by Maria Porges
Painter Gustav Klimt (1840-1917) and sculptor Auguste Rodin (1862-1918) met only once, at the Vienna Secession’s “Beethoven Exhibition” in 1902. Though both were famous proponents of avant-garde ideas, they were from different generations and cultures. Rodin, regarded as the “Parisian Michelangelo,” was deeply admired by Klimt and his fellow Secessionists, who had left the (older and more conventional) Austrian Artist’s Union to explore more progressive ideas.
Considering the seemingly inescapable influence of Klimt’s art in present-day Austrian culture — decorative motifs based on his work are said to be as ubiquitous there as Impressionist waterlilies are in Paris — it’s hard to imagine the artist as a revolutionary, but– like Rodin—that was once the case. In Klimt and Rodin: an Artistic Encounter, the Legion of Honor brings these two back together again, at the 100-year anniversary of both of their deaths, placing two and three-dimensional works in juxtapositions that both accentuate common modernist aims and, at the same time, clarify the gulf that separates the two men. What seems at first to be common ground —the invocation of sensuality through a highly idiosyncratic and immediately recognizable portrayal of the body — becomes, on closer examination, a dialogue about both affinities and differences.
The exchange is fascinating, and would be even more so if there were actually enough works by Klimt to fully flesh out the comparison. Still, this is the first West Coast show to include paintings by the Austrian artist — the Getty had a drawing show in 2012 — and includes many works that have never been exhibited in the US before. It’s best to savor what’s there rather than bemoan what’s not.
To clarify the perimeter of the show and help viewers find all of the Klimt/Rodin pairings and comparisons on view in six galleries — in three large and three small rooms— the floors in these areas have been temporarily covered with gray carpeting. Though slightly odd and possibly a first for the Legion of Honor, this seems like a pragmatic solution to traffic issues, if nothing else. Two shows earlier this year that featured contemporary artist’s work in dialogue with Rodin’s — namely, Urs Fischer and Sarah Lucas — involved a certain amount of hunting for the works on display (and, no doubt, asking guards endlessly where the pieces were, until they were driven to distraction). If you fully explore the carpeted areas you know you are going see the whole show, including a wall of drawings and watercolors hung in one of the Legion’s period rooms, where the low lighting is appropriate for these delicate works.
This is one of the places where works from the two artists work meet most directly. Drawing was a crucial part of daily practice for both, and three watercolor sketches by Rodin portray the female figure with a virtuosic economy. One of these, Standing Female Nude (1915) is half covered with a lengthy inscription, worth reading because of the fascinating information it conveys. Dedicated by Rodin supporter Loie Fuller to Eugene Rudin (who with his father, cast Rodin’s work in bronze) it tells how Fuller organized and placed on tour a show of Rodin’s work to the US in 1902, only to see “the Master’s” work “rejected” by the American public and institutions. (In actuality, Rodin had by that time a number of important American patrons.) The inscription goes on to relate that it was not until the year before Rodin’s death that an American would dedicate herself to founding a museum in his honor: Alma Spreckels, the driving force behind the Legion of Honor.
Oddly, the inscription, dated 1927, describes the drawing being given as a gift by one Rodin supporter to another as a “rare souvenir.” In fact, some 10,000 works on paper by Rodin survive today. Klimt, though far less prolific, is well known for his startlingly explicit sketches of female nudes, several of which can be seen here, side-by-side with Rodin’s (erotic/ pornographic) study Nude with legs spread. Additional drawings have been installed in the cases in the two tiny hallway spaces that adjoin the main gallery.
The rest of the show is arranged thematically in the three large galleries. The first introduces the Vienna Secession. Klimt, acclaimed from a young age for accomplished if academic work, was a founding member of the group in 1897. His artistic journey from Salon painter to avante gardist can be traced in this room, from the somewhat saccharine Two Girls with Oleander (1890-92), through the slightly unconventional Portrait of Sonia Knips (1898), in which Klimt first experimented with a life-sized figure and the square format he often used in later works. The startlingly realist Nuda Veritas (1899) completes the transformation, with her odd, decidedly unidealized body and vivid thatch of red pubic hair. She is deliberately paired with Age of Bronze, Rodin’s breakthrough work of realism from 1877, hammering in the point that Klimt was indebted to the older artist’s pioneering work. Maquettes and a photograph representing Rodin’s 1901 exhibition in Vienna are nearby.
The Secessionists had voted Rodin in as a “corresponding” member of their group in 1898 and included his work in their shows from that year on. Rodin did not attend either the Secessionist shows or his 1901 Vienna exhibition. In the end, his single appearance in the Austrian capital in 1902 was more an accident of transportation than anything else: the shortest path back to Paris from Prague, site of another show, lay through the Vienna. Still, it was the source of great excitement.
