Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele: 1918 Centenary (Neue Galerie)
In 1993 Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library held an exhibition entitled Nothing but Degeneracy: Modernism at The Dial, which consisted of documents from the library’s archival holdings of the influential American literary magazine The Dial. While the magazine was established in the 1840s as a periodical for the Transcendentalism movement, in the 1920s The Dial was relaunched. Under the new ownership of James Sibley Watson Jr and Scofield Thayer, it became an important publisher of now-canonical modernist art and literature. It was in the pages of The Dial, for instance, that first appeared works such as W.B. Yeats’s poem ‘The Second Coming’ (1920), and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street (1923), the short story precursor to her more famous novel. The title of the Yale exhibition referenced a letter from a contemporary subscriber of The Dial who objected to these new artistic forms as ‘nothing but degeneracy’.
As The Dial’s editor from 1919 to 1926, Scofield Thayer (1889–1982), the heir of a wealthy Massachusetts family, was the modernist magazine’s shaping influence. Alongside literature and criticism, he published reproductions of contemporary art. By including works by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Henri Rousseau, he introduced the American public to the European vanguard which was then defining a new artistic style (such images likely contributed to the subscriber’s accusation of ‘degeneracy’). When Thayer died in 1982 at the age of ninety-two, he left his own vast art collection to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where part of it is currently being shown in the exhibition Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection.
The introductory wall text of Obsession informs visitors that The Met has been planning an exhibition of the donation ever since its arrival but that ‘its diversity, unevenness, and vast quantity proved a challenge’. From nearly six hundred works of art, the museum’s eventual decision was to highlight fifty-two pieces – including drawings, watercolours, and prints – by Gustav Klimt (1862–1918), Egon Schiele (1890–1918), and Pablo Picasso (1881–1973). The majority are of the female nude, which is presented as a subject of ‘obsession’ for Thayer and all three artists. But one cannot help but think that the challenging aspects of the collection rather tripped the museum up. In 1921 Thayer went to Vienna to undergo psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud, and it was during his two-year stay in that city, with trips to other European capitals, that he bought most of his art collection, including works by Klimt and Schiele, neither of whom had been exhibited in the United States. As 2018 marks the centenary of the deaths of these two innovative Austrian painters, one wonders if it would have been more impactful to focus on their sexually charged presentations of the body and on the heady days of fin-de-siècle Vienna. In the context of this exhibition, Picasso seems (dare I say it) superfluous.
Defying the conventional mores of their day, both Klimt and Schiele created unflinchingly erotic representations of the nude. The nine Klimt drawings included in Obsession delight in capturing the female form and in female self-pleasure (a number of works depict women masturbating). At times, the artist’s line is so slight that it evokes the faintest of touches, while in other instances the graphite markings are more insistently carnal. In Reclining Nude with Drapery, Back View (1917–18), the busyness of the strokes that define the woman’s hair and uplifted clothing become more concentrated in the contour of her body, creating a meltingly sensual depiction of her pear-like rear.
For the younger artist, Schiele, this poetic sensuality gives way to an energising, raw punkiness. His images of women, such as Standing Nude with Orange Drapery (1914), and of himself, as in the 1911 Self-Portrait, are vibrantly immediate works that combine the pleasures of the flesh and the material with a sense of decay. Both figures are rangy, their bodily forms truncated, while the incorporation of watercolour is particularly expressive, serving as both decorative study and to articulate skin and flesh. In Standing Nude, for instance, the striking orange of the drapery is replicated in the depiction of the woman’s body, highlighting her nipples and lips, and present in dashes throughout, including in the lower corners of her eyes, at her armpit, below her bottom, at the crook of her arm, and in her bellybutton. Offset by an outline of white, the warm, earthy colouring of Schiele’s Self-Portrait only furthers his fantastically demonic presentation.
A number of exhibitions honouring Klimt and Schiele were scheduled for this centenary year in various parts of the world; in New York, beyond the sublime erotic drawings in Obsession, there is also the enviable opportunity to gain a broader view of the artists’ work and of turn-of-the-century Vienna at the city’s glorious Neue Galerie, which is presenting its own celebratory exhibition: Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele: 1918 Centenary. This notion of expansive understanding also brings me back to what feels like rather a missed opportunity at The Met. For instead of focusing on Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso, the question also remains as to the interpretative richness that a wider-ranging exhibition on Thayer’s vast and varying interests in art and literature, and their confluence in The Dial, might have offered.
For instance, alongside the written introduction at the entrance to Obsession are photographic reproductions of people connected with Thayer and The Dial, including the exhibition’s three painters, the writers Thomas Mann, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and W.B. Yeats, and two of Thayer’s European art dealers, Paul Rosenberg and Alfred Flechtheim. But this serves only to hint at an intriguing artistic milieu. For any deeper understanding, the curious visitor must turn to the exhibition catalogue and its excellent contextual essay by James Dempsey. In ‘Scofield Thayer: Art, Literature, and Passion’, Dempsey gives an account of Thayer’s personal life – including his complex, contradictory personality; his fixation on sex; and the tormenting psychological issues with which he suffered, and which two years with Freud seem to have done little to improve. (Thayer would eventually have a mental breakdown and retreat from public life.) Dempsey also clarifies the cultural influence of The Dial. After all, aside from the works by Yeats and Woolf already mentioned, The Dial was the first journal to publish an English translation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice in 1924, and, two years earlier, was the first American publisher of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ (though not without Eliot and Thayer haggling over the writer’s fee). Aside from the three artists featured here, Thayer collected works by a diverse range of artists, from Dürer and Rubens, to Munch and Matisse.
As Dempsey notes, ‘the impact of the Dial on the art and literature of the twentieth century is difficult to overstate. The artistic and literary tastes of Thayer and Watson, as well as those of the editors they hired, … were truly prescient. The Dial laid out a road map for art, literature, and criticism that followed for the next century.’
It is wonderful to be able to view some of the visual works that appealed to the complex personality of Scofield Thayer; but I also hope that one day an exhibition on his collection, and on the ground-breaking literary magazine that he edited, will present an equally stimulating exploration of the imaginative possibilities of word and image that Thayer himself offered in the pages of The Dial.
Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection at The Met is running from 30 July to 7 October 2018.
ABR Arts is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation and the ABR Patrons.