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Austrian painter Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) and his protégé Egon Schiele (1890-1918) bequeathed two inextricably linked, though singularly spectacular practices that unabashedly examined the naked body.
Klimt, who is known for his sumptuous, gilded masterpieces such as Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907) and The Kiss (1907-8), also created numerous erotic sketches of his female models. Schiele’s figurative practice was comparatively raw and even borderline analytical. Insatiably fascinated with the female form, the young draughtsman and painter also depicted nudity as a means of self-reflection and aesthetic exploration. But for both men, rendering the body was a gateway to the often impassioned relationship between artist and sitter.
As the reigning titans of fin-de-siècle (end of century) Vienna, Klimt and Schiele are regularly considered side by side. This year, surveys around the world unite their work once more to mark the centenary of their deaths, but the Met has chosen a unique focus for its exhibition titled Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection, on view until the beginning of October.
In the early 1920s, American socialite Scofield Thayer (1889-1982) travelled to Vienna for psychoanalysis under Sigmund Freud. Thayer, who likely suffered from a personality disorder, was an editor at the progressive literary magazine The Dial, which promoted the work of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Marcel Proust among American audiences. Thayer was also an avid art collector who amassed some 600 works—mainly on paper—across London, Paris, Vienna, and Berlin.
It was in Vienna, between 1921 and 1923, that Thayer purchased watercolors and sketches by Klimt and Schiele. Both artists were already deceased by the time he discovered their work—Klimt died at the age of 55 following complications from pneumonia, and Schiele succumbed to Spanish flu just months later at 28—and their posthumous prestige had yet to reach the United States. But Thayer’s penchant for the risqué attracted him to the pair of racy oeuvres.
It was also in 1923 that Thayer met Pablo Picasso in Paris. Following an immediate visit to his studio, Thayer purchased 14 works on paper, six prints, and two paintings, proclaiming that he admired Picasso above any other living artist.
Like Klimt and Schiele, Picasso was a provocateur. The three artists were known womanizers who overtly illustrated their sexual escapades and regularly transcended the social boundaries of high society with depictions that were, and are to this day, considered salacious for the public eye.
Of the 200-odd paintings and 4,000 sketches that Klimt produced in his lifetime, 50 drawings were dedicated to the portrayal of female auto-eroticism alone. Reclining Nude (1913), on view at the Met, is one of the few signed works from the series that ever left Klimt’s studio. The artist considered these nudes components of his personal ‘diary’, and kept the majority for himself. Even his earliest forays into nude figurativism were marked by critics as pornographic and obscene.
Schiele was even more prolific and unbounded in his creation of explicit content, which eventually led to his imprisonment. For a time, the artist lived in the Austrian village of Neulengbach with his lover and model, Wally Neuzil. Schiele maintained a youthful disposition, which allowed him to forge intimate relationships with local children. The nature of that intimacy came into dispute when he was arrested for allegedly kidnapping a 14 year-old girl who had run away from her family to Schiele and Neuzil’s home. The girl’s father pressed charges for abduction and statutory rape within the day that she went missing and was subsequently returned, and when the police searched Schiele’s home for evidence, they found his innumerable nude renderings, which included underage sitters.
Schiele spent three weeks in prison awaiting his trial, after which he was only found guilty of “public immorality.” Despite being acquitted of the other two charges, his reputation was compromised for the rest of his life. The Met pre-empts the aversion visitors may experience by noting that, by today’s standards, some of Schiele’s work is a bitter pill to swallow, but urging viewers to consider his nudes within their original context.
“The artist’s relationships with women are difficult to judge, not only because no living witnesses survive but also because present day standards are quite different from those that prevailed in early twentieth-century Austria,” the museum writes. “While some drawings may be unsettling for contemporary eyes, considering them within the particular social and art-historical context in which they were made can prompt necessary dialogue about representation and social mores.”
In a similar vein, Picasso’s Erotic Scene (also known as La Douleur) (1902-3) may be disturbing for contemporary audiences. The painting is one of 14 nudes that Thayer collected from the Spanish artist, and portrays a naked prostitute fellating a very young Picasso. The artwork dates back to his early ‘Blue Period’ (from late 1901 to late 1904) during which time the artist produced a number of somber pictures, recognizable by their bleak, blue color palette.
According to an adjacent exhibition label, the painting was originally owned by a Spanish tailor named Benet Soler. Soler acquired the painting from Picasso in exchange for his tailoring services, but consigned it to a dealer in Barcelona once the artist garnered notoriety. Erotic Scene eventually entered Thayer’s collection by way of two successive owners after Soler, and in the interim, was deemed unsuitable for public exhibition by an auction house before Thayer’s purchase. Picasso staunchly denied that the painting was his and, though it is widely attributed to him now, it remains infrequently showcased.
The Met Breuer’s exhibition of the nudes acquired by Thayer marks the first time these works have been showcased together. Thayer left his collection to the Met in 1925 after it was all but rejected by critics and audiences in his hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts, at the Worcester Art Museum in 1924. He died as a recluse in 1982.
Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection will remain on view at the Met Breuer until October 7, 2018.