Personally speaking I love the period in art history around the turn of the 20th century, when the conventions of academicism were giving way to a plethora of new possibilities and movements which often influenced and cross-pollinated each other, across and beyond rigid boundaries. I often think that the it was the strong work discipline of academic training that helped artists produce such enduring art once they started looking for new directions. Some might even be tempted to think that such sense of thoroughness and discipline is, sadly, entirely missing from art education today, with predictable consequences. Or maybe not- Who am I to say? In any case, a preeminent example of such fin-de-siècle restlessness was the so-called Vienna Secession (properly the Union of Austrian Artists, Vereinigung Bildender Künstler Österreichs), a group of artists determined to find a new way of expressing their philosophical and aesthetic concerns in the sizzling cauldron that was then the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Secession artists were strongly influenced by Symbolism, a broader figurative current which attempted to probe the higher and deeper truths about human life and the human spirit that lay beyond the rigid conventions of academicism. A salient example of this is, of course, Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), the Secession's first president and -probably- its top representative, whose work is exhibited at the Royal Academy until 3 February alongside that of Vienna's next well-known enfant terrible, Egon Schiele (1890-1918).
Consisting exclusively of drawings from the Albertina museum in Vienna, Klimt / Schiele is comparatively limited in range but offers great insights into Klimt's and Schiele's working processes, as well as their biographies. Klimt used drawings almost exclusively as preparatory studies for paintings but, as is well known, finished drawings became a considerable part of Schiele's output, and some top-notch examples are shown here. Klimt's studies for his well-known Beethoven Frieze (on display at the Secession building in Vienna) and his scandalous (never installed, and now lost) 1894 paintings for the Great Hall of Vienna University are presented in the exhibition along with studies from all stages of his career. On the biographical side, the show touches on Schiele's traumatic stay in prison after being arrested for allegedly seducing a girl under the age of consent in the provincial town of Neulengbach, near Vienna, where Schiele and her lover Wally Neuzil had shocked conservative locals by living openly as an unmarried couple. The seduction charges were eventually dropped, but Schiele did produce some top-rate drawings while in prison, some of which are shown here.
Klimt and Schiele had an intimate relationship, with the older artist protecting and nourishing Schiele at the start of his career. Ironically, both men were once again united in death in the fateful year of 1918, Schiele succumbing to the influenza pandemic (the 'Spanish flu') that claimed 20 million lives in Europe in that year.
Definitely an important exhibition if you want to catch up with the creative processes of these seminal artists. For my part, even though Schiele's output is definitely eye-catching, I always have the feeling that his signature style became slightly formulaic and lacks the freshness of Klimt's observation. Worth catching this offering and making up your own mind though.