At The Met Breuer this summer, the exhibition Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection ‘will present a selection from The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Scofield Thayer Collection of some 50 erotic and evocative watercolors, drawings, and prints by Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Pablo Picasso, whose subjects, except for a handful, are nudes. The exhibition will provide a focused look at this important collection and mark the first time this brilliant group of works are being shown together; it also marks the centenary of the death of Klimt and Schiele.
An aesthete and scion of a wealthy family, Scofield Thayer (1889–1982) was co-publisher and editor of the literary magazine the Dial from 1919 to 1926. In this avant-garde journal he introduced Americans to the writings of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, D.H. Lawrence, Arthur Schnitzler, Thomas Mann, and Marcel Proust, among others. He frequently accompanied these writers’ contributions with reproductions of modern art. Thayer assembled his large collection of some 600 works—mostly works on paper—with staggering speed in London, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna between 1921 and 1923. While he was a patient of Sigmund Freud in Vienna, he acquired a large group of watercolors and drawings by Schiele and Klimt, artists who at that time were unknown in America. When a selection from his collection was shown at the Montross Gallery in New York in 1924—five years before the Museum of Modern Art opened—it won acclaim. It found no favor, however, in Thayer’s native city, Worcester, Massachusetts, that same year when it was shown at the Worcester Art Museum. Incensed, Thayer draw up his will in 1925 leaving his collection to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. He withdrew from public life in the late 1920s and lived as a recluse on Martha’s Vineyard and in Florida until his death in 1982.
Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection is organized by Sabine Rewald, the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Curator for Modern Art in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Scofield Thayer (1889–1982) was editor and co-owner of the Dial, a journal that featured writing and art by the European and American avant-garde from 1919 to 1926. An aesthete, he was a brilliant abstract thinker and a complex, conflicted personality. In the early 1920s, Thayer underwent psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud in Vienna. While in Europe, he assembled a large collection of some six hundred works—mostly works on paper—with staggering speed, working with artists and dealers in Vienna, London, Paris, and Berlin.
While Pablo Picasso’s work had been shown in America, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele were unknown in this country at that time. Both artists were remarkable for their frank portrayals of female nudity and sexuality. Indifferent to cultural norms, they were committed to capturing exactly what they saw in its stark, unadorned, and, to some, shocking essence.
In 1924 a selection from Thayer’s collection was exhibited at a New York gallery and won acclaim, but it found little favor when shown in his native city of Worcester, Massachusetts. Offended by intolerant views toward provocative art, Thayer drew up his will in 1925, leaving his collection to The Met before retreating from public life until his death in 1982. An exhibition of the bequest has been planned since its arrival at the Museum in 1984, but its diversity, unevenness, and vast quantity proved a challenge. While a select group of paintings by artists of the School of Paris is always on view, the light-sensitive watercolors, drawings, and prints have been rarely displayed. This exhibition, presented on the centenary of the 1918 deaths of Klimt and Schiele, will mark the first time these erotic and evocative works have been shown together.
The oeuvre of Gustav Klimt (1862–1918) consists of some two hundred paintings and more than four thousand known drawings, most of the latter devoted to women. His fame as a draftsman rests on works executed after 1905 and conceived not merely as preparatory sketches for his paintings, but as independent images of the female nude.
His earliest depictions of the nude body, for the ceiling of the University of Vienna (1900–1907), already show a break with conventions and taboos. Instead of idealizing his nudes or wrapping them in mythology, he depicted real bodies, including some that are wizened, haggard, or obese. When he showed his erotic drawings at a 1908 exhibition in Vienna, critics called them “sick art,” and he was accused of degeneracy and pornography.
After 1912 Klimt made numerous independent drawings, including many erotic compositions showing lesbian couples or masturbating women. A selection of these can be seen here.
In the course of his brief life, Egon Schiele (1890–1918) created more than three hundred paintings and some three thousand drawings and watercolors. He drew constantly and everywhere: in his studio, on trains, in restaurants, at friends’ houses, in nature. Finding few buyers for his paintings, he was forced to part with many of his more salable erotic drawings.
