Galerie St. Etienne on West 57th Street has been for decades the premiere venue in New York City at which to view masterworks of German Expressionism. The current exhibit, entitled "The Woman Question," represents a fascinating opportunity to better understand how three of the twentieth century's greatest artists - Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka - approached their female subjects. Consisting of some seventy-two works, the large majority of them drawings on paper, this comprehensive overview highlights the similarities and differences that existed among the three artists, not only in their respective styles but also in the ways in which they regarded the sexuality of the women who sat for them.
In Gustav Klimt's case, the well written essay that accompanies the exhibit points out quite rightly the dichotomy between his sexless society portraits and his highly erotic drawings, several of which are shown at this exhibit. With the commissioned portraits, Klimt was using his talent to do what he was paid to do, that is, to create an idealized vision of the sitter, one that was not necessarily his own but one that would appeal to his patron's vanity. In these highly stylized portraits (one immediately thinks of The Woman in Gold at the Neue Galerie), the artist views his subject from a distance that can never be bridged. In his drawings, on the other hand, Klimt was working with models on his own social level and was free to pursue his personal vision. Consequently, there is a much greater sense of intimacy between artist and model. The fact that these drawings were never meant to be publicly displayed allowed the model to pose with an abandon that stands in stark contrast to the staid manners of proper Viennese society and provides new insight into the period's hidden sexuality. One has only to compare the 1903 drawings of Adele Bloch-Bauer with such works as Nude Lying on Stomach (1910) and Reclining Nude with Raised Knees (1912-1913) to appreciate the chasm that lay between the social elite and the artistic rebels of the Secession. Perhaps the most interesting image at the show is the 1898 oil on canvas Moving Water whose fluid forms appear to issue directly from the Freudian unconscious.
Egon Schiele's early death makes any understanding of his own views on sexuality problematic. It's difficult to determine whether the artist's newfound respectability, acquired through his marriage to Edith Harms and reluctant break with Wally Neuzil (with whom he had hoped to continue a relationship), was the result of a sincere desire for bourgeois respectability or simply a passing reaction to the chaos that enveloped Austria following the outbreak of World War I. A letter written to Arthur Roessler in which Schiele stated: "I intend to get married, advantageously. Not to Wally." inclines one to believe that the artist acted from ulterior motives. Moreover, the death of Schiele's father from syphilis when the artist was still an adolescent must have had a profound impact on his sexuality. Certainly sex figures prominently in Schiele's early work. How prominently can be seen at the present exhibit in the 1911 watercolor The Red Host, a self-portrait dominated by an oversize penis lovingly fondled by a model significantly placed beneath the artist. Stylistically, Schiele's loosely rendered drawings from this period have much in common with Klimt's own pencil drawings. This has been emphasized at the exhibit by the placement of Schiele's Reclining Nude with Raised Legs (1914) directly beside Klimt's above mentioned Nude Lying on Stomach (1910).
As Schiele matured, sex became less openly the focus of his work but nonetheless remained implicit within it. Perhaps the finest example of his art at the current show is Reclining Woman with Green Stockings (1917). Here it is the model's strong facial expression that is emphasized. Her eyes stare forth challengingly from the paper's surface and boldly hold the viewer's gaze. Whether or not the woman was a prostitute, she is entirely cognizant of her sexual allure and acknowledges it openly. Nothing could be further from the demure expressions depicted in Klimt's society portraits.
Oskar Kokoschka's attitude toward Viennese sexuality is best evidenced by his stormy affair with Alma Mahler. The exhibit's introductory essay recounts his obsession with this powerful woman, widow of Vienna's most celebrated composer, who flouted tradition in a series of passionate affairs. The essay goes so far as to refer to Kokoschka's behavior as having "the crazed tenacity of a stalker." The artist even had a life-size doll made to order to remind him of Alma and to take her place when he could not be with her. No wonder then that the doctors who examined him after he had been severely wounded in World War I felt that he was of unstable mind (though this impairment didn't keep him from living to the ripe old age of 93).
Stylistically, Kokoschka's work stands apart from that of his two contemporaries. No matter how tumultuous his personal life, or perhaps precisely because of it, Kokoschka showed far greater restraint in his depictions of his female subjects. Even in nude studies such as Semi-Nude Reclining Woman (1910) and Standing Nude Girl (1919) there is little overt sensuality, let alone eroticism. In these studies, and in portraits such as Portrait of Woman with Hand at Chin (c. 1920-1922) and Seated Woman with Raised Right Hand (1931), the figures' awkwardness is emphasized by the rough strokes with which they are drawn. In Galatea, a late oil on canvas from 1953, the subject's features are fairly frozen in a grimace. Regarding this work, the introductory essay remarks: "It's hard to imagine falling in love with Kokoschka's Galatea..." The essay further notes the artist's lack of classical training and his inability to use his lovers as nude models as reasons why the nude has less prominence in his work than in either Klimt's or Schiele's, but I think it also has a great deal to do with the way Kokoschka actually saw the women with whom he came in contact. There was nothing in them that was to him natural; they were as artificial as the doll he eventually destroyed.
The exhibit, an abridged version of the 2015-2016 show the gallery's co-director Jane Kallir curated for Vienna's Belvedere Museum, continues through June 30, 2017.