New York

Klimt

Galerie St. Etienne

Like Mondrian, Klimt is a much better painter than a draftsman—or rather, his paintings are better than his drawings—but this was nevertheless a very worthwhile show. Klimt is an altogether remarkable artist, in my view the finest painter by far outside of France about the turn of the century and as good as anyone in France; but I think that the true qualities of his work have been obscured by the practice, which is current, of assimilating his art to that of others who came after him.

For me the most striking psychological quality of Klimt’s production is its narcissism. Of anxiety I see almost nothing, at least in the meaning that is usually given to the word when it is applied to him. Certainly the register of emotions in Klimt’s work is a disturbed one, but the question is, what attitude did Klimt take toward this disturbance? He was apparently not disturbed by it; on the contrary he cultivated disturbance and savored it, and his work can be viewed as an enchanted, a fascinated and ecstatic contemplation of it, certainly not as a cri de coeur over what the disturbance inflicted on him or a desperate attempt to break out of it. Klimt’s art is in every important respect closed.

In all this Klimt is no different from many of his contemporaries. What makes him so far superior, paradoxical though it may seem, are the decorative qualities in his work: it was in the tinseled shimmer and sinuous persistence of surface pattern that Klimt was able to find a sort of “objective correlative” for the fascinated, ingrown narcissism I have tried to describe. The majority of the drawings in the present exhibition are studies of the patterns of women’s clothing and draperies; and seeing them one realizes that the reason for the inferiority of the drawings to the paintings is that in drawing the medium affords far fewer possibilities for enhancing this surface enchantment. The erotic drawings, of which there are several, make more direct statements of it, certainly, but even they suffer from being too little formalized, more naturalistic than decorative. Nevertheless, one can see in some of the early drawings in this show how Klimt was able to get from a kind of mid-century naturalism, about halfway between Ingres and Courbet, to his particular sort of art nouveau: the volumes were fluid and curving from the outset, all that was necessary was to flatten the masses while keeping the curves!

Jerrold Lanes