Paper Thin: Fragile Definition in Klimt and Schiele

By Sian Erskine


From the 4th November 2018 to the 3rd February 2019, The Royal Academy brought together works by Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt in Klimt / Schiele: Drawings. The exhibition marked the centenary of the artists’ deaths, echoed in the fragility of the pieces. The display was arranged chronologically beginning with Klimt’s early career then moving into Schiele’s oeuvre.


By drawing on their draughtsmanship skills a dialogue was created between Klimt and Schiele’s art. The artists were separated by an age gap of twenty eight years, but shared an opposition to established modes of expression. The influence of Klimt’s early drawings on Schiele’s body of work was emphasised in the RA’s curation.


Going into the gallery my knowledge of Klimt was of his large scale, florid paintings:The Kiss, Judith and the Head of Holofernes, and Danae. Instantly, I was struck by the works’ negative space. The sparseness of the delicate drawings spreading through the room, wallpaper of a faint pink tone mimicking the surface of paper. The texture of paper changed, from Japanese to packing paper, the artists experimenting with different materials. Often the plain medium was the predominant colour of the drawings, becoming the fragile skin of Klimt and Schiele’s subjects. Without the distraction of a background I was able to notice details which would have been lost in busier works.


Occasionally landscapes and buildings were taken as subject matter but the main focus for both artists were people. Figures suspended within their frames looked out across the rooms, assuming tradition portraiture postures and contorted forms. Klimt added romance and lustre through wide eyes and exquisite hair. While Schiele confronted his audience with grotesque proportions, elongated fingers and genitals.  


Lines in ink and pencil were the central, formal element, with colour functioning as an additive component. The archetypal gold of Klimt was hinted at but not overwhelming. Schiele’s application of colour was more captivating never exceeding a minimal palette. The repeated combination of orange and turquoise added depth to the flattened perspective of his works. While red against an emboldened black was used to construct a haunting vulnerability, highlighting the flesh and sexual organs of prostitute models.  


The final artworks in the first room were taken from Schiele’s mistaken imprisonment in 1912, lasting 24 days. His self portrait is unrecognizably formless and grey compared to the strength of his other compositions. Grouped with studies of a cell chair drawn realistically but positioned at impossible angles, and the view from his cell where colour ominously creeps up the walls, the paintings provide an unsettling insight into Schiele’s deterioration.


Klimt is typically regarded as the established and influencing artist, but Schiele’s mastery of arguably simple techniques, materials and compositions defined the exhibition for me.


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