Gustav Klimt’s two most famous works, The Kiss and Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, feature people bathed in sheaths of gold leaf and brilliant color patterns. Made in the early 1900s during Klimt’s “Golden Phase,” the two canvasses are explosions of paint that submerge the figures into gold-tinged swirls, squares, and contours. The art-goers crowding into the Legion of Honor for “KLIMT & RODIN: An Artistic Encounter” — the first exhibit in California to survey Klimt’s work — badly want to see The Kiss and Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, which is why the Legion of Honor’s stores feature all manner of items with The Kiss and Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. Postcards, journals, pins, puzzles, posters: They’re all there in stacks and shelves.
What’s not at the museum are Klimt’s two original paintings. Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (also known as The Woman in Gold) is at the Neue Galerie in New York, where it has occupied a prominent spot since 2006, when the heir to the Estée Lauder Companies bought the work for a then-record $135 million. And The Kiss is ensconced at the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere — one of the most ornate museums in Klimt’s native Austria. What is at the Legion of Honor, though, pinpoints Klimt’s other Golden Phase works. You’ll find his erotic drawings and paintings of women, along with his traditional later portraits — much less ornate than Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I but still entirely colorful. In short, the exhibit connects the artistic dots between Klimt and French sculptor Auguste Rodin, whom Klimt met in Vienna.
Klimt and Rodin used nudity and realism to break from artistic tradition — but Klimt faced an especially strong backlash because of the conservatism that held sway in Austrian society. Where other Austrian painters like Hans Makart used historic scenes or exotic countries to portray the female form, Klimt painted women like the redhead in Nuda Veritas, whose nudity includes her red, natural-looking pubic hair.
That caused an outcry in 1899. That she’s holding a mirror and looking directly at the art-goer — and that Nuda Veritas features a rebellious quote from a German poet (“If you can’t please everyone with your actions and your art, please only a few. It’s bad to please many”) — also stirred controversy at the time.
“It’s about nakedness [being] the truth,” Tobias G. Natter, the former curator in chief of the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, who curated the Legion of Honor’s exhibit, told arts journalists at a preview of “KLIMT & RODIN.” The redhead is a “modern” woman who represented the “here and now,” not a place of distant time or geography. That was threatening to Viennese society, Nagger said.
Klimt also caused controversy with his early-1900s commissions from the University of Vienna, which wanted allegorical representations of Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence. What Klimt delivered — and what can be seen at the Legion in reproduction, since fire destroyed the works — were hellish, complicated visions of female nakedness, mythological figures, people near death, and cloud-like vapors that gave the scenes the feeling of a séance. Jurisprudence featured patterns that Klimt would emphasize so beautifully in Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, and Philosophy won the Grand Prix at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair, but the outcry in Austria forced Klimt to cancel the commission and return his advance. Like Rodin, though, Klimt became a sought-after artist — and like Rodin, Klimt made thousands of drawings that revealed his artistic direction and his personal likes. “KLIMT & RODIN” highlights a handful of these drawings.
“Rodin said, ‘If you want to understand what I do, look at my drawings,’ ” Nagger says. “This is even more true for Gustav Klimt. Rodin did about 10,000 drawings, and Klimt close to 5,000. He was constantly working on drawings. He had all these new women in his studio. It was to practice. He was a great drawer. The drawings are considered to be the most silent medium, but on the other hand, they are the most explicit medium. It’s about eroticism. And it’s very similar for Rodin.”
Klimt’s drawings, which are even more explicit than Nuda Veritas, complement the exhibit’s large oil paintings, which include The Virgin, a 1913 work that shows a sleeping woman surrounded by a sea of other women. The National Gallery in Prague loaned the work for the Legion’s exhibit.
“For the first time since 1996, it is traveling,” Nagger said of The Virgin. Lots of other galleries and museums contributed works to the exhibit — which prompted Nagger to exclaim in his own scholarly way, “It will take another 100 years to see an exhibition like this again.”
Klimt is the real draw in “KLIMT & RODIN.” San Francisco art-goers have seen Rodin’s work for years, including a large version of The Thinker that is situated in the Legion’s entrance. The new exhibit asks art-goers to see Klimt beyond his best-known canvases, and among the surprises are Klimt’s landscape works that border on abstraction. What’s clear, though, is that Klimt gravitated toward figuration, and —unlike Rodin — toward one gender. And that’s what art-goers expect to see.
“Klimt did no portrait of a man after 1900,” Nagger said. “He was simply not interested. What interested him was beauty. And women.”
“KLIMT & RODIN: An Artistic Encounter,” through Jan. 28 at the Legion of Honor, 100 34th Ave., $15-$30; 415-750-3600 or legionofhonor.famsf.org