Klimt / Schiele @ the Royal Academy

This exhibition is much more varied and interesting than the Royal Academy’s promotional material suggests. The main poster shows two female nudes with prominent nipples and, of the eight images further down the page, all but one are nudes, leading you to expect a festival of bottoms and boobs.

There certainly are plenty of nudes in the show, but there’s considerably more to it than that, and it’s the fuller, broader context which makes it so interesting and rewarding.

The pretext

Both Gustav Klimt (born July 1862) and Egon Schiele (born June 1890) died in 1918, Klimt 27 years older and much the more famous and successful figure, having developed a style which combined beautiful draughtsmanship with a fin-de-siecle and semi-symbolist fondness for placing his human figures within two-dimensional sheaths of glittering colours, most famously in 1908’s The Kiss. (Be warned: there is nothing this finished and this glamorous in this exhibition.)

The Kiss by Gustav Klimt (1908)

The Kiss by Gustav Klimt (1908)

Schiele was much under the older man’s influence throughout the 1900s (they first met in 1907) until around May 1910, when he himself realised he had broken through to find his own voice and style – basically Klimt unplugged, the same addiction to the human figure, to sensuous depictions of nudes, but with a ferociously modern, twisted, angular, abrasive sensuality.

To some extent, as the gallery notes make clear, this was the sensuality of poverty. Whereas Klimt ran a successful studio which won public commissions – painting complex ceiling schemes for grand buildings of Vienna’s Ringstraße, did a series of commissions for Vienna’s high society ladies and was married to Austrian fashion designer Emilie Louise Flöge who ran a successful fashion business, and so had access to all manner of sumptuous fabrics, in the latest designs, for his drawings and paintings – Schiele was barely 20 when he hit his stride, and lived in poorly furnished flats with a succession of ‘companions’, most of them even poorer than him, which is why so many of his women are wearing basic kit, stockings, a blouse, and not much else.

To mark the coincidental centenary of their deaths the Royal Academy has arranged to borrow 100 or so portraits, allegories, landscapes and erotic nudes by Klimt and Schiele from the Albertina Museum in Vienna, allowing visitors an amazing opportunity to see these powerful, skilled and stimulating works.

Six rooms

The exhibition is upstairs in the Sackler Wing of the Academy, and is divided into six rooms.

Room 1 Photos, early sketches and the Secession

Photos of Klimt as a middle aged man, in his trademark blue smock, early and very Victorian realist drawings. Next to early photos of Schiele adopting one of his art school poses.

Egon Schiele in Front of the painting ‘Shrines in the Forest’ (1915) by Johannes Fischer

Egon Schiele in Front of the painting ‘Shrines in the Forest’ (1915) by Johannes Fischer

This rooms explains Klimt’s rise to dominance of the Vienna art scene and his leadership of the ‘Secession’ of new young artists set up in 1897. There’s a Secession poster which Klimt designed, with a graceful image of Athena in 1903, next to the bitingly Expressionist picture of the selection board around a table which Schiele created for the 1918 Secession exhibition, after Klimt’s death.

Room 2 Klimt’s drawing process

This room is devoted to several sets or series of drawings Klimt made for grand allegorical projects. In 1894 he was commissioned to create three paintings to decorate the ceiling of the Great Hall of the University of Vienna and chose the subject of Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence. On display are a series of preparatory drawings for ‘Medicine’ which he conceived as a naked woman floating in space, feet towards us.

In 1902, Klimt finished the Beethoven Frieze for the Fourteenth Vienna Secessionist exhibition, and there are a number of sketches here for female figures. And several preparatory sketches for his 1905 oil painting, Three Ages of Woman, including a strikingly drawn naked middle-aged woman.

Standing older woman in profile (study for three Ages of Woman) by Gustav Klimt (1905)

Standing older woman in profile (study for three Ages of Woman) by Gustav Klimt (1905)

The most obvious thing about all the pieces in this room is none of them are coloured: they are literally just pencil drawings on paper. They allow you to examine and admire Klimt’s technique, and to understand better his interest in the surfaces and folds of the dresses his figures (almost all women) are wearing. But they lack all the exquisite finish and colour and golden luxuriance of his paintings.

It is, therefore, quite a shock and a pleasure to walk into the next room, which is packed with Egon Schiele’s vibrant colourful paintings.

Room 3 Schiele’s drawing process

You immediately notice that all the drawings in this room are coloured, very carefully and fully coloured. And I noticed that the strong angular outlines of Schiele’s figures are emphasised by often being drawn in black crayon as opposed to weak pencil. As if this wasn’t enough some of the most striking figures are outlined with a rough swathe of white gouache, which really makes them leap off the page. Exemplified in this nude.