Schiele looked to Gustav Klimt as a father figure, friend, and master, and he adopted the elder artist’s thin, ethereal contour lines for his drawings. Schiele’s nudes, however, are more explicitly and provocatively erotic than those of his mentor. In his insatiable curiosity about the female body, he showed no restraint, sometimes veering toward the clinical, as in Observed in a Dream (1911).
Schiele’s Sensationalized Scandal
When Schiele and his model and lover, Wally Neuzil, lived in Neulengbach, a small town in lower Austria, they were visited often by the young people of the village. Schiele had a special rapport with children and adolescents: at just over twenty, he still felt like one of them and allowed them free access to his house and studio.
Then lightning struck—on April 23, 1912, Schiele was arrested and accused of kidnapping a minor. The evidence suggests that a fourteen-year-old girl had run away from home and sought refuge with the couple. Before she returned unharmed a day later, her father had filed charges of kidnapping and statutory rape with the police, who then raided the artist’s studio and confiscated a group of erotic artworks. Schiele spent three weeks in prison while awaiting trial; he was acquitted of the original charges but found guilty of “public immorality,” on the basis that minors had been exposed to such artworks in his studio. An offending drawing was burned by the judge at the hearing.
This episode, often sensationalized and distorted, haunts the artist’s posthumous reputation. The experience scarred Schiele, who had previously felt he was immune to social conventions. Although he was chastened, his creativity did not suffer—as demonstrated by the twenty-nine works on view in the exhibition.
During the final two years of his life, Schiele made hundreds of drawings, primarily studies of female nudes that appear more facile and commercial than his earlier work. His erotic drawings lost some of their intensity, and his style became more baroque. The artist’s business-minded wife, Edith (shown in Seated Woman, Back View), is known to have pressured him into turning out more of these marketable drawings.
Schiele’s notebook for 1918 records daily appointments with thirty-one different models. In these late works, he rarely used gouache for highlights in hair or stockings, as he had earlier. Working with great speed, he captured the various bodies—some athletic, others voluptuous—in provocatively reclining, crouching, or squatting postures. Unlike Klimt, who rendered masturbating nude models in graceful, suggestive contours, keeping a certain distance, Schiele zeroed in on the womens’ pudenda with strong lines.
After the shattering experience of prison and trial in 1912, Schiele no longer portrayed underage sitters. He made an exception, however, for the children of his models, brought to the artist’s studio in 1918. In these works, he showed a chaste and vulnerable side of adolescence. The grace of a long-haired girl of about ten must have disarmed the artist, because he depicted her in multiple drawings, some of which are shown here.
Schiele and Sexuality
The explicit imagery and underage sitters in some of the artworks in this collection raise questions in our current era. The artist’s relationships with women are difficult to judge, not only because no living witnesses survive but also because present-day standards are quite different from those that prevailed in early twentieth-century Austria. While some drawings are unsettling to contemporary eyes, considering them within the particular social and art-historical context in which they were made can prompt necessary dialogue about representation and social mores.
A small, remote village in northern Catalonia, high up in the Pyrenees and close to the border with Andorra, Gósol was recommended to Pablo Picasso for the “good air, good water, good milk and good meat.” The artist visited the town from early June to mid-August 1906, and his stay in Gósol has become synonymous with a decisive new direction in his style. He moved away from pink (the color dominant in his Rose Period) and toward ocher and gray. The nudes Picasso drew at Gósol represent an extension of the elegiac mood of The Watering Place of 1905–6, also included here.
