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Unique Pairing

A new exhibition in San Francisco puts works by Auguste Rodin and Gustav Klimt on view together.

Gustav Klimt’s last studio

Moritz Nähr, “Gustav Klimt’s last studio, at Feldmühlgasse 11, in the thirteenth district of Vienna, shortly after his death, with two unfinished paintings,
“The Bride” and “Lady with a Fan,” on two easels,” 1918, photograph;

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Last month the Legion of Honor in San Francisco opened “KLIMT & RODIN: An Artistic Encounter,” an exhibition that puts works by the celebrated French sculptor Auguste Rodin and the renowned Austrian artist Gustav Klimt in direct dialogue. The show, which will be on view through January 28, features 22 pieces by Klimt—many on view in the U.S. for the first time—and 25 sculptures and works on paper from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s prominent Rodin collection.

The Legion’s long-term relationship with the artist—its collection, the first on the West Coast, dates to the museum’s opening in 1924—gives it a privileged vantage point, not to mention plenty of material, from which to mount several simultaneous Rodin shows. Throughout 2017, the museum has staged a yearlong celebration to mark the 100th anniversary of Rodin’s death, including a show called “Auguste Rodin: The Centenary Installation” (through December 21), and installations organized by contemporary artists Urs Fischer and Sarah Lucas (both closed earlier in the year). The Legion is also hosting the region’s first major Klimt exhibition (which will act as a centenary of Klimt’s death as well—he died in February 1918). “An Artistic Encounter” surveys the full breadth of Klimt’s practice, but the linchpin of the show is the 1902 Vienna Secession exhibition—the occasion that prompted the two artists to meet for the first and only time.

In May 1902, Rodin, then in his early 60s, traveled to Prague for a large retrospective of his work. Before returning to Paris, he made a brief stop in Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which of course at the time also included Prague. During his stay, the 14th Vienna Secessionist exhibition was on view. Though Rodin had exhibited several works at the Vienna Secession shows of years prior, he had never been there. His trip afforded him the opportunity to meet Klimt, the Secession’s president. Although he had not achieved Rodin’s astatus, it was very likely the French artist knew him by reputation.

The Vienna Secession, which held its first exhibition in 1897, became the vanguard for modernism in a city—and an Empire—that was at first slow to embrace it. The group set out to show its own new and exciting work while also showcasing that of the most interesting artists throughout Europe. Rodin was recruited by the painter Josef Engelhart to become a “corresponding member” of the group, and the sculptor’s work was included in the first Secession exhibition, in 1898 (the Viennese papers called him a “modern Michelangelo,” and Rodin’s sculpture Head of a Woman sold), and then in 1899. Rodin’s work was most prominently displayed in 1901; works on paper and 14 sculptures were on view, including the multi-figure sculpture The Burghers of Calais, the male nude The Age of Bronze, and pieces of Rodin’s controversial rendering of Balzac.

The 1902 Vienna Secession took the German composer Ludwig von Beethoven as its theme and honoree, but above all, the show celebrated the 19th-century notion of the roguish artist as genius. Klimt, who had been a leading figure in the Secession since its inception, exhibited his monumental Beethoven Frieze in 1902. The frieze, which was painted directly onto the walls of the temple-like Secession building (it was later preserved) measures 7 feet high and 112 feet wide. Featuring several figures, gold, and calligraphy, the sumptuous work celebrates Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and serves as an allegory for the human desire for happiness in a turbulent world. An exhibition copy of the frieze is on view in “An Artistic Encounter,” giving American viewers the opportunity to experience the power of the work.

Viewers will also come face-to-face with Nude Veritas, an 1899 oil on canvas painted by the Austrian artist during his Secession years. In the painting, a nude female figure, her feet encircled by a snake, holds out a mirror to the viewer. Above her, a text by the German poet Friedrich Schiller reads: “If you cannot please everyone with your actions and your art, you should satisfy a few. To please many is dangerous.” The Black Feathered Hat, painted in 1910, two years after Klimt and his circle left the Secession, is also on view. The painting, which brings to mind both El Greco’s work and Picasso’s Blue Period, finds Klimt forgoing his Symbolism-influenced opulent and intricate style for a pared-down nod to Expressionism. In juxtaposition is Baby, a lavishly colored 1912 oil and tempera on canvas, painted the year before his death, and several luminous landscapes.

As for Rodin, there are Reductions of Five of the Burghers of Calais, a bronze reduction of the sculpture shown at the 1901 Secession (reduced 1886–1900, cast before 1929), as well as Age of Bronze (cast 1875–77). The elegant marble Miss Eve Fairfax, La Nature, which is also on view, comes from the collection of Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, an artist’s model who married a sugar baron and purchased works directly from Rodin, with the dancer Loïe Fuller acting as a middleman. Her and her husband were behind the building of the Legion, which was inspired by the design of the French pavilion in the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915. They eventually donated some 100 works by Rodin to the museum. Another of those, a 1884 bronze of The Kiss, of course shares a title with one of Klimt’s most famous works. Both pieces, with their fluid way of depicting human figures like pieces of draped silk, showcase the artists at their most iconic.

Austrian journalists noted Rodin’s approval of The Beethoven Frieze. However, it’s difficult to know what the two artists said to one another. According to one journalist, after seeing the exhibition, Rodin addressed those in attendance over refreshments, saying, “Your artistic achievement will prove to be an asset not only to your own country; it will enrich the whole of Europe. In America, too, it will meet with a keen response.”

By Sarah E. Fensom

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: October 2017

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