Female Nude (1910) by Egon Schiele

Female Nude (1910) by Egon Schiele

Female nude also epitomises other Schiele traits:

  • the angularity of the anatomy – look at the painfully pointed hip and shoulderbone
  • the uncomfortableness of the pose – what’s happened to her right arm?
  • the attention to the hand which is long and heavily jointed, looking like a four-legged spider crawling up her side
  • the unashamed bluntness of the loins with their pubic hair
  • and the use of colour not so much to describe as to highlight and bring out the composition

The guide makes a central point:

Schiele frequently used watercolour and gouache in his works on paper, but rarely to create three dimensional modelling. Colour is employed expressively or as a graphic compositional device, similar to Klimt’s division of decorative surface pattern in his paintings.

Not all, but a number of the Klimt sketches in the previous room sketched in the face and body shape merely in order to allow him to create the characteristic series of whorls and geometric shapes across the fabric of women’s skirts and dress which obviously fascinated him. By contrast Schiele’s colours don’t even and smooth out, but create dramatic highlights which leap out of the image.

Not only is the shock of walking into this room like watching colour TV after black and white – it is also by far the most varied in subject matter.

Thus Schiele was arrested in April 1912 when a thirteen-year-old girl who had sought protection in the house he shared with his unmarried partner and model Wally Neuzil, was tracked down by her irate father. He was arrested on charges of seduction and abduction and ended up spending 24 days in Neulenbach prison before the case was dismissed. The exhibition displays five of the drawings and paintings he made during this brief incarceration, one is a full-body self-portrait, but four are of the interior of the prison and his cell. I liked the one of a chair with some handkerchiefs and a green scarf (?) draped over it.

Beside these were two striking and dynamic architectural studies of houses, showing how well Schiele’s strong black lines bring out the architectonics of anything, be it body or building. Alongside these a set of landscapes. I never knew Schiele painted landscapes, they tend to be eclipsed by the explicit nudes.

Field landscape (Kreuzberg near Krumau) 1910 by Egon Schiele

Field landscape (Kreuzberg near Krumau) 1910 by Egon Schiele

This reproduction doesn’t bring out how bright and vivid the greens of the field are. And next to these landscapes was a set of three drawings of chrysanthemums. Again, I had forgotten that Schiele made many flower studies.

White chrysanthemum by Egon Schiele (1910)

White chrysanthemum by Egon Schiele (1910)

Klimt may, for all I know, be the finer artist of the two, but in this exhibition, in this selection of their works hanging side by side, Schiele comes over as vastly more colourful, inventive, varied and dynamic.

Room 4 Klimt portraits

By the 1890s Klimt was a sought-after portrait painter for society ladies. He made his rich women appear tall, statuesque, elegant, often with fashionable dresses buttoned right up to the chin, and a carefully styled bouffant haircut. In the ten or so pencil drawings and sketches for portraits presented here, Klimt is obviously interested in the overall shape and, in some of them, the potential of the dresses to be turned into his trademark fantasias of geometric shapes and mosaics. This approach is exemplified in this study for the sumptuous portrait he eventually painted of Frau Fritza Riedler. Note the absence of eyes. it is the patterns and shapes of the dress which take up most of the space, with just enough outline of face to make it human.

Study for a painting of Fritza Riedler by Gustav Klimt (1904)

Study for a painting of Fritza Riedler by Gustav Klimt (1904)

The curators have artfully hung this eyeless sketch next to a penetrating study by Schiele of his younger sister, Gerti Schiele. You immediately see the difference: the brim of the hat and the ruff around her chest are confidently sketched in, but the rest of the body, for example her right arm, just tapers away. Schiele’s real interest is obviously in the intense black eyes of the sitter, which are staring right out at you.

They are hung right next to each other and looking from one to the other you realise that The Klimt is a design, whereas the Schiele is an intensely felt portrait.

Gerti Schiele by Egon Schiele (1911)

Gerti Schiele by Egon Schiele (1911)

Maybe the difference can be explained in terms of tradecraft – the Klimt sketches were never to be intended to be anything more than preparations, try-outs for what would be the very labour-intensive process of creating finished luxury paintings. By contrast, the Schieles are what they are, not many of them are preparations for paintings, they are pencil, crayon, gouache and watercolour works in their own right.

Maybe there’s a sociological explanation: Klimt could afford to make numerous preparations of expensive works for rich clients; Schiele never became that financially successful, so most of his portraits are of people he knew, models, lovers, friends and family, so they come out of more intimate and close relationships. Maybe that explains why almost all the Schiele knock you for six.