Picasso and Fernande Olivier, his lover at the time, stayed at a modest lodging house run by Josep Fondevila, portrayed in a painting in this gallery. The nonagenarian innkeeper was apparently good-humored with Picasso (though difficult, fierce, and cantankerous with everyone else) and kept the artist spellbound with tales of his smuggling. When the innkeeper’s daughter became ill with typhoid fever, Picasso and Fernande quickly left Gósol.——————————-
A Poet and Publisher’s Obsession with Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso
July 3, 2018
by Sabine Rewald, Jacques and Natasha Gelman Curator, Department of Modern and Contemporary Art
The word “obsession” in the title of the new exhibition at The Met Breuer applies to Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Pablo Picasso, and Scofield Thayer. All three of the artists were obsessed with depicting the female nude, although in Picasso’s case, the eroticism of his nudes became more pronounced in his later years, perhaps as compensation for his advanced age.
Klimt created more than four thousand known drawings, most devoted to women. He made hundreds of preparatory sketches for a painting. Surrounded in his studio by nude models, he would capture them in a quick sketch if he spotted a pose or a movement that appealed to him. Klimt continually broke taboos; he portrayed real, not conventionally “beautiful” bodies. He defied another convention by showing a life-size pregnant woman in profile in his painting Hope I (1903). His erotic drawings were criticized in the conservative press as “sick,” “highly repellent,” and “pornographic.” In 1904, in preparation for the sensual painting Water Serpents II, (Women Friends), Klimt made some fifty studies with themes of lesbianism and masturbation; after 1912, he continued to treat these subjects in independent images of the female nude and lovemaking couples of both sexes.
The nudes of Schiele, who looked upon Klimt as a father figure, friend, and beloved master, were more explicitly and provocatively erotic than Klimt’s. Among his more than three thousand drawings and watercolors is a large series of self-portraits showing his naked, emaciated body in exhibitionistic poses that reveal the artist’s indifference to social conventions. Displaying his groin and genitals, these works mingle morbidity and eroticism, suffering and lust, but they were also notable for their elegant design, and brutal truth to fact. In his insatiable curiosity about the female body, Schiele similarly showed no restraint. In one of his most overtly erotic works, the watercolor Observed in a Dream (1911), he clearly veers toward the clinical.
The accusations against Schiele of kidnapping, statutory rape, and offenses against public morality are still repeated today in a sensationalist and distorted fashion. Although the artist spent three weeks in prison while awaiting trial, he was ultimately acquitted of the original charges. He was found guilty, however, of permitting children to roam freely through his studio, where they had seen a drawing of a nude. For “corrupting the morals of minors,” the offensive drawing was burned by the judge at the hearing. The experience was shattering to the artist, but his creativity did not suffer.
If Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso were driven to create art, Scofield Thayer was compulsive in buying it. It is probably no accident that the collector acquired Schiele’s Observed in a Dream, as well as Picasso’s equally notorious Erotic Scene (1902), which may recapture an episode of the adolescent artist’s sexual initiation in a Barcelona brothel. Writing from Europe in dutiful letters to his mother in faraway Worcester, Massachusetts, Thayer recounted having acquired works by Klimt and Schiele that were “very charming indeed,” and added in a later letter that these “less expensive works” were “for my private pleasure.” Mrs. Thayer could not have guessed that she would have been highly shocked by these “charming” works had she seen them, which she never did. Nor would the American public because none of them would be featured in the pages of the Dial, Thayer’s literary magazine.
Photographs and descriptions of Thayer attest that he was a refined and extremely handsome man. An aesthete of superior intelligence, a brilliant abstract thinker, and an individualist with egocentric ambitions, he was also an extremely complex and conflicted personality who found it hard to fit into conventional society. His marriage was brief, faltering when its novelty wore off and the challenges of seduction waned.
While in Vienna in the early 1920s, Thayer embraced the liberating social and artistic climate of the city. He had gone there not only to undergo psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud but also to scout writers and artists for the Dial. Both Klimt and Schiele had been dead for only three years when Thayer began acquiring their work in 1921. Unlike Picasso, whose work had been shown in New York in 1911 and 1913, Klimt and Schiele were unknown in America. Thayer obviously did not buy the works of Schiele and Klimt only because they were “less expensive”; he must have responded viscerally to their eroticism.
