It doesn’t seem possible that the Tate Liverpool's exhibition of Klimt is the first ever exhibition of his work in this country. Are we not a nation of art lovers?
How can this be? Perhaps this lack of interest in showing Klimt’s work has been somewhat connected with the fact that Klimt and the Secessionists believed that sexuality is the key to human liberation and fulfillment, and that a good deal of Klimt’s work is highly erotic and a celebration of the beauty of the female form. The current concerns manifested in the British media with sex education and teenage pregnancy are showing us, as ever, how much we still fear and tend to avoid explicit conversation and discourse about sex.
Like his contemporary, Sigmund Freud, and Wilhelm Reich, another resident of turn-of-the-century Vienna, Gustav Klimt focused a lot of his creative energy on the subject of sex and sexuality, and believed that sexual & emotional health and sexual fulfillment play a vital role in human wellbeing - more vital than wealth or status, more important than bourgeois ‘respectability’ and material comfort and security.
Our society’s historical aversion to full-on engagement with human sexuality in any mature way is reflected in the actual location of the Tate show’s semi-darkened room containing drawings of women nudes masturbating - with genitals, fingers and splayed thighs depicted in loving detail.
This small room, which is more like a room within a room, is situated right at the end of the exhibition, and visitors have the option of walking straight past it, and avoiding it, in order to go out of the exhibition, and into the bookshop and merchandise area, where there's a variety of Klimt shopping bags, posters, key rings, fridge magnets, vibrators, etc, on sale.
(I made that last one up. Though they say the Anne Summers shop in the main shopping precinct is selling an exciting range of Klimpt Klit Stimulators, specially commissioned to coincide with and cash in on this exhibition, which is pulling in visitors from far and wide - people who would normally no more visit Liverpool than they would New Brighton or Birkenhead.)
But truthfully, when was the last time anyone went to an exhibition and saw erotic drawings like these by a major artist, depicting this important but virtually taboo aspect of female sexuality? Surely nice girls don't do that kind of thing? Actually they do, but you'd never know it from the output of the world's best-known artists. Klimt is unique, in very many ways.
(To be fair, nobody does paintings of men masturbating either, but that’s another story. At least everybody seems to know that men actually do it, whilst women’s self-pleasuring remains a subject surrounded in mystery, even to many women, unless you happen to be into pornography, which his critics actually accused Klimt of being. ‘Accused’, you see. Like it’s a crime he committed by creating powerful images of beautiful and erotic women, no matter how willingly the models posed, and how much they presumably enjoyed posing, since Klimt was said to have made love to most of them.)
I remember how startling it felt in the Musee D'Orsay a few years ago to come across Courbet's incredibly naturalistic and highly erotic painting of a model’s genitals with her mass of dark pubic hair. Was it OK to stand there and stare at it, like you would any other exhibit? Interestingly no-one else did. Yet it's a wonderful picture, aptly titled "The Origin of the World". (L’Origine Du Monde)
And it was interesting to observe visitors, including pairs of young women, in the masturbation room in the Tate, where there were also some drawings by Klimt of couples in various stages of love-making. Interesting to observe their somewhat embarrassed and giggly interactions. Clearly, walking round in silence was not an option for cool connoisseurs, but neither was any thoughtful or normal conversation. The attitude seemed to be that one should either be embarrassed, indifferent to, or amused by the drawings. Like it was impossible to be turned on by them, see oneself in them, or just simply enjoy them for their artistic genius.
It was also interesting to consider whether Klimt ever developed any of these drawings into oil paintings - which seems highly likely - and if so what happened to them, and where they are now. And if he didn‘t, why not?
Could it be that to acknowledge that women masturbate would be to acknowledge that women enjoy sensuality, sexuality and orgasm? Enjoy them, need them, and desire them. And how difficult and dangerous would that be for so many men, the majority of whom in Klimt‘s time and Freud‘s time, and it seems often in our own time, are pretty clueless about female physiology and sexuality? Why else do so many women desire, enjoy, and often prefer, vibrators?
Whilst he also painted superb landscapes, and clearly enjoyed painting well-to-do women in fabulous dresses, Klimt didn’t shirk the need for the artist to engage with the sexual and the erotic in the quest to illustrate and depict the human condition, which after all is surely the foremost duty of any artist. Human love, tenderness, desire and intimacy are at the very heart of our lives, or at least ought to be.
Human sexuality is mysterious and yet enormously important for most of us, and the role of the artist is surely to shed light on the emotional and spiritual aspects of our instinctual drives. But how many of us have been enriched and enlightened in this way? How many artists down the centuries have been capable of engaging with such challenging subject matter? It’s impossible to see Klimt’s work and not reflect on ourselves, our sexuality, our desires, our ideas of beauty, our need for kissing, for intimacy, for holding someone close, for physical union.
One of my favourite Klimt paintings, Nuda Veritas, The Naked Truth, is very explicit. A curvaceous nude with lovely auburn hair cascading over her shoulders stands facing the viewer, with lips and legs slightly apart, holding up a round mirror, in which we see our own reflection.
She’s a tall, proud, unabashed figure, asserting her nakedness and beauty, her naturalness, her attractiveness. Her only adornments are a few white daisies, which she’s fastened in her hair. But she’s confronting us with the mirror - daring us to look in it and thereby become aware of our own reactions to her. So what are they? Admiration? Appreciation? Attraction? Desire? Fear? Embarrassment? Envy? Resentment?
She’s not being deliberately provocative - she just IS. As pure and innocent and unadorned as any living creature. Klimt is giving us the naked truth - about another human soul, and about ourselves - if we only care to look. Yes folks - underneath those gorgeous dresses and gowns, this is what women actually look like. Is this a problem? Is this pornography? Or is it a source of awe and wonder, joy and fulfillment?
The printed guide to the exhibition describes the city of Vienna at the turn of the century, and says it was a place where “Sigmund Freud’s theories positing sexuality as a liberating force were highly influential, contributing to an overarching atmosphere of eroticism.” It goes on to say that “Against this backdrop Klimt put the female form centre-stage, oscillating between the extremes of woman as immaculate virgin and sinful seductress.”
The oscillation is the interesting part. Klimt is too much of a realist to have a simplistic view of women as either virtuous virgins, wives and mothers on the one hand, or whores on the other. As an artist he recognizes that every woman contains within her all the stereotypes, and travels through life, whether or not she admits it to herself or others, somehow oscillating between all of them. A woman’s capacity to experience arousal and desire may be stunted or wrapped in chains and vows, but the point is that she has the potential to experience and express herself and her needs sexually. And this was not a commonly accepted view prior to Freud and Klimt and the Secessionists.
The Tate’s booklet tells us that Klimt’s drawings “record the artist’s private investigation and explicit celebration of female sexuality”. And this is where he was such an iconoclast and pioneer - not only celebrating female sexuality, but doing it so explicitly. And for this alone, if for nothing else, he deserves recognition and praise.
Some of the other great pictures in the exhibition include portraits of Hermine Gallia, Eugenia Primavesi, Joseph Pembauer and Helene Klimt. There’s also the stunning Adam and Eve, Judith II, and The Three Ages of Women.
Finally, there’s a reproduction of the Beethoven Frieze, at eye level around three walls of a room. And it’s a truly symphonic piece of work, with so many elements that are in turn elegiac, erotic, spiritual, carnal, joyful, melancholic, lyrical and simply beautiful. One of the newspaper reviews dismisses it as merely a reproduction and not worth including in the exhibition, but for those of us who’ve had to make do with looking at disconnected details in books, and who aren’t likely to be visiting the original in Vienna any time soon, many thanks.