Room 5 Schiele portraits

This is really rammed home in the room devoted to Schiele portraits which, once again, demonstrates his versatility. There are one or two nudes but the emphasis is on his ability to capture the features and character of perfectly respectable, fully dressed citizens of Vienna. There’s a little set of portraits of middle-class men like Heinrich Benesch, the railway inspector who became an important collector of Schiele’s work.

One wall displays a set of portraits of his family, including touching portraits of his sister, his mother and his father-in-law. Set amid these is a staggeringly evocative face of his wife, Edith Harms, who he married in 1914. The guide tells us a bit of gossip about their marriage, namely that nice, middle-class Edith insisted Schiele cut off all contact with his working class mistress and muse, Wally Neuzil. Seems cruel. Needs must. But what remains of Edith is Schiele’s staggeringly evocative portraits of her, like the one featured here. A face, hair, a hand – and an entire personality is before us. It is a staggering testimony to what art can do.

Edith Schiele by Egon Schiele (1917)Edith Schiele by Egon Schiele (1917)

Edith Schiele by Egon Schiele (1917)

Yet another aspect of Schiele’s vision is displayed across two walls of this room – his numerous, inventive and varied self-portraits. Klimt never did a self portrait in his life, Schiele did hundreds. Maybe, again, partly out of poverty. But mostly because, whereas the Symbolist, fin-de-siecle art of the 1890s reached beyond itself to some secret realm trembling on the brink of revelation, the Expressionist art of the 1910s explored the self, and the fracturing of the self, into anguished fragments.

It’s an oddity or irony of the German Expressionists that so many of them considered themselves spiritual leaders, heralding a great spiritual awakening of humanity – and yet, to us, so many of their paintings look hard, heavy and anguished. Same here, with Schiele – the commentary tells us that he identified with Francis of Assissi, wrote about the artist being a spiritual leader, gave his self-portraits titles like ‘redemption’ – and yet to us they seem to anticipate the acute and anguished self-consciousness of the twentieth century, which didn’t decline after Schiele’s death, but achieved new heights of neurotic panic after the Holocaust, the atom bombs and the spread of nihilism and existentialism across mid-century Europe.

It is that tormented self-consciousness which Schiele’s countless experimental self-portraits seem to communicate to us today, not songs about birds.

Nude Self-Portrait, Squatting (1916) by Egon Schiele. Pencil and gouache on packing paper. The Albertina Museum, Vienna

Nude Self-Portrait, Squatting (1916) by Egon Schiele. Pencil and gouache on packing paper. The Albertina Museum, Vienna

By no means all of these self-portraits are nude; the one above is the most naked and explicit. In many others he’s wearing clothes but posing in one of his characteristically agonised, ungainly stylised positions. This angularity prepares us for the last room.

Room 6 Erotic nudes

Bang! the room explodes with some of the most erotic paintings and drawings ever made. They are erotic because they are so candid. You feel like you are in the room, with a good-looking young woman who is happy to share her body with you, no shame, no false modesty, no recriminations. For me, at any rate, it’s this spirit of complete, unashamed, naked complicity which makes them emotionally or psychologically powerful.

Seated Female Nude, Elbows Resting on Right Knee (1914) by Egon Schiele. Graphite and gouache on Japan paper. The Albertina Museum, Vienna

Seated Female Nude, Elbows Resting on Right Knee (1914) by Egon Schiele. Graphite and gouache on Japan paper. The Albertina Museum, Vienna

But having looked carefully at all the works which precede them it is also possible to set aside their erotic charge altogether and consider them as compositions. In this respect the most successful of them vividly bring together features we’ve already noted:

  • the stylised pose, deliberately not classical, not a nude woman carefully standing so as to conceal her loins, but a real woman squatting, lying back with her legs open, gazing at the viewer, completely unembarrassed
  • the angularity of the anatomy – note the weirdly pointed hips, the visible ribs, the jagged angles around the shoulder, the accurate depiction of the lines made by the tendons of the inner thigh just next to the pubic hair, the pointed chin – the human figure as sharp angles
  • the use of colour not to describe naturalistically, but as expressive highlighting – much earlier Klimt had coloured the nipples of his nude paintings, but they were set amid an entire composition of gleaming rich colours: Schiele repeatedly uses the trick of painting the labia, nipples and lips a bright orange colour, on one level highlighting the erogenous zones, but on another making the figures almost into painted puppets, marionettes, an unsettling ambiguity

Note, also, the use of the colour green. By her breast, and armpit, and under her eyes and, the more you look at it, the more you see that Schiele has used that very unhuman colour, green, just touches and flecks of it, which… which do what, exactly? They make this woman’s body look a bit more emaciated than it already is: but the sparingness with which it’s used also makes you look closer, lean in, get drawn in.