According to James Dempsey, Thayer’s biographer and coauthor of the exhibition catalogue, Thayer’s personal writings reveal that he was obsessed with sex. In his private life, he was attracted to young, still-perfect bodies of both sexes. Parallels can be drawn to the aging Gustav von Aschenbach, who becomes infatuated with the blond, elfin Polish boy Tadzio in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. In the fourteen-year-old’s beautiful body, Aschenbach sees the perfection of form. He never consummates his passion beyond the act of looking, unlike Thayer, who apparently once tried to seduce a teenage boy. When he approached his final breakdown in the late twenties, he showed interest in girls.
Thayer also courted controversies in his professional life. As the heir to a fortune that enabled him to fund the Dial (together with co-owner James Sibley Watson, Jr.), he could afford to challenge its readers without fears of censorship. He introduced avant-garde works by writers and poets, such as T. S. Eliot, E. E. Cummings, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Marcel Proust, and Arthur Schnitzler; criticism by Eliot, Edmund Wilson, Henry McBride, and Kenneth Burke; and philosophical essays by Bertrand Russell, Romain Rolland, and John Dewey. In a possibly poignant gesture, he also published the first English-language translation of Death in Venice, in the March 1924 issue of the Dial.
This essay was adapted from the preface to Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2018), a catalogue published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name on view at The Met Breuer through October 7, 2018.
This article was updated on July 9, 2018, to correct a misspelling of the word “statutory.
Comments / 2 comments
July 7, 2018
Sabine Rewald’s essay is a fascinating discussion of these artists’ works and of Thayer’s developing tastes for their creations. I have one question, however, concerning Ms. Rewald’s remarks about Egon Schiele. She says the following:
“The accusations against Schiele of kidnapping, statuary rape, and offenses against public morality are still repeated today in a sensationalist and distorted fashion.”
“Statuary” rape? This would mean the artist had been accused of assaulting statues. In all likelihood the author meant “statutory” rape, meaning sexual intercourse with a girl below the age of consent. It’s an amusing, but nonetheless confusing, error, which it would be good to correct.
Apart from this, I wonder how works in this exhibition should now be understood in the present and glaring light of the #MeToo Movement and the issues it has raised. While the focus is on the aesthetic qualities of Picasso’s, Klimt’s and Schiele’s work, there is the matter of the “male gaze” directed mostly at women. I raise a similar concern with regards to Scofield Thayer’s apparent pedophilia. In spite of the artists’ powerful talent and Thayer’s recognition of their talent, there are uncomfortable truths which clash with the gifts we admire and applaud.
July 9, 2018
Pamela—Thank you for your comment. “Statuary” should indeed read “statutory.” The typo was on the part of the editorial team—not the author—and I’ve issued a correction to this post.
The exhibition is made possible by the Barrie A. and Deedee Wigmore Foundation.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a catalogue published by The Met. An essay by James Dempsey, instructor at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute and an authority on Scofield Thayer, discusses the collector’s professional and private life. In her essay, Sabine Rewald discusses in depth the works of the three artists and also examines Thayer’s purchases between 1921 and 1923, as documented in invoices.
The catalogue is made possible in part by The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation.
In conjunction with Obsession, The Met’s Sight and Sound series will present Sight and Sound: Mahler and the Feminine Ideal. Conductor Leon Botstein and The Orchestra Now will explore the parallels between Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder and art from the exhibition. Tickets start at $30 (series, $75).
The exhibition will be featured on the Museum’s website, as well as on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter using hashtag #MetObsession.
Update June 6, 2018
Image: Egon Schiele (Austrian, 1890–1918). Standing Nude with Orange Drapery (detail), 1914. Watercolor, gouache, and graphite on paper, 18 1/4 x 12 in. (46.4 x 30.5 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Scofield Thayer, 1982 (1984.433.315ab)
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Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection Obsession
Exhibition Dates: July 3–October 7, 2018
Exhibition Location: The Met Breuer, Floor 2
Press Preview: Monday, July 2, 10 am–noon