantial first gallery, the artist focused on mortals, gods, and monuments, quoting liberally from antiquity, quite in the manner of Wagner, who also looked to ancient Greece as a model upon which the present could build and eventually surpass. The Secession’s periodical, entitled Ver Sacrum, essentially made the same claim for the rebirth of culture heralded by Vienna at the turn of the century.
Though the exhibition tended primarily to drawings, as its subtitle, “The Magic of Line,” suggested, Klimt often conceived of the drawings in relation to his paintings. The paintings had a conspicuous presence within the exhibition without in fact being present. The oscillating discussion of painting and drawing in the wall text illuminated Klimt’s differential deployment of line in each media. Bisanz-Prakken’s choice of drawings coupled with her peripheral discussion of painting suggested that the crystalline nature of line in the former is precisely what enabled Klimt to loosen and, eventually, to abandon solid form and volume in his painting. In the course of making this visual argument, Bisanz-Prakken succeeded in presenting Klimt’s graphic works as both contingent on the paintings for which they prepared the artist and autonomous works of art in their own right.
The exhibition’s subdivision into historicism and early symbolism, modernism and secession, the golden style, and the late years was intended to showcase the breadth of Klimt’s work as a draftsman. The heavy focus on portraits of women, however, exaggerated Klimt’s sexuality and obscured other facets of his artistic persona. This is not to say that Klimt’s work lacks for erotic charge. He certainly drew female sitters clothed, unclothed, masturbating, copulating, and, most famously, sitting frontally with slightly parted lips in high-fashion gossamer dresses. In the black chalk study for Fritza Riedler (1904), the sitter’s right eye was either erased or never rendered in the first place, suggesting Klimt’s sovereignty over his subjects. In those drawings that feature men alongside women, the male is seen from behind, dominating the woman sexually but denied visible facial features. In Gustav Klimt: The Ronald S. Lauder and Serge Sabarsky Collections (New York: Neue Galerie, 2008), Emily Braun argued that Klimt’s treatment of women was not aggressive or chauvinistic but naturalistic, even biological, replete with references to the writings of Charles Darwin and Ernst Haeckel. Because the Getty’s grouping of works promoted the sexualized cliché of Klimt, one expected the wall text or catalogue to tend to the significance of Klimt’s particular treatment of the female body. Bisanz-Prakken made passing references to mystical theories of the origin of life but did nothing to lay to rest timeworn charges of Klimt as a womanizing playboy. Had the exhibition included a broader sampling of Klimt’s male portraits, viewers might have walked away with a more balanced conception of the artist. Similarly, the focus on portraiture suggested to viewers that Klimt never took to the outdoors to sketch and that landscape was marginal to his career. As Carl Schorske pointed out in Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980), landscape actually increased in importance for Klimt in the last fifteen years of his life.
Gustav Klimt: The Magic of Line should be commended for the way it compelled viewers to look at the drawings closely, carefully, and slowly. By the same token, it was this focus on the work’s formal traits that eclipsed philosophical and historical matters integral to Klimt’s practice. For instance, Klimt’s preparatory drawings for the Faculty Paintings, Philosophy (1900) and Medicine (1901), provocatively denounce scientific thought and liberal values such as rationality. Bisanz-Prakken discussed the way in which Klimt’s Symbolism brought his work into the realms of the ethereal and mythological, drawing the artist further and further from the “traditional, positivist spirit” (75), but stopped short of actually revealing Klimt’s philosophical context. Kevin Karnes contends that Klimt’s references to death come from Arthur Schopenhauer, handed down to the Secessionists by Wagner (“Wagner, Klimt, and the Metaphysics of Creativity in fin-de-siècle Vienna,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 62, no. 3 [Fall 2009]: 647–97). David Luft similarly notes that while many of Klimt’s contemporaries were ignorant of the writings of Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, Klimt blatantly drew on them for inspiration (Eros and Inwardness in Vienna: Weininger, Musil, Doderer, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003). These scholars look to Klimt’s intellectual context to explain Klimt’s aesthetic decisions, while Bisanz-Prakken primarily explained them by means of style and technique. In discussing Schubert at the Piano (1899) Bisanz-Prakken attended at length to the sharply contrasting passages of light and shadow and the free use of line but did not inform viewers that Schubert had in fact died seventy years before Klimt completed the work. Lost was an opportunity to appreciate Klimt’s abrupt anachronism and affirmation of Schubert’s prescient modernism. Gustav Klimt: The Magic of Line was a visual feast devoured by visitors, yet a closer attention to the work’s historical and philosophical undercurrents would better enable these drawings to take their place alongside Klimt’s paintings as masterpieces of modernism.