On Display: Women Through Men’s Eyes

Portraits by Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka at the Lower Belvedere

© Kunstmuseum
© Kunstmuseum

Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka are hardly new to art lovers in this city. These three masters color the background of Viennese life. But in case you’re feeling overly familiar with the Wiener Moderne, take heart: Along with the sumptuous society portraits, the angular, masturbating nudes, the thick textured, wide-eyed girls, this show also includes many lesser known works from private collections as far afield as Australia.

Engendered roles

Among them, the curators have unearthed Kokoschka’s extraordinary 1909 portrait of Martha Hirsch; Klimt’s beautiful, whispering 1904 drawing, Reclining nude lying on her stomach; and the keenly intelligent Black-haired woman of 1918 by Schiele. The show is worth seeing for these three alone, and there is a great deal more.

The works displayed were all produced during decades of great change in the position of women, and the curators present them as evidence of that change, even to the extent of hailing the artists themselves as emancipators. Schiele and Kokoschka, they write, “picked up where Klimt left off, testing and revisiting established gender norms as their life experiences and perspectives changed. It is no coincidence that all three artists turned repeatedly to classical female artistic subjects – the portrait, the mother and child, the couple and the nude – in seeking to resolve the urgent mysteries of gender.”

But looking at the works themselves, this seems like wishful thinking. A good many of these “classical female artistic subjects” are in fact very traditional, if not to say reactionary – not from a technical or even a compositional point of view, but in terms of the meaning conveyed. We don’t expect to see pictures of women at work, ironing or planting or even dancing, in the way of Van Gogh or Degas, for instance – the three artists exhibited here had no obvious interest in genre scenes of any kind – but neither do we see any hint of “urgent mysteries of gender resolved.” Klimt’s dreamy, rounded goldfish women, Schiele’s spread-eagled nude with her pulsing red vulva, Kokoschka’s poised, earthbound mother, each one plays a time-honored female role. And nor do we see any change in tone as the artists’ “life experiences and perspectives change.” Klimt stands on the outside, observing, admiring, fetishizing, fantasizing; Schiele uses and if need be humiliates: model, sister-in-law, sister, wife; Kokoschka stands small in the anxious shadows.

The only work that at first sight may seem to challenge the thematic conventionalism is Schiele’s Mother and Child of 1910: Here, a dark-haired vamp, nude but for her black stockings, red nipple erect, glances back at the viewer with slanting, seductive eyes, while a small child, utterly ignored, face half-crushed against her leg, grabs desperately at her. So a woman evinces a predatory need for sex, even though she’s a mother.

Exquisitely missing the mark

© Courtesy of Caroline Schmidt Fine Art LLC
© Courtesy of Caroline Schmidt Fine Art LLC

But this kind of an image does nothing to resolve the age-old madonna-whore dichotomy that the curators themselves are at pains to emphasize: This

woman is clearly on the side of the whores, despite being a mother herself. The real challenge would have been to portray an overtly sexual woman also responding normally to her child. That was one of the challenges women themselves faced, after all, in these vertiginous decades – to reconcile two equally clamoring sides of their own nature.

Kokoschka can’t do it, either, for though quite a few of his women are nude, none of them are sexual. The lovely red and blue Seated Nude Girl of 1921, breasts and genitals concealed, looks out at the world, interested, perhaps even smiling. Kokoschka projects almost nothing of himself onto her or indeed onto any of his women, as if he doesn’t understand them at all, and, fascinatingly, we are drawn into his hesitant wondering. He knows only that they are powerful, certainly much more powerful than he.

And it seems none of the artists could cope with a fully direct female gaze, despite curatorial claims to the contrary. The “portrait eyes that follow you everywhere” actually don’t in this exhibition; they’re always just a little off-center, looking aside, or upwards. The artist never engages completely with the gaze – or, presumably, with the woman.

So, walking through this show, take the commentary with a grain of salt, and let the works speak for themselves. They have plenty to say, even if it isn’t edifying. Above all, it’s superbly expressed.


The Women of Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka

Lower Belvedere, 22. October, 2015 to 28. February, 2016

Veronica Buckley
Veronica Buckley
Veronica Buckley’s latest books are the beautifully illustrated New Insights into the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna (Brandstaetter 2016), and Twilight of the Romanovs: A photographic journey across imperial Russia (Thames & Hudson, 2013), both with Philipp Blom. Veronica has also published two historical biographies and has translated dramatic and documentary works for stage, film and radio.

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