Once I started looking, I noticed a very fleeting use of green in many of the nudes, creating just a hint of a kind of heightened, floodlit, hyper-vividness. There’s even green in the self-portrait wearing a yellow waistcoat. I’ve read scores of articles about Schiele and nudes and pornography and the male gaze and so on. It would be interesting to read just one good article about his very sophisticated use of colour.

Schiele’s nudes, hundreds of them, were notorious in his day and now are widely known and admired. I had no idea that Klimt did quite so many nudes and that, in their way, they are more sexually explicit. The wall opposite Schiele’s green-flecked nudes is covered with the detailed pencil drawings Klimt made of nubile young women naked and very blatantly masturbating.

In 1907 Klimt provided fifteen avowedly erotic drawings for a luxury edition of the Roman classic, Lucian’s dialogue of the courtesans. The title of one drawing – shown in the original pencil version and then as an illustration in a copy of the book which is on display here – says it all: Woman reclining with leg raised. She is lying on her back on a bed with one leg pulled up and back by her left arm while she is masturbating with her right hand. Art doesn’t come much more explicit than this. Although even when he’s being as rude as an artist possibly can be, it’s amusing that Klimt can’t stop himself drifting off to think about the decorative spots and patterns on the fabric she’s lying on (her dress? a blanket?)

Reclining nude with leg raised by Gustav Klimt (1907)

Reclining nude with leg raised by Gustav Klimt (1907)

The commentary suggests that, because Klimt’s nude women have their eyes closed they are somehow passive victims of the male gaze, whereas Schiele’s explicit female nudes generally have their eyes open and are often looking straight at the viewer – and so are therefore empowered, have agency etc – an issue of vital concern to female art curators.

I don’t think it’s quite that simple: it’s certainly not that a consistent rule, because some Klimt women have their eyes open and some Schiele women have theirs closed.

In my opinion the scholars are over-explaining something which is more obvious: not only Schiele’s female nudes but the male nudes and most of the fully-dressed portraits as well, are simply more powerfully drawn and more vividly coloured than any of the Klimt drawings on show here.

Klimt’s masturbating women may have their eyes closed, but more importantly (for me, anyway) – although they are just as explicit, in fact in the way they are actively masturbating, they are more explicit than the Schiele – nonetheless, they are drawn with much finer and paler lines, lines which almost fade away into nothingness, as the left leg of the model, above, dwindles from the heft of her buttock and hip down to a small foot which is merely an outline.

In other words, in my opinion, it is not the model, the human being depicted – it is Klimt’s technique or style which is passive and mute. As pencil drawings, the Klimt nudes in this final room are probably better, more accurate draughtsmanship, than the Schiele. But the Schiele erotic nudes, with their strong black outlines, weird angularities, piercing black eyes, and coloured highlights, are incomparably the more powerful and bracing works of art.

Video introduction to Schiele

By Tim Marlow, Artistic Director of the Royal Academy.

//player.vimeo.com/video/298238498


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Abstract Expressionism edited by David Anfam (2016)

This is the catalogue or book of the 2016 Royal Academy exhibition of Abstract Expressionism – ‘arguably the most significant movement of the twentieth century’ (Christopher Le Brun) – the first large retrospective in this country since 1959.

It’s a massive hardback book, 320 pages long, and containing:

  • four long essays – by exhibition curator David Anfam, Susan Davidson, Jeremy Lewison, Carter Ratcliff
  • a twenty-page chronology of the movement
  • followed by 200 pages of illustrations of paintings and sculptures, then a further section of watercolours and sketches, and then key photographs from the era

Several thoughts arise from a slow careful perusal of this enormous tome.

Earlier than realised

Although I associate it with the 1950s, and the style did indeed dominate that decade, the creation, labelling, and publicising of Abstract Expressionism all happened in the 1940s. It was as early as 1946 that the art critic Robert Coates, writing in The New Yorker, first used the term ‘Abstract Expressionism’, perceptively describing how the new school took the anti-figurative aesthetic of modernist French and Dutch artists but combined it with the emotional intensity of the German Expressionists.

