Gustav Klimt's "Portrait of a Reclining Young Woman,"… (J. Paul Getty Museum )
The J. Paul Getty Museumis having a Vienna moment, with two historical exhibitions of work by two artists whose profiles have gone from relatively obscure to popular favorite only in recent decades. Partly that's because of their eccentricity: It hasn't always been easy to know quite how they fit into established art historical narratives.
Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-83) was an accomplished German Baroque sculptor who, when he moved from Bavaria to Austria, set aside expressive drama for the newly fashionable revival of sober classicism sweeping Europe. It didn't work. Eventually he chucked it, producing instead a unique body of marvelously enigmatic male busts that have captivated — and puzzled — observers ever since.
Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) was a pivot between centuries. His lush, elaborate paintings opened a door to sensual modern sensibilities long suppressed. Klimt was a late bloomer — so late that, to gain wide popularity, his highly decorative paintings had to wait for entrenched prohibitions against art as luxurious ornament to begin to wither. That's only happened in the last generation or so.
"Messerschmidt and Modernity" is focused on eight so-called "character heads" carved in alabaster or cast in matte tin alloys. Roughly life-size, the heads shout, wince, weep, snooze, yawn and more.
In 2008 the Getty acquired "The Vexed Man," an extreme, puckered face carved from warm, mottled brown alabaster. It's one of 69 character heads Messerschmidt made in the last 13 years of his life. (Of the 69, 55 survive.) For all their diverse emotional agitation, the haunted faces seem withdrawn and internalized.
"Gustav Klimt: The Magic of Line" surveys the artist's drawings in pencil, chalk and ink, persuasively making the case that they were essential to his aesthetic development as a painter. That includes his singular 1907 tour de force, "Adele Bloch-Bauer I," a metaphorical portrait of his lover portrayed as a modern Danae, the mythic Greek princess ravished by Zeus in the guise of a shower of glittering gold.
The Getty acquired two Klimt drawings in 2009, one a pair of sketches of a kneeling nude that is unusual for the museum because, dated 1901-02, it slips into the 20th century. (Except for photographs, the Getty typically collects art from the 19th century or earlier.) Co-organized with Vienna's great Albertina Museum, which has the largest collection of Klimt drawings, the show commemorates the 150th anniversary of the artist's birth.
The two exhibitions suffer a bit from opposite flaws. The Messerschmidt display is too small, the Klimt too large. The former has been beefed up with works by nine living American and European artists who are said to offer a contemporary response to Messerschmidt, while the nearly 120 Klimt drawings are more exhausting than exhaustive. (Drawings demand scrutiny, so prepare to be overwhelmed.) Both shows are certainly worth seeing, but neither is optimal.
Messerschmidt was on track to career security, patronized by the Austrian imperial court of Maria Theresa, when all of a sudden, he was denied a professorship at Vienna's academy. Mental instability was blamed, although illness from casting sculptures with poisonous tin alloys may have been the culprit. The abject artist left the city, moved to several small towns and spent the remainder of his life working on the character heads.
Messerschmidt's heads are mesmerizing — not because we know their meanings and are inexorably drawn to them, but because we don't. Extreme facial contortions ought to be loaded with communicative feeling, yet these grimacing or grinning faces remain enigmatic and remote.
Physiognomy, the pseudo-science of assessing character from facial features, was likely a driving motive for making them. Their refusal to disclose is oddly confrontational.
The artist was an Enlightenment-era baby, his character heads a catalog of what he believed to be every possible emotional expression. There's a coldness to the inventory that belies their emotional heat, the stark symmetry of many faces underscoring a sense of careful, unidealized design.
Some of the contemporary responses are direct. In the 1970s Arnulf Rainer aggressively scribbled oil-stick on photographs of Messerschmidt heads, performing a literal defacement. A 1998 Pierre Picot photograph abuts two heads, inventing a conspiratorial narrative of secret whispers between them.
Ken Gonzalez-Day, photographing the Getty's "Vexed Man" from the side in bright light, dismantles one pernicious legacy of physiognomy. The side view's central area is obscured in deep, dark shadow — a black hole smack in the middle of what amounts to a racial profile.