The Galerie St. Etienne's principal exhibition of the fall season, incorporating loans from roughly twenty North American collections, traces the developmental trajectory linking Gustav Klimt's Art-Nouveau elegance to the comparatively abrasive, psychologically probing work of Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele. In documenting this transition to Expressionism, the show also elucidates the profound changes that accompanied the dawn of the last century. At the threshold of a new century--facing an upheaval that may prove as cataclysmic as that which shook Austria in the first decades of the 20th century--we today see the work of Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka from a new perspective. As the exhibition demonstrates, these three artists directly confronted human frailty and existential anxiety, but they also embraced humankind's limitless potential for growth and renewal.
Gustav Klimt (1862-1919), the eldest of the trio, was born during a period of great economic comfort and stability, and he made his reputation in an extremely conventional manner, painting public murals at the behest of Austria's imperial government. However, toward the end of the 19th century, he began to produce allegories that exuded a disturbing aura of hopelessness. These canvases did not sit well with conservative critics, and after a series of protracted scandals, Klimt gradually withdrew from public life. Instead, he sought support privately, through the auspices of the Vienna Secession and later the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop). Today, Klimt is often best remembered for his gilded portraits of wealthy patrons, but his deepest legacy to the younger Expressionists came from his brooding allegories.
Klimt was instrumental in furthering the early careers of both Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980) and Egon Schiele (1890-1918), whose first significant exhibitions he sponsored in 1908 and 1909, respectively. Within the next few years, Kokoschka and Schiele literally and figuratively changed the face of Austrian art. Dispensing with the ornamental trappings that had filled Klimt's canvases, they stripped their portrait subjects psychologically bare and cast the sitters in an existential void. Themes, such as sexuality, which had been implicit in Klimt's art became explicit in theirs. The tensile animation of Klimt’s Art-Nouveau line became, in the hands of Kokoschka and Schiele, an expressive tool of surgical exactitude.
Later observers have suggested that the Angst which permeates the work of Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka can be considered an indirect expression of the tremendous socio-economic and political pressures that would eventually culminate in the two world wars. Neither Klimt nor Schiele survived the First World War, and Kokoschka was driven into life-long exile by the Second. Nevertheless, despite the personal hardships endured by all three artists, each of them welcomed change as an invigorating, liberating force. In their work, they helped give artistic shape to the modern age, creating images that still seem timely today.
GUSTAV KLIMT•EGON SCHIELE•OSKAR KOKOSCHKA is documented by a comprehensive checklist, which is available free of charge upon request.