Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Met Breuer: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele and Picasso

The title of the Met's current exhibit, Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele and Picasso, is somewhat ambiguous.  It's not clear (to me at any rate) whether the term "obsession" refers to the artists whose work is displayed or to Scofield Thayer, editor of legendary literary magazine Dial, from whose collection the works are all taken.  Even by today's standards these paintings and drawings are quite shocking; how much more so must they have appeared when first created.  Nevertheless, the female nude has been an accepted genre throughout art history, and I don't see any basis for the term "obsession" simply because a small group of early twentieth century artists chose to depict the subject in a radically new manner.

The show is divided into three parts - Klimt's pieces blend harmoniously into those by Schiele while PIcasso's are placed by themselves in a rear gallery.  That Klimt's and Schiele's works should be juxtaposed is proper enough since the former was the young Expressionist's mentor throughout his abbreviated career (the two died only months apart in 1918) while Picasso's belong to another world altogether.

Although Gustav Klimt is often referred to as an Expressionist, I've never been able to see this in his work.  If I were going to apply a label to him, it would be late Symbolist.  Even that would be misleading, however, since his landscapes (none of which are shown here) have more in common with the pointillist style of such post-Impressionists as Seurat.  The drawings on display are lightly drawn - in fact, several drawings such as Two Reclining Nudes (colored pencil, 1905-1906) are so faint that they can barely be made out - and are primarily studies for paintings.  What most sets them apart from Schiele's, though, are the generally formal poses of the models.  Even in such an obviously erotic work as Reclining Nude with Drapery (graphite, 1912-1913) there is a sense of restraint that makes it seem as if the artist were deliberately seeking to maintain his distance from the model.

Certainly no such restraint exists in the work of Egon Schiele.  In pieces such as Observed in a Dream (watercolor and graphite, 1911) and Reclining Nude (crayon, 1918) the artist fairly revels in the sensuality of his models.  Only in certain later works such as Standing Nude in Black Stockings (watercolor and charcoal, 1917) is there a sense of objectivity.  In that piece form is given precedence over eroticism.  Though unfortunately not usually viewed as such, Schiele was one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century and fully the equal of Picasso and Matisse.  Only his untimely death and the later vilification by the Nazis have prevented him from receiving the recognition due him.

While the works of Klimt and Schiele were all quite familiar, the real surprises came in the section devoted to Picasso.  As Thayer had no use for Cubism, the works shown here were primarily from the period immediately before that phase commenced when the artist visited the Catalan town of Gósol with Fernande Olivier in 1906 and then, skipping forward, from the neoclassical period of the early 1920's.  It was at Gósol that Picasso moved away from the nineteenth century aesthetics that had informed his Rose period and turned definitively toward modernism.  This can be seen most clearly in his portrait of Josep Fondevila (oil on canvas, 1906) at whose establishment Picasso sojourned.  There is something new and startling in this painting that clearly shows the artist breaking with past styles.  As for the neoclassicism, the most startling work is the large Head of a Woman (chalk on paper, 1922), the only piece Thayer acquired directly from Picasso.  The museum documentation rightly notes the influence on it of Renaissance art.

Set apart from the other works is one by Picasso with which I had previously been unfamiliar, his Erotic Scene (La Douceur) (oil on canvas, 1903).  This is not a particularly great work - indeed, to the end of his life Picasso denied having painted it - but is notable for its shocking content in which a mature woman performs oral sex on a barely pubescent boy.  Whether or not this represents the young Picasso's sexual initiation at a Spanish brothel, as the museum's documentation suggests, it has no parallel in the remainder of his oeuvre.

Missing from the exhibit, and presumably from Thayer's collection, are any of Auguste Rodin's late erotic watercolors.  One feels they would have fit in perfectly at this show.

The exhibit continues through October 7, 2018.  Note the caveat on the museum's website: "Visitors are advised that some images in this exhibition contain explicit erotic content."