The largest gallery in the museum, also the center of this exhibition, focuses in part on this visit by Rodin to the Secessionist show. That year, the exhibition took the great German composer Beethoven as its central theme, offering an interplay of sculpture, painting, decorative arts and music in a Gesamtkunstwerk —a total work of art. Klimt’s contribution was a 112-foot-long frieze around three walls. Spectacular “exhibition copies” of two panels of Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze are on view here (the original is too fragile to travel). By far the largest paintings in the room, they are extraordinary, and it is difficult to believe that most visitors will realize that they are not original works of art (particularly since some reviewers have already failed to make that distinction in their coverage of the show). Possibly some kind of photographic representation of the larger work that these images were copied from might have been helpful. Once again creating a relatively obvious bit of dialogue, a small version of Rodin’s Kiss faces the frieze panel that includes an embracing nude couple, their figures enclosed in a richly patterned arch of gold. As a whole, though, the sculpture the panels seem to most be in dialogue with is the enormous trio The Three Shades that dominates the far end of the gallery—both in terms of the level of ambition represented, and in allegorical subject matter.
Several other notable Klimt works in this room include The Virgin (1913), an astonishing tapestry of color and pattern that pictures a dreaming girl and six additional (semi-naked) female figures, lying together in a sumptuous, sensual heap of pattern and color. Across the room, in Baby (Cradle) (1918), the infant subject seems almost to be an afterthought, pushed up to the top edge of the painting– merely a pretext for painting the pile of exotic, expensive-looking bedclothes that threaten to envelop it. The Rodin Mother and Child nearby, while thematically related, could hardly be more different in its portrayal of familial affection.
The third gallery is less about “artistic encounter” than it is about parallel paths. Klimt’s landscapes and society portraits are strategically placed around the room, near various Rodin works. Pretty, mosaic-like pictures of Austrian scenery seem somewhat far afield from the two artist’s shared interests or concerns, but, as the text panel in the gallery points out, landscapes represented a sizeable percentage of the artist’s income, as they were received favorably by a wider audience than his other work. At his death, they represented a fifth of his total output, despite the fact that he only produced two a year. This last might be the most compelling reason that these works are included among the 30 paintings in the show. There just aren’t that many Klimts out there to borrow, especially when next year will be the centenary of the artist’s death and all of Austria will throw itself into complete Klimt mania.
Like landscapes, portraits were a reliable source of income—for both artists, in this case. Rodin’s commissions were not only for busts of society women like Eve Fairfax, but for public figures like politician Henri Rochefort or writer Victor Hugo, both represented here by handsome works in bronze and marble. Klimt, in contrast, was much more dependent on his wealthy patrons after his defection from state support to found the Secession. (Vienna lacked London and Paris’s gallery/dealer system, making artistic success outside of official channels that much more problematic.)While the society portraits in this show are not the best-known paintings within this part of Klimt’s work, they are striking examples—from the unfinished painting of the unhappy Ria Munik, a suicide at 24, to the ethereal full-length canvas of Gertrude Loew. What they all have in common is a relatively realistic and representational treatment of the subject’s features—important, when the sitter must be recognizable– combined with a much more experimental and avant-garde approach to the rest of the picture. Here it’s worth noting that 2016 exhibition at the Neue Galerie, “Klimt and the Women of Vienna’s Golden Age, 1900-1918,” highlighted this aspect of the artist’s work in a way that this exhibition, with its focus on the relationship between Klimt and Rodin, cannot.
The inclusion of a large photomural of Medicine (1889-1901) places an unfortunate emphasis on how few Klimt works there are, period. Part of a commission, this controversial Klimt work was included in the 1901 Secessionist exhibition, but later perished in a 1945 fire, set by retreating German SS forces to prevent it from falling into enemy hands, after it had previously been seized, in 1938, by the Nazis from its Jewish owners. The artist’s lifetime output was only about 400 paintings — roughly a single year’s work for Picasso, as Fine Arts Museum’s director Max Hollein quipped at the press preview. Still, this knowledge makes the 30 works presented in this show seem more significant, and the opportunity to examine them firsthand, that more precious. Even if the pretext of this show seems a bit precarious at times, in that examining the “encounter” of the two artists’ works can only go so far, the chance to see Klimt’s mastery of shimmering pattern and gorgeous, golden surfaces first hand is worth the high price of admission. And this entire year, with its four exhibitions of Rodin’s work—from a complete reinstallation of the museum’s holdings to the shows featuring dialogues with three other artists—has been a great opportunity to renew acquaintance with the French sculptor.
The reinvention of the Fine Arts Museums and in particular the Legion of Honor continues, with upcoming exhibitions of work by Lynn Herschman Leeson and Julian Schnabel, not to mention a historical exhibition centered around the rake Casanova that will include whole rooms of stuff — 18th century paintings, furnishings and even costumes. Stay tuned.
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“Klimt and Rodin: an Artistic Encounter” @ the Legion of Honor Museum through January 28, 2018.
About the Author:
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. The author of more than 100 exhibition catalog essays, she presently serves as an associate professor at California College of the Arts.