It was even earlier, in 1943, that Jackson Pollock was talent spotted by the rich heiress Peggy Guggenheim, signed up to her gallery and given his first one-man exhibition, invited to paint a mural in the entrance to her New York apartment (Mural – ‘the first outstanding large-scale painterly abstraction ever created in America’, p.33). This was seen by umpteen influential visitors including the critic Clement Greenberg who promptly wrote an article declaring Pollock ‘the greatest painter this country had produced.’ To step back a bit, this was all happening in the same year as the Battle of Stalingrad i.e. the first decisive defeat of Nazi Germany, and the Allied invasion of Italy. The Second World War hadn’t even finished yet. Nobody knew about the Holocaust.

It was still only in the 1940s that Abstract Expressionism was reaching a mass audience – August 8, 1949 to be precise – when Pollock was given a four-page spread in Life magazine that asked, ‘Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?’ and which projected him to nationwide superstar-artist fame. The next year he dropped his trademark ‘drip’ technique, which in fact only lasted the short period from 1947 to 1950, in order to explore new styles. Neither the critics nor buyers were interested. They wanted more drips. ‘Play us the old songs, Jackson.’ Given the pressures and the spotlight, it’s surprising that he soldiered on till 1956 before dying in a drunken car crash which might have been suicide.

This all lends support to the revisionist view of Stephen Polcari, that the Abstract Expressionists were not responding to the crises of the Cold War – though that is how they were marketed and perceived at the time – but in fact had their roots in the social, economic, and political crises of the 1930s, when they were all impressionable young men. If they shared a tragic sense it was shaped by the Great Depression, the rise of Fascism, the war in Spain and then the descent into darkness of the entire continent whence ‘civilisation’ supposedly originated.

It was well before the Cold War and the A-Bomb, way back in 1943 that Rothko and Gottlieb wrote a letter published in the New York Times which expressed the kind of doom-laden intensity which all the AEs seem to have shared, asserting that:

the subject matter is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. (quoted p.21)

Is Abstract Expressionism a good label?

As usual with many art ‘movements’, many of the key players weren’t particularly happy with the label imposed on them – Abstract Expressionism – and others went the rounds, like ‘the New York school’ or ‘Tenth Street painters’. But AE stuck. They never produced a manifesto or exhibited together, and there’s no one photo with the main players together. But people – curators, collectors, galleries, journalists, and us – the poor uninformed public – we all need labels to hang on to, especially in the middle of the century when art movements came and went with such dizzying rapidity.

And the artists certainly all knew each other, lived in the same area of Downtown Manhattan, hung around in the same taverns and bars, and were subject to the same washes of influence as America experienced the Depression, the great influx of refugee artists from the Nazis, reacted (in different ways) against the naive nationalist art of the 1930s, against Regionalism and Social realism, but engaged in highly individual struggles to find a new idiom, new ways of seeing and doing art.

The paintings

This brings us to the actual art and the obvious conclusion that the mature styles of the four or five main players were very different and extremely distinctive. There were a lot of second string artists floating around, who produced good work or influenced the Big Boys in one way or another – and the generous selection in the RA exhibition and this book goes out of its way to include works by Adolph Gottlieb, Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Joan Mitchell, Conrad Marca-Relli, Jack Tworkov, Milton Resnick, some 20 artists in all.

But leafing through the beautiful reproductions, again and again the works of five key names stood out for me, emerging as titans above the crowd. (In essay four, the gallery owner Betty Parsons who played a key role in promoting AE, is quoted describing Pollock, Rothko, Still and Newman as ‘the Four Horsemen’.)

A word about aesthetics

It’s challenging and entertaining to try and put into words what it is that makes some paintings canonical and some redundant or not-quite-there. The latter phrase gives a clue to my approach. I find that, for most art or museum objects I see, some give the sense of being finished and completely themselves. Thus among my favourite works of art anywhere are the Benin bronzes at the British Museum. They seem to me to have set out to do something and to do it perfectly and completely. They are completely themselves, impossible to alter or improve. Similarly, the famous helmet from Sutton Hoo completely (ominously, threateningly) says what it sets out to, bespeaks an entire world and civilisation.

So if I have any aesthetic theory it is not the application of any external guidelines of beauty, requiring a work of art to conform to this, that or the other rule. It is something to do with a work coming entirely into its own, its own space and design. Having suggested a certain form or subject or shape, then delivering on that idea, completely. Fulfilling its premises.

Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956)

Pollock’s best drip paintings dominate the era and all his contemporaries as clearly as Andy Warhol dominated Pop Art. Possibly others were better artists, showed more consistent artistic development and certainly others have their fans and devotees – but nobody can deny Pollock and Warhol’s works are immediately recognisable not just as art, but as icons of a particular period and place.

