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And a Painter in Vienna: 1862-1918 : GUSTAV KLIMT: WOMEN With an Essay by Angelica Baeumer; translated from the German by Ewald Osers (Rizzoli: $50; 144 pages, illustrated)

September 27, 1987|Peter Steiner | Steiner is a cartoonist and painter and a student of Austrian art and literature. and

In a time when art books can cost $100, the $50 price tag on this one might seem modest. But the entire project--I hesitate to call it an effort--is so brazenly slapdash that I am surprised it found its way into print at any price. Gustav Klimt's gorgeous and highly sensual paintings of women deserve a book but, heaven help him, not this one.

Klimt was born in 1862 and died in 1918. He lived his entire life in Vienna, which was then, before the war and the end of the Austrian empire, a city of almost unimaginable artistic and intellectual ferment. Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Theodor Herzl, Arthur Schnitzler, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, Egon Schiele, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Karl Kraus were Klimt's contemporaries and neighbors.

All these men were shaped by the heady atmosphere of that imperial city: the grandeur, the casual anti-Semitism, the pervasive ambivalence, the preciousness and melancholy, the worldliness and provincialism--and the sexual obsessiveness.

Klimt's paintings, whether landscapes, portraits, or allegories, were charged with erotic energy from the beginning. As he matured, he used more and more decoration. (His father had been a gold engraver.) He walked a thin line between decoration and painting, but he walked it with passion and conviction, finding there a wonderfully expressive tension.

As with all great artists, his way of painting was inseparable from what he was painting. The flowing stylized robes enfolding the fragile bodies underscored their mortality and yet seemed meant to protect them from it. The flat, stylized shapes and brushily painted transparent flesh worked against each other in much the same way. The gold paint he used more and more was exquisitely beautiful and infinitely cold. And always there were the women, like Judith with the severed head of Holofernes, beautiful and daunting.

Klimt was a masterful painter and an immediate success, getting important commissions before he was 20. Notoriety and fame came his way when the government commissioned three panels for the great hall of the University of Vienna. When it became clear from sketches what Klimt was up to, the faculty petitioned the government (unsuccessfully) to stop the project. Klimt's paintings--Philosophy, Medicine, Jurisprudence--became the subject of intense public debate.

What is evident from the photos that remain--the paintings were destroyed by fire in 1945--is that Klimt's vision of those three university disciplines was an allegorical and quirky one, full of ethereal space, undulating shapes and naked people, mostly women. In "Jurisprudence" an old man held by an octopus is being judged by three women with snakes coiling about their bodies and through their magnificent hair. One is sleeping, one seems to be suffering and the middle one looks very angry. She is looking at us.

In the background stand three more female judges--one holding the book of law and one with an enormous sword--and what looks like a full docket of frightened men. Small wonder the university professors (all men) were upset. Klimt's law is an impenetrable tangle, more a system of sexual retribution than a system of justice.

All Klimt's women are dangerous, and their power is sexual. In fact, sex is the main force of the universe, the golden rain of Zeus flowing into Danae (painted in 1908), between her raised legs. Woman's sexual need, which includes giving birth, is man's enticement and his downfall. He cannot measure up. In "Hope" (1903) a pregnant woman stands naked. The hard, clear look in her eyes, the set of her mouth is more chilling than the skull and death masks behind her. One shudders to think what is being hoped for.

Some of Klimt's women look out through narrowed eyes, but it feels the same as the woman in "Hope." Hygieia, the allegorical healer, and Judith have the same contemptuous look about them. Except that Judith, holding her dead lover's head, is smiling. Even in the portraits, Klimt's women see things we could not bear to see, know things we could not bear to know. He loves and fears them. There is embracing, kissing, maternity in these paintings, but no warmth.

A book about Klimt's paintings of women ought to investigate his view of women, his own unstable relations with women, including those he painted, and his view of himself. True, the book's essay is necessarily a short one, but, as it is, it is crammed with stunningly uninformative generalities. Like: "He eagerly absorbed influences and stimuli and incorporated them into his work" or "His own readiness for love, his sexual vitality, his numerous love affairs . . . are well known."

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