Klimt & Rodin Side by Side

by Sura Wood | SF/Arts

This month two titans of modern art share center stage at the Legion of Honor.

“Klimt & Rodin: An Artistic Encounter,” which marks the centenary of the deaths of Gustav Klimt and Auguste Rodin, brings together 33 drawings, landscapes and portraits of posh society women painted by the revered Austrian symbolist painter and pairs them with two dozen sculptures and works on paper by the great French sculptor. The latter’s muscular works, known for their emotional expressiveness and dynamic physicality, are drawn from the Fine Arts Museums’ extensive collection. “[The artists] were both [very] important figures who laid the foundation of modernism,” notes FAMSF curator of European decorative arts and sculpture Martin Chapman. “Klimt was the first truly modern Austrian artist and represented a breaking away from old academic traditions; Rodin, of course, was the father of modern sculpture.”

A founding member of the Vienna Secession, an innovative modernist group that advocated synergy between art and design, Klimt was well on his way to becoming one of the highest paid painters of his day when he met Rodin in Vienna in 1902. Rodin, at the height of his international fame, attended the 14th Secession exhibition in the Austrian capital, where he viewed Klimt’s “Beethoven Frieze,” an epic, 112-foot-long installation that commemorated Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Life-size replicas of the mural’s two final panels, each measuring 7 feet by 8 feet, are on view. The piece, inspired by Klimt’s interpretation of the composer’s music, was an evocation of human suffering and desire for happiness and salvation. Described in the Secession exhibition brochure as “a horizontal chain of dreaming, idealized figures in linear­ly stylized gowns… within a single, endless movement,” the work polarized critics, some of whom decried its “orgies of nakedness” and “infamously rendered lust.”

The monumental, multi-figured nature of the piece prompts comparisons to Rodin’s 20-year opus, “The Gates of Hell,” based on Dante’s Inferno. Both are all-encompassing artworks dealing with the plight of humankind, though the travails of Klimt’s frieze culminate in joy, while in the Rodin work, man descends into temptation, torment and despair. Originally part of a group of reliefs that decorated Rodin’s bronze portal, his free-standing sculptures “Eve” (ca. 1881) and “The Kiss” (ca. 1884) are exhibited here.

This is the first broad Klimt survey mounted in California; his works rarely travel due to their fragility and the astronomical expense of insuring them. “We wanted to show the whole Klimt, although this is becoming more and more difficult,” explains curator Tobias G. Natter. “Nowadays, it is very hard to persuade lenders to separate from their Klimt treasures.” Among those treasures—though one that is not included in this exhibition—is the portrait for which Klimt is most famous, “Adele Bloch-Bauer 1” (1907); its mosaic motif and gold background were influenced by a 1904 trip Klimt made to a church in Ravenna, Italy, where he viewed mosaics of Byzantine rulers nearly engulfed by gold. The intense patterning found in “Adele” can be seen in two of his late-career, ornamental paintings: “The Virgin” (1913), a dreamy, allegorical painting of a bevy of intertwined female figures with the sleepy virgin of the title at the center, is considered one of the most important figurative compositions of the artist’s later years; “The Baby” (1917), a possibly incomplete work, shows an infant who’s ensconced, except for its head and arm, in a coverlet that forms a pyramid of boldly colored fabric patterns. It was created six months before Klimt’s death from a stroke at the age of 55 and was one his first pieces to be shown in the U.S.

Although both artists had roots in European symbolism and found inspiration in the art of antiquity, they approached their work very differently. Klimt toiled meticulously in virtual solitude, creating a total of 245 paintings in a studio he considered a private preserve; Rodin, a born showman and relentless self-promoter, was prolific, producing thousands of works in his lifetime with the help of as many as 50 assistants. Klimt was exclusively a painter of women, while both genders were subjects for Rodin, whose male sitters included great men of his era such as literary lion Victor Hugo, preserved for posterity in an unfinished marble bust. (Hugo, tired of posing, left Rodin to finish it from memory.)

Eroticism, especially apparent in the artists’ remarkably explicit drawings, was an important element of their practices. Erotic works on paper by both artists, displayed in a dedicated gallery that’s part of the show, were controversial in their time and remain so today. Their early careers were marked by scandal and both were the object of—and sometimes even courted—attacks by critics. Neither was shy about depicting the naked body. Regarding one of Klimt’s so-called golden works, “Nuda Veritas (Naked Truth)” (1899), Chapman notes, “We’re talking about nakedness that’s not cloaked in allegory or classical allusions to a distant age.” The nubile, alabaster-skinned young woman, positioned prominently on the canvas, is naked save for a long mane of red hair, decorated with dandelions, that cascades over her breasts. Standing in a sea of blue, a snake slithering around her ankles, she clasps a mirror in her hand, holding it up as if to confront a voyeuristic public. The work challenged viewers as well as standards of good taste and landed the artist, who was thumbing his nose at the art establishment, in the middle of a vehement debate.

“In this picture, Klimt achieved an effective ‘manifesto’ in which he declared his artistic credo”—that an artist should be answerable only to himself—“thereby provoking the next scandal,” explains Natter. That painting is juxtaposed here with Rodin’s “The Age of Bronze” (1877), which also set off an uproar when it debuted in Paris. Because the sculpture of the muscular youth, a paean to Michelangelo’s “Dying Slave,” was so lifelike, critics mistakenly assumed that Rodin had taken a cast directly from a living body. He was vindicated, but the notoriety brought him widespread public attention that led to prestigious commissions proving, yet again, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

Rodin would no doubt be pleased that a century after his death, his works endure and are being shown alongside an artist whose paintings he admired that day in Vienna so many years ago.

October 14 → January 28

Legion of Honor

Lincoln Park, 100 34th Ave., San Francisco

legionofhonor.famsf.org/ (415) 750-3600