The history of art is just the history of men with paintbrushes and erections, and no one had more boners than Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. There must have been something in the air in turn-of-the-century Vienna, because think of these two and you think of non-stop, boobs-out, full-frontal erotic action. And this show of rarely seen and truly stunning drawings that have been dug out from the attic of Vienna’s Albertina Museum isn’t going to prove any of that wrong: this is not a PG-13 exhibition. But it is a brilliant one, because Schiele and Klimt were friends and mutual admirers, though Egon was 28 years younger than Gustav, and there’s a lot to take from seeing their still shocking work together.
Loads of the Klimt drawings are studies. You find three amazing versions of the floating woman from the ‘Medicine’ ceiling painting, the fierce gorgons from the ‘Beethoven Frieze’, the embracing lovers from ‘The Kiss’, all caught quickly, immediately, roughly. It’s a tiny window into Klimt’s process, and the birth of some of the most important works of art of the past two centuries.
Schiele’s drawings are finished things in themselves. With pencil and watercolour, he captures feverish visions of bodies that radiate, twist and pulsate. Schiele’s pen is less assured than Klimt’s, his lines skitter and judder as if drawn by a clenched fist dragged along the paper. It’s pure energy. Klimt is softer, more certain, a gentle flurry of marks that arc into the curves of life, while Schiele is all manic chaos.
This is a show full of bodies. Klimt chooses angular models, supernaturally beautiful women who he poses in ever more extreme ways to tell a story through the body. But Schiele creates his own angularity. His self-portraits are twisting compositions where his features jut and poke; he’s a mass of creases and folds, like he’s made of a thousand bits of barbed wire.
Women, though, are the real focus. Klimt’s are these pure objects to be admired for their classical perfection, all gorgeous curves and sleek lines. Schiele’s women are legs akimbo, throbbing with primal sexuality. The final Schiele works here are so gynaecologically confrontational, so thrusty and intense, that it’s like they’re from another planet to Klimt’s. Gustav sort of pales into conservative anonymity when confronted by the erotic maelstrom of Schiele’s work. You can almost smell the testosterone.
I mean…is it gross? A little. One Schiele work depicts a very underage girl. It’s stomach turning. But, as the wall panel states, the age of consent in Austria was 14, and we don’t know this girl’s exact age. I guess you have to take it at face – aesthetic – value and try to deal with the grossness.
And when you do that, you see that these are beautiful, stunning works of art by two great masters. It’s all so intense, so beautiful, so powerful, so intimate. It’s an amazing show to lose yourself in, it's just that you might need a shower after.