Review: Klimt/Schiele

November 9, 2018

The Royal Academy makes the bold, and probably wrong, decision to display drawings by these fearsomely influential artists as a double bill.

While the lives of Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt were certainly intertwined (as were their deaths; they passed away within months of each other, exactly 100 years ago), their attitude towards sketching was dramatically different. For Klimt it was largely a preparatory exercise, a precursor painting. For Schiele, it was the finished product.

You can see what the curators were thinking: Schiele was a protégé of Klimt, heavily influenced by the older man, especially in his early years. But displaying their works together feels like an academic exercise rather than a visual one.

Time and again Klimt’s light, ethereal works, typified by fine, exacting pencil-work, are eclipsed by the solid, heady works of Schiele.

In Klimt’s drawings of society women, you get an idea of the times. In Schiele’s portraits of teenage prostitutes and his own shrivelled genitals, you get an idea of how those times smelled.

Schiele’s exaggerated figures convey something of the animal nature of humanity. They show clothing rucked around thighs or ankles, as if the sitter had been caught in some guilty, depraved act. Others feature vivid flashes of red – glowing cheeks, swollen nipples, painful genitals. Yet these people shine with an inner light, their forms surrounded by a halo of white, lifting them from the paper.

Klimt, on the other hand, was happy to take the Viennese schilling to make beautiful paintings of posh ladies. And good on him – he also painted some of the most important works of the last century. Even his masturbating nudes – made not for display but for his, ahem, private collection – have a sensual, decorative quality.

Both, of course, are geniuses, and there are some fantastic works on display here. Just think of it as a chance to see Schiele at his best, with a few sketches by Klimt thrown in for good measure.