And, in my opinion, they fulfil my theory of completeneness – that an artist has a moment when they crystallise a signature style by fully developing the tendencies implicit in their approach (as discerned in their earlier developing works).

Thus it is very obvious that there is a long run-up of pre-drip Pollock (Male and Female 1942, Eyes in the heat 1946) as he groped his way in the dark from works whose size and shape was influence by his mentor, Thomas Hart Benton the mural-maker, but whose content is often dominated by Guernica-period Picasso — and there is a hangover of post-drip Pollock (when he experimented for a while with just black – Number 7, 1952). Both of them are interesting, but so-so.

But then there is drip PollockBlue Poles (1952) is a masterpiece, a completely immersive experience, as completely itself as the huge lily ponds of Monet. Immersive because it is vast and its size is an important factor. After splatting the surface with a preliminary network of black, white, yellow and red loops, Pollock used the edge of a plank dunked in blue paint to create the eight poles. Like Matisse’s dancing cutouts, this is an example of perfect taste, perfectly ‘getting’ the possibility of a visual rhythm. It isn’t classical or symmetrical or figurative of anything – it is a pure design which, for some reason to do with perceptual psychology, just works. Close up you can appreciate the extraordinary lacework of other colours dripped across the canvas, trademark yellow, red and whites, to create a dense tapestry weave of texture and colour. It is entirely itself. It is a summation of everything implicit in the drip approach to painting. And it is this sense of completing all the potential of the method which gives it its thrilling excitement, which makes it a masterpiece, and also a ‘classic’ of this style.

Along with works like Summertime (1948) and Number 4 (1949) these seem complete expressions of what they’re meant to be, of a certain Gestalt. Once you’ve thought of dripping raw paint across the canvas, then it turns out that certain levels of complete coverage and a certain level of complexity of the interlinking lines is somehow optimum, others less so. Too much and it is just mess; too little and it looks empty. At his peak Pollock produced a string of works which experiment with colours, shape of canvas and so on, but which all display an innate feel for just how to do this kind of painting.

Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970)

Rothko, also, is up there in the recognisability stakes in the sense that his final, achieved style is instantly distinctive. He too struggled to find his way from a sort of blocky blurry realism (Interior, 1936) on a journey via a completely different look in a work like Gethsemane (1944), which looks like washed-out surrealism, before coming to the brink of his mature style with experiments in big blotches of soft-edged colour (No.18 1948, Violet, Black, orange, Yellow on White and Red, 1949).

But then – bang! – he hits it, he finds his voice, he claims his brand, he crystallises his vision, he stumbles upon the formula of big rectangular blocks of shimmering colours which will last the rest of his life, what Anfam calls his ‘chromatic mirages’ (p.21).

Rothko left the murals he’d prepared for the restaurant in the new Seagram building to London’s Tate Gallery. There’s a darkened room containing all of them in Tate Modern and you can sit staring into them for hours. Critics saw in them the same kind of existentialist anxiety (all those massive blocks terrifying threatening the viewer, all the anxiety of those unknown fraying edges) that they saw in Pollock — but these days they are more like aids to calm reflection and meditation, and the audioguide plays very quiet meditative music by American experimental composer Morton Feldman. From Cold War angst to post-modern pleasure.

But however you read them, there’s no denying that Rothko stumbled upon (worked his way through to) an entirely new way of conceiving of coloured paint on canvas, a discovery and a formula – and then spent twenty years working through hundreds of variations, exploring and stumbling across further discoveries. Big, bright, abstract, moody. And a world away from Pollock’s splats. the casual viewer could be forgiven for asking how the two could ever be bracketed together, where the one is very much about the dynamic power of vibrantly interlacing lines and the other is very much about the calming meditative effect of enormous blocks of shimmering colour.

Clyfford Still (1904 – 1980)

The much-told story about Still is that he was prickly and difficult, went his own way, argued with all the other AEs, in the early 1950s terminated his contract with a commercial gallery and ended up neither exhibiting nor selling any of his pieces, but working away steadily in provincial obscurity in Maryland. He died in possession of 95% of everything he’d ever painted and made a will leaving his life’s work to whichever organisation could create a museum dedicated to housing and showing it. After numerous negotiations this turned out to be the City of Denver and it was only in 2011 that there finally opened a museum dedicated to Still, and that this vast reservoir of work was made available to critics and the public. In the short time since then his reputation has undergone a major revaluation and the room devoted to his work at the Royal Academy exhibition was, arguably, even more impactful then the displays of Pollock and Rothko. Still was a revelation.

