The pieces put on display at the Leopold museum in Vienna were some of the most remarkably beautiful works of art that I had ever come across. In fact, it was surprising that I had never heard of the likes of Egon Shiele and Gustav Klimt before. I am no art student, or an incidental expert in modernist art criticism, but I would have liked to think that I had heard of all the great ones. This was obviously not the case.
I suppose in some ways, not knowing about the artists showcased at Leopold was a good thing. I enjoyed the pieces not because I was supposed to but because they compelled me to do so. Not backed by the artists’ personal context and knowing very little about the historical settings during which the art was produced, we were able to approach the canvases on the wall as new acquaintances, with the promise of better getting to know one another. The informative plaques placed below the paintings and the typography pasted across the walls told us of the Vienna Secession and its constitution, the impact on 20th century Vienna and the artists of the time.
What I loved about Gustav Klimt, beyond the striking patterns of colour and rich assortments of intricate design, were his representations of people. Amidst a deluge of triumphant and morbid imagery, lie portrayals of evocative physiognomies and anatomies that convey emotion in a strikingly familiar way. The relatable quality of their faces, the expressions and deeds within which they are caught and forever immortalised, cohered to a part of me that somewhat craved a clear reflection of self in art. His pictures of men and women, sometimes children, that anchor the mixtures colour, showed me that there is a continuous complex beauty to be divined from the human form.
The three paintings that transfixed me most of all, were ones that tragically do not exist anymore in their original forms. Reconstructions of them are now exhibited at the Leopold, paintings titled Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence that were previously upon the ceiling of the university of Vienna’s Great Hall destroyed by the SS forces in 1945. Damn the bastards. Every time I think of those paintings, what they once were in their original magnificence, I am forced to shiver at the limits my imagination reach. These paintings by Gustav Klimt are special to me, and now, when I think of Vienna, I think first of these three paintings, and how grateful I am to have seen them.
I appreciate Egon Schiele in a different way. Once again, I see the human emphasis of his mentor Klimt materialise in the remarkable physiological aspects of his art. But is special in his case, are the postures and gazes of his subjects – most of which are people he knew, or indeed, himself.
His characters, often evident self-portraits or those of women he knew during his lifetime, express in a perceptibly haughty, uninterested and unimpressed way, an awareness of being looked at; an acknowledgement of their own artistic appreciation. His Portrait of Wally is special in this way because you are made to feel as if the painting is a direct proponent of Schiele’s own perspective, and therefore our own, with Wally peering up at us with a smile that barely touches her lips. We, as onlookers, are exposed as voyeurs by the gazes of those within the paintings, who seem to acknowledge our voyeurism without interest or with a certain playfulness or vanity.
Shiele’s style is tremendously recognisable. His lines are drawn out deliberately in seemingly long confident strokes, sometimes exaggerated, where it becomes challenging to identify where if at all his paintbrush or pencil ever leaves the material base. The colours that bring life to his pieces are produced not as a result of perception, but as conceived in some sort of psychedelic overlaying that not only shades individuals uniquely but stretches their bodies and defamiliarizes their anatomies.
His postures have a predominant sexual nature: singular forms confidently exposing their sex, a group of people engaging in coital extravagances, or simply just two naked women squatting naked in an impressionistic medley. None, however, affect decadence or guilt, but rather a nonchalance that comes with a certain comfortability in their own bodies.
Both Klimt and Schiele had an effect on me in ways I had never before experienced at an art museum. For weeks afterwards, I read and absorbed as much information about their art and their personalities as I could, just so I could better understand where my appreciation for their work came from. I have given up trying, and now simply allow myself to gaze at my desktop wallpaper of his glorious ceiling paintings that were torn down, and let myself be taken by them the way all great art does.