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Gustav Klimt

by N.F. Karlins
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Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), the Austrian painter who was leader of the early modernist group, the Vienna Secession, and later a member of the Wiener Werkstätte, is due to be honored next year in many exhibitions on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of his birth.

But don’t wait until then. Honor him now and do yourself a favor by seeing one of his most important drawings, Fischblut (Fish Blood) (1889). Other Klimt drawings plus additional works can be found in the exhibition “Recent Acquisitions” at the New York Galerie St. Etienne, on view through Oct. 7, 2011.

Whether we call Klimt’s mature work Symbolist or Expressionist, it’s sensual and filled with carnal female nudes, something rare for the period. His introduction of female sexuality into art made him a rebel, although he started out as an academic muralist. Fish Blood, made in 1898, when Klimt was president of the Vienna Secession and on his way to art stardom, features four nude floating beauties and the startling head of a fish.

Connecting the human and natural worlds, the floating women, who may represent warm-blooded water nymphs or perhaps cold-blooded temptresses, are ecstatic participants in the water’s movement, giving themselves up to pleasure. This was not what women were thought to be about in Vienna, and not even Freud would come close to understanding female sensuality like this. But Gustav Klimt, remained with dress designer Emily Flöge for most of his life, while having numerous affairs, truly loved and understood their needs. He seems to have met many of them, leaving behind 14 children who claimed him as a father after his death from pneumonia during the flu epidemic of 1918.

This ink drawing makes a moral statement about the oneness of life, as well as a sexy one, with those ultra-long, seaweed-like tresses, and a surreal one before Surrealism. But it’s the erotic abandon of the women that a viewer notices first. Just to underline this, they drift surrounded by sperm-like bubbles while the stiff, unmoving fish provides a place upon which one of the lovelies hangs, her arms embracing his head.

Whether producing these early nudes or his “golden” portraits of women, like the Neue Galerie’s Adele Brock-Bauer in 1907, Klimt was always a lover, never treating sexuality in perverse or grotesque fashion, like Aubrey Beardsley, for example.

Fish Blood was published in reproduction in the Secession’s journal, Ver Sacrum (Sacred Spring), and exhibited in 1903. Like Bewegtes Wasser (Moving Water), a related oil from the same time, the drawing had lots of supporters and detractors.

Now for the surprise: Fish Blood was thought to have been lost and was only recently found to be in the hands of one family since being originally sold. No one other than the family had seen it in about a century until this year.

When I walked into Galerie St. Etienne, I could hardly believe my eyes. It’s not that there weren’t many other wonderful things to look at, but this striking drawing takes your breath away. Perhaps Ronald Lauder of the Neue Galerie can be persuaded to add it to the museum’s collection, thus keeping this dramatic image in New York.

The other 11 Klimt drawings in “Recent Acquisitions,” while perhaps not as finished as Fish Blood, are often as erotic, like his self-pleasuring Reclining Female Semi-Nude, Facing Right (ca. 1907) in red and blue pencil. All of them are certainly worth study, from his poignant, slumped Standing Nude Old Woman in Profile (1903) to Woman in Kimono, Right Shoulder Exposed from 1917-18.

Klimt is not the only Expressionist in the show. In all, about 30 percent of the works in this survey are female nudes, some of the best of them by Egon Schiele (1890-1918), who also carried off during the flu epidemic, like Klimt. His open-legged Seated Pregnant Nude (1910) in black crayon and watercolor dazzles in its use of color to create rather lurid, pulsating flesh. In its placement of form, crammed into the upper half of the paper, the drawing becomes as stuffed on the sheet as the woman’s belly.

Otto Dix (1891-1969) has both expressive nudes and portraits in the show. The artist also made many exceptional works depicting war, including the frightening etching Bombs Are Dropped on Lens (1924) with vertiginous perspective as people flee a plane swooping over a street.

To prints by several German-born artists of the same period, including by Max Beckmann, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Lyonel Feininger, I preferred a jaunty gouache Fisherman with Pipe and Hat (1913) by the print-maker and painter Hermann Max Pechstein. A large painting by the recently rediscovered Austrian female Expressionist Marie-Louise Motesiczky, In the Garden (1948), was especially impressive among several oils by her.

Galerie St. Etienne has rounded out “Recent Acquisitions” with works by its non-Expressionist, American contingent, with bronzes by the late Leonard Baskin, several paintings by folk artist Grandma Moses, and a huge drawing, another female nude, by the self-taught Morris Hirshfield.

This is a show you won’t want to miss for many reasons -- more than 70 of them, not least of which is Klimt’s Fish Blood.

"Recent Acquisitions," July 5-Oct. 7, 2011, at Galerie St. Etienne, 24 West 57th Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.

N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.