Like the others, Still took a long journey, and his early work is represented by another semi-figurative work from the 30s, PH-726 (1936). But by 1944 he has stumbled upon his formula – sharp rips or tears against solid fields of colour, PH-235 (1944), all done in a really thick impasto or thick layer of paint which adds to the sense of presence and impact.

What are they? Wikipedia says his mature works ‘recall natural forms and natural phenomena at their most intense and mysterious; ancient stalagmites, caverns, foliage, seen both in darkness and in light lend poetic richness and depth to his work.’ Because the commentary goes heavy on his upbringing in the mid-West and of the associations of Denver, Colorado, I saw in several of them the pattern of cattle hides, the tans and blacks and beiges which you see in some Indian art, teepees, shields. Just a fancy.

Barnett Newman (1905 – 1970)

Newman had his first one-man show in 1948, the year he broke through to his mature style with the Onement series. Again, his was a long journey out of 1930s figurativism, until he made a discovery / stumbled across an idea / achieved a mature style (delete as applicable), creating what Anfam calls his ‘transcendent spatial continuums’ (p.21). Once he’d found it, repeated it through countless iterations.

A classic Barnett Newman has a vertical line – or ‘zip’ as he himself called them – dividing a field of colour – initially drab colour but becoming brighter and brighter as the 1950s progressed. The zip defines the picture plane, separates the composition yet binds it together, sunders it yet gives it a weird tremulous unity.

Why does it work? I’d give good money to read an analysis by a psychologist or expert in the psychology of perception, of shapes and colours, who could explain the effect they have on the mind of the viewer.

According to this book, among the big-name AEs, Newman was rather overlooked in favour of the brasher bolder works of his peers. Also, Pollock and Still, to name two, used highly expressive brushwork and thick or spattered layers of paint. Standing close you can see the thick clots of oil on the surface. Newman’s paintwork is flat and restrained. In fact his colourfulness and geometric designs link him more to the school of ‘post-painterly abstraction’ which emerged in the 1960s and are almost connected to the cool understatement of minimalism.

Franz Kline (1910 – 1962)

Kline’s breakthrough moment is much mythologised. Working as a commercial illustrator in New York while struggling to work his way towards some kind of abstract language, Kline was visited by Willem de Kooning who suggested he use a projector to blow up & project his complicated paintings onto the wall and then select small details to reproduce as full scale canvases. Taking this insight, Kline quickly worked out a style of broad black brushstrokes on white, which continually seem to gesture towards something yet are abstract. Are they fragments of larger designs and shapes? Or references to Japanese calligraphy (which Kline always denied)? Or dramatic actions in themselves?

Like all the other AEs, Kline’s work is big, really really BIG. Whatever the differences in style and approach, the AEs had this one thing in common – their work is huge and immersive. (A sign at Barnett Newman’s second exhibition at the Betty Parson’s Gallery in May 1951 actually requested visitors to stand close up to the picture; visitors had been requested to do the same at the Pollock exhibition which immediately preceded it – p.93.)

Kline is further evidence for my theory that artists often reach a recognisable defining style and produce a number of works which somehow express the quintessence of their voice or vision, only after a journey upwards and, alas, sometimes a later decline or wandering away… Having perfected the black and white calligraphy style – so instantly recognisable – by the time he was just 40, after a while at the top of his game, Kline had nowhere to go except back into colour, and these later colour works, although fine in their own way, represent a really noticeable falling away of the energy which the stark black-and-white contrasts produced. For some reason this style looks terribly dated, very late 50s early 60s, whereas the black and white calligraphic works look timeless to me.

Willem de Kooning (1904 – 1997)

De Kooning is the one big AE I couldn’t get on with at all, and the more I saw the more I disliked his stuff. Partly because I think he never did develop a defined style. To me, all of his stuff looks like messy sketches on the way towards something better, they all look like the dispensable journey works on the way to… nowhere. The same horrible messy scrawl effect is his one signature effect.

All the other AEs strike me as having a purpose, a direction. Pollock’s works are far more artful than they appear, Rothko’s are careful experiments, Newman achieved a kind of classic restraint and Still’s jagged compositions are unerringly ‘right’, conveying something much bigger than the images seem to warrant.

Only de Kooning’s works, out of the whole show and this long book, consistently look to me like a slapdash mess, a dog’s dinner, victims of what Anfam calls his ‘lacerating sweeps’ (p.21). And the series of depictions of women  – his ‘wrenching engagements with the female sex’ (Anfam, p.22) – which are often singled out by the critics for praise, to me could hardly be uglier and more repellent if they tried.

