Friday, July 13, 2018

Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection

Scofield Thayer was the publisher of The Dial, the famed literary magazine from the 20’s that featured such luminaries as Thomas Mann, Virginia Wolf and T.S. Eliot. He also came to Europe to be psychoanalyzed. “Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection” is the title of the exhibition at The Met Breuer. Is it possible to jump to the conclusion that analysis afforded a degree of disinhibition that resulted in Thayer’s “obsession” with the female body? And whose obsession is the show ultimately referring to, Thayer’s, those of the artists he collected, or both? The works that comprise "Obsession" particularly in the case of Klimt and Schiele are not merely women in a state of undress. They’re wanton, languorous figures who are frequently portrayed with their legs spread and masturbating. The project of portraying female sexuality and creating a harem of models who are willing to go the route, as they did for Klimt and Schiele, might go unappreciated in an age that’s so sensitized to erotic politics. Of course, these are no more a Hustler photo shoot than Courbet's notorious "The Origin of the World" (though they're more provocative). Schiele’s “Die Traumbescaute” or “Observed in a Dream (1911) plays on what might be termed sexual hyperbole. And it derives from the flow and lability of the watercolor that's employed. The models pudenda is swollen and she’s depicted pushing her ample pubic bush to the side in order to display the bright orange of her vagina. The same orange appears on her nipples. A similar juxtaposition between the brazen content of the image and formal technique occurs in Klimt’s “Water Serpents II (Women Friends)," l904-7, in which masturbation and lesbianism are countermanded by a rigorously decorative element. "Reclining Nude with Outstretched Left Arm," (1903-4) is one of 50 prelimary sketches for this work that's displayed. Speaking of Freud, the unapologetic sexuality and the uncompromising portrait of the body with all its imperfections recall the much later work of Lucien Freud, the grandson of the eminence grise who haunts this whole show. But what’s going on, institutionally, as least? Having an exhibtion like this is a little like Trump meeting with Kim Jong-un and thereby giving credibility to the DPRK. On the one hand the current zeitgeist mitigates against the exploitation of women by male artists and on the other “Obsession” gives it free rein. Artists who explore the limits of eroticism are always walking a fine line no matter what the age and actually Schiele appeared before a judge who sentenced him to 24 days and also incinerated one of his drawings. The Met has come down on the side artistic expression in the case of Balthus whose work was the subject of protest by those who demanded that disclaimers be posted alongside the artist’s work. But there’s definitely a double standard with painters of another era receiving exemptions due the distance in time. It’s a little like Pompeii, which was once off limits to women and where now all comers are admitted.Thayer employed  some of the most well-known dealers of the day, amongst them Paul Rosenberg in Paris and Alfred Fleuchtheim in Berlin, and ended up acquiring over 600 works including “Erotic Scene” (1903) from Picasso’s Blue Period which is also represented here and which depicts the artist’s own sexual initiation. By the way Thayer paid 60,000 Kroner or $60 dollars for “Observed in a Dream” which would be $741 today. Not a bad investment. Sotheby’s sold a Schiele called “Houses with Colorful Laundry” for over $40 million back in 2011. 

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