I weaved my way through the crowded room to get up close to the artwork in front of me: drawings by Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, two greats of Viennese modernism, exhibited together at the Royal Academy.
Standing just a few inches away from the artwork, I saw clearly each line they placed on the page. I imagined their hand, making the movement, drawing the pencil sometimes lightly, sometimes vigorously down the paper. I had a deeper sense of connection with the artist through viewing their drawings than I feel I would have done with their paintings. With a painting, the effect is usually shown as a whole and it’s hard to make out one individual stroke over another. With a drawing, the person who was the artist is more vitally present.
I stood in relation to the paper just where they would have stood as they looked at their model. There, I’ll put a couple of lines down and that’s it. I’ll just sketch a face on this paper; I’ll complete the torso on that for now.
Just as I advanced and retreated, these artists also viewed what they produced. Squinted, put their arm out to measure the distance, to get the proportion right, to make the composition. Did they express satisfaction or frustration with the marks they made? Did it go just as they wanted it to? The energy they thrust on to the paper seems at times to jump off the page — on paper they would have handled into position. And I loved to see the imperfection: the quickness of hand and eye that led to a tentative sketch, an unfinished doodle.
Egon Schiele was inspired by the 28-years-older Klimt. And then having learned from Klimt, Schiele did things his way. You can feel the relationship between them: the influence, the connection. A sense of real people and real relationships reverberates around the exhibition room. Not just between the artists, but with their sitters too and the subjects come into sharp focus. The models had been there, right in front of them, posing, contorted, sitting, lying. You can almost hear the conversations — lie there, turn your head. Or the model may have said — I’ll sit like this; try this pose. I can hold this position, that’s fine. Both the art and the model sing off the page.
On the walls hung images of Schiele’s muse and lover Wally Neuzil, with her no-holds-barred gaze and erotic postures that make you wonder how much she and Schiele provoked a sense of prudery and disgust in the society of the time. You get a sense they were in it together — collaborating to break the rules, change the boundaries of art, do things differently, rebel against society. That Neuvil was as much part of the process as Schiele was.
Seeing these women in their revealing, vulnerable poses for men who then get the acclaim is a moot point. Of course, it’s a fact that a lot of celebrated artists are men. And whilst admiring their delicate, evocative drawings one can’t help but wonder about the lives of the models. Who they were, what they did. Records of Wally Neuzil show she moved many times in her young life and had numerous jobs. Her family was poor. She had to make a living however she could, and perhaps it was from need and low status that led Wally to be on this particular side of the easel, forever to be the muse, never the artist.
On the same day, I saw work by Bob and Roberta Smith, the pseudonym of artist Patrick Brill. His exhibition entitled “The Secret to a Good Life” celebrates the life and work of his mother Deirdre Borlase who was an artist herself, as well as other women who encountered sexism at the Royal Academy. Smith’s exhibition was largely made up of handpainted slogans, such as that from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child — Art is Your Human Right and Every School Should Be An Art School. Even if art schools don’t teach art, as a friend of mine remarked, it’s good to be reminded of the importance of nurturing a love of artistic expression in all its forms from a young age.
Walking around Bob and Roberta Smith’s exhibition that was so full of colour and life and energy, I got a shiver down my spine, and a smile on my lips, particularly when I saw the revered founder of the RA, Joshua Reynolds, depicted with a teapot for a head. And then I got a shiver of a different kind, when I read that a lot of Smith’s mother’s artwork is no more. A lot of canvasses were misogynistically painted over by her artist husband, who felt his art was better than hers. Her work wasn’t worth keeping. The exhibition prompted me to look back to Deirdre — and her overshadowed position — and then forward to all those women and girls who still are given second place to men.
And finally, in the hallowed space of the Royal Academy, I had my own moment of personal connection. I’d noticed the two women earlier in the cafe, where I was sat having coffee. Later on, I saw them in front of a mural taking a selfie. I nearly didn’t, but I stopped and asked them if I could take a photo. They were so grateful. One of the women told me that they were old school friends and hadn’t seen each other in three years. “This young lady,” she said, referring to her 50-something-year-old friend, “lives outside Amsterdam.” She further explained they used to go to school in Birmingham. They were so clearly delighted to be together it was very touching, and I was happy to join in a little bit of their excitement. It was a genuinely warming moment. They’d come to see the Klimt/Schiele exhibition, but couldn’t as it was sold out. “It wasn’t very good,” I fibbed. “Well, we had a good natter,” said the Dutch friend.
Art, whichever way you look at it, even if you don’t look at it at all, brings us together.