Klimt/Schiele drawings from the Albertina Museum, Vienna, review: sexy, cringe-making and unmissable

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Detail from Two Men by Egon Schiele (1913)
Detail from Two Men by Egon Schiele (1913)  Credit: Albertina Museum, Vienna/Albertina Museum, Vienna

The bad boys of Viennese modernism are perennially sexy. Not only is their work substantially about sex (which helps in such matters), it has an edgy, boundary-pushing allure that appeals to the eternal adolescent in many – if not quite all – of us. 

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) turned the art of fin-de-siecle Vienna on its head with The Kiss, widely regarded as the greatest erotic masterpiece of all time. His pupil, Egon Schiele (1890-1918), pushed the decorative line of Austrian art nouveau into explicit erotic territory, making himself a pariah and, arguably, the ultimate tragic, bohemian artist in the process. 

This Royal Academy show, marking hundred years since the artists’ deaths, may “only” comprise works on paper – drawings, watercolours, posters and photographs – but what works! Schiele’s drawings and paintings on paper are generally more highly regarded than his larger, finished canvases. Many of his most famous works are here, alongside Klimt’s sketches for some of his greatest murals and paintings. All are on loan from Vienna’s Albertina museum, one of the world’s greatest collections of prints and drawings. Many won’t be displayed again for some time after this exhibition due to their extreme fragility.

Both men, it’s apparent from the outset, were magicians with the pencil, pastel, pen or whatever other drawing implement they picked up. They  could make lines really sing in a way that barely exists in art today. And lines, which veer towards a sinuous decoration, are the key to their work.

If Klimt’s earliest drawings from 1886-7, Shakespeare-themed studies for Vienna’s Burgtheater, are a touch stiffly academic (though technically superb), by 1901 he has introduced his signature curving marks in studies for the near-psychedelic Beethoven Frieze in the city’s Secession Building – the home of the Austrian avant garde. Drawing on both oriental art and natural form, the winding flow of the Gorgon’s hair and sensuous s-bend of her body aren’t intended to show what the model looks like, rather to invoke the symbolic archetype of a femme fatale.

Seated Female Nude, Elbows Resting on Right Knee by Egon Schiele Knee (1914) Credit: Albertina Museum, Vienna/Albertina Museum, Vienna

Schiele started out as a super-fan of early Klimt – evident in a spare and relatively sedate reclining female nude from 1908 – but once he’d seen the possibilities of Klimt’s new sex-inflected line, Schiele really ran with it.

Many of Schiele’s drawings here are actually small paintings. Touches of red watercolour lend a visceral rawness to the writhing lines of Female Nude, 1910. The sluggish lines delineating the body of the very young model in Black-Haired Nude Girl, meanwhile, are disconcerting even today.

This was sex seen with a new realism that outraged even supposedly liberal Vienna. Schiele – living “in sin” with his girlfriend in a provincial town – found himself imprisoned for attempting to abduct a young girl, who he was in fact attempting to assist. 

His prison drawings reveal an ability to make even the most mundane objects – some very simple chairs – look compellingly decorative. It’s only in the wackily titled For Art and My Loved Ones I Will Gladly Endure Until The End that we feel the pain of his confinement, its self-conscious agony exemplifing Schiele’s appeal to the young: hasn’t every teenager felt like this at some point? 

Embracing Couple by Gustav Klimt (1901) Credit: Albertina Museum, Vienna/Albertina Museum, Vienna

Klimt’s pencil studies for portraits of fashionable Viennese women struggle to make an impact in comparison, but they’re no less virtuosic, packing an extraordinary amount of information – about posture, the volumes of the body and the flow of drapery – into a few rapid, squiggly lines.

Schiele, meanwhile (by this point the show feels a bit of a competition) recalls, and at moments even rivals, van Gogh in line portraits of men, such as Max Kahrer, 1910, and Johann Harms, 1916. His real interest, though, was himself: pulling at the side of his face to expose his right eye; scowling ghoulishly in a white nightshirt; exposing his genitals in Nude Self-Portrait. These are the images that created the image of Schiele as tormented bohemian, scouring his inner soul far beyond the confines of polite society. 

To my mind, they’re too self-advertisingly theatrical to be taken quite seriously. Indeed, looking at Johannes Fischer’s photographic portraits of Schiele in the first room, he looks too sleekly knowing, and too well-dressed and well-fed to ever have been starving in a garret.

Group of Three Girls by Egon Schiele (1911) Credit: Albertina Museum, Vienna/Albertina Museum, Vienna

If both men were to a large degree acting out roles, the idea of the artist performing their life and art feels very current today. 

This exhibition gives us a vivid glimpse of an essential cultural moment: one where the vogue for neurosis and self-obsession (this was, after all, the city of Freud) eerily mirrors the preoccupations of our own time. It inflects every line in this exhibition, taking us to the “growing pains” of modern culture. Like such things in real life, the show has its cringe-making moments, but it creates a mood of seething intensity you won’t want to miss out on.

Nov 4 until Feb 3; 020 7300 8090; royalacademy.org.uk