Adolph Gottlieb (1903 – 1974)

Apparently Gottlieb is perceived as a second string AE, his career weaving through a series of styles, including surrealism in the 1930s, a spell in the Arizona desert simplifying images to a primal essence, and the development of ‘pictographs’ representing psychologically charged shapes and patterns. It was as late as 1956 that he developed the ‘burst’ style, dividing the canvas into two halves, with a round sun-like object above and a busy earth-like mass below – creating a dialectic between calm and busy, with the use of bright colours to interfere and resonate.

Hundreds of bursts resulted and I can see why critics looking for world-shattering angst and grand existentialist statements might deprecate them, but I like him for devising a new ‘look’ and then producing fascinating variations on it.

Neglected women

One of the most pressing concerns of our times, in the arts and elsewhere, is restoring the reputations, the overlooked achievements and untold stories, of neglected woman. Four women artists worked in and around Abstract Expressionism and are included here:

Janet Sobel (1894 – 1968) began painting at the mature age of 43 when her son left home leaving behind his copious art materials. She progressed from figurative paintings featuring dreamy rather Chagall-like faces enmeshed in zoomorphic patterns, through to pure abstraction and eventually the technique of dripping paint. Some scholars claim it was Sobel who arrived at the drip technique before Jackson. That’s one for the scholars. All her works have a lightness. Maybe it was the light decorative effect as opposed to the Big Boys’ existentialist histrionics more than the fact she was a woman which wrote her out of the story for so long.

Lee Krasner (1908 – 1984) Krasner evolved through a series of styles. During the heyday of the AEs she tended to be overlooked by virtue of the fact that she was married to the top dog, Jackson Pollock. But the works included here show she had a related but distinct vision of her own.

Just living with Jackson sounds like a demanding job, but creating alongside him, in a related but clearly distinctive style, is little less than heroic. The next two are to one side for the simple reason that they were of a younger generation

Joan Mitchell (1925 – 1992) You can see the importance of the gesture but, a little like de Kooning, I don’t see it going anywhere.

They’re big, one of the simplest criteria for being an abstract expressionist. But arriving at Salut Tom at the end of the exhibition felt like we’d moved a long way from late-40s existentialism into a brighter more decorative world. Same style, different world.

Helen Frankenthaler (1928 – 2011) She painted onto unprimed canvas so that the paint soaked into it, thus creating a very flat surface.

Peggy and Betty

The fourth essay in the book is in many ways the most interesting, telling the complementary stories of two hugely important gallery owners who promoted the work of the Abstract Expressionists from the first – the Jewish millionairess Peggy Guggenheim and the scion of a wealthy WASP family, Betty Parsons. Peggy lived in Paris between the wars, becoming fantastically well-connected among the city’s avant-garde, arranging exhibitions and starting her own staggering collection, before fleeing ahead of the Nazi invasion in 1940, back to New York, where in 1942 she set up The Art of This Century Gallery.

Like Peggy, only without the millions, Betty went to live in Paris, where she herself pursued a career as an artist, taking lessons, before losing her money in the Wall Street Crash and being forced back to the States, to teach, and then to work in commercial galleries. She learned the trade, becoming popular among artists for her good taste and business sense (i.e. selling their pictures and making them money). In 1945 she set up the Betty Parsons Gallery which ran till her death in 1982. When Guggenheim returned to Paris after the war, Parsons took on many of ‘her’ artists, and the article turns into an impressive roster of the exhibitions she put on for one after another of all the key artists of the time, working hard to promote them and get them sales.

The essay is a fascinating insight not only into the achievements of these two vital women, but into the art world in general. It’s shocking to learn how little the artists sold at these shows – they’d display a dozen or 16 new works, for between $250 and $1,400 – and quite frequently none would sell at all. Or only small watercolours would sell to what turn out to be friends of the artist or the gallery owner herself. Works which now fetch tens of millions of dollars at auction.

In a fascinating detail, the book mentions several times that one problem was the paintings’ sheer scale: it was one thing to create a fourteen foot square canvas in the space of a half derelict loft-cum-studio, quite another thing to expect even quite rich people in New York to find enough wall space to hang it, back in the cluttered 1940s and 1950s. It was only well into the 1960s and more so in the 1970s that ideas of interior design changed significantly, that clutter was thrown out and rooms knocked together to create large airy spaces, often painted white, in which the vast canvases of the Abstract Expressionists suddenly made sense.

But by this point the AEs were up against the equally large creations of Post-painterly Abstraction, Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism and so on and New York was established as the centre of a fast-moving, big money art culture.


Related links

Reviews of other American art exhibitions and books

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