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Klimt and Rodin at the Legion Will Make You Blush

Dual exhibition gives off seriously sexual vibes.

Klimt's The Virgin


The Legion of Honor’s yearlong celebration of the 100th anniversary of Auguste Rodin’s death has been showing the French modernist sculptures in a new light. Following a re-staging of the famed works in the spring, the museum put them “in conversation” over the summer with works by a pair of contemporary artists, Urs Fischer and Sarah Lucas, meant to highlight, respectively, the Rodins’ dark and sexual energy.

As the capper to the centenary celebration, the Rodins have been restaged yet again, this time opposite a collection of 35 works by Austrian painter Gustav Klimt. And where in the previous “conversations” one might have had to squint to see the connections being suggested, this time it is clear: It’s sexy time.

Klimt, one of the leading figures of the turn-of-the-century Viennese Secessionist arts movement, was a contemporary of Rodin, both of whom had graduated from the Symbolist aesthetic and into Modernism. While the two only ever met once, during a 1902 show in Vienna, their influence on one another—particularly Rodin’s on Klimt—was definite. The similarities between the artists’ work, despite the different media, is clear: Sculpted figures similar to those in Rodin’s The Kiss (1882) reappear in Klimt’s work, particularly the reproduction of panels from his 1901 installation the Beethoven Frieze. Thematically, the similarities are obvious: Studies of beauty, particularly the female form, and the aching eroticism they transmit. (Several very-R rated nude sketches are on view by both artists.) During their time, both artists’ work was branded as vulgar, even pornographic.

The exhibition would work splendidly as a small testament simply to Klimt, a master in his own right and one who’s never before had a major retrospective on the West Coast. Here, however, it also succeeds in casting new light on the permanent Rodin installations that frequent visitors to the museum might have taken for granted. At one point during Thursday’s preview, Martin Chapman, the museum’s curator in charge of European decorative arts and sculpture, pointed out The Sculptor and His Muse (1895), here staged directly across from the wonderfully rich Klimt canvas of The Virgin (1913), depicting six women in a tangled swirl of patterned bedsheets and limbs. Is the Rodin any less erotic? Not, Chapman pointed out, when you notice that the muse, draped over the sculptor’s back, has got her hand right between his legs.

The exhibition marks a high point for Fine Arts Museum director and CEO Max Hollein, who helped fast-track the show into being. Next year is Klimt’s centenary, and what few works of his are available for loan will surely be spoken for by what’s expected to be a rush of Klimt celebrations across Austria. Hollein and the Legion jumped the line, then, and were able to secure 35 loans, including some from the Neue Gallery in New York, which, conveniently enough, Hollein sits on the board of. And while 35 may sound like a modest number—and the exhibition does leave one craving more—it actually represents a significant percentage of Klimt’s entire artistic output, thought to number approximately 200. (Or, as special curator and Klimt scholar Tobias Natter suggested at Thursday’s preview, about a year’s worth of Picasso’s output.) Notably absent here is Klimt’s most famous work, The Kiss, known to most anyone who ever bought a dorm-room poster. Still, the offering on view is an enjoyable one, and surely enough to make patrons blush.

Klimt and Rodin: An Artistic Encounter, October 14–January 28, 2018.


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