I love, love, love the Vienna Secessionists. My favorites are Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt, and I could probably not be convinced to pick a preference of the two. I’ve sort of made a hobby of studying both artists’ bodies of work obsessively and drawing comparisons.
The two artists are always linked by time period, style, and location. Schiele was a protege of Klimt. A very interesting relationship between the two, I’ve always thought, is that Schiele is most famous for a type of work that people often forget Klimt did prolifically as well. I am speaking of erotic art. Google Egon Schiele and your browser window will be flooded with suggestive nudes. You have to search a little more specifically for Klimt’s work, but it’s definitely out there in abundance. The fascinating thing for me is the subtle difference in style of the two artists when working with the same subject.
Klimt’s erotic sketches are all, well, kind of sexy. His models are natural and beautiful. His entire canon is full of powerful women and lush overtones of sexuality, but theses drawings are rough, obscene, and matter-of-fact. It’s clear that Klimt was mystified by and worshipped the female form.
Schiele, on the other hand, is the creator of some rather unsettling nudes. You might recall that I have his “Two Reclining Girls” hanging in my living room, much to the dismay of my parents. He is famously controversial for painting very young models, often denizens of orphanages. He praised their naturalness and lack of embarrassment. The resulting paintings are shocking to behold. His nudes often take some of the same poses as Klimt’s, but the models stare the viewer down, twisted in displays of grotesque eroticism. While Klimt’s women look nubile, Schiele’s girls tend to look wild and emaciated.
I have also always been entranced by two particular paintings. These are Klimt’s “The Kiss” and Schiele’s “Death and the Maiden.” They are not only the two men’s most famous paintings. To me, they are the finest examples of the key difference in the viewpoints of their respective artists.
When you look closely at both paintings together, there are some striking similarities. They both are made up of two figures embracing. The poses in each painting are eerily alike. However, the subject and tone of each work couldn’t be more different. In Klimt’s painting, a man kisses his lover tenderly as the figures touch. The piece is the very epitome of gentleness and romantic love.
“Death and the Maiden” was painted after Schiele’s young lover Valerie, or “Wally,” left him. I think the painting also speaks to love, but a very different kind of love than shown in “The Kiss.” The love in Schiele’s piece is dangerous and unhealthy. The maiden in the picture is not fondly embracing a lover, but desperately clinging to the figure of death, who hunched over her menacingly.
I believe these relationships (yet vast differences) between Klimt and Schiele illustrate that both artists were undoubtedly genius. However, one was a brilliant and only occasionally controversial success, while the other was a tragic and disturbed wunderkind of sorts. Their lives ended appropriately for their art as well. The two actually died in the same year, but with opposite legacies behind them. Schiele died of Spanish Flu at the young age of 28, his work condemned and misunderstood. Klimt lived to 50, with both fame in life and posthumously.