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).
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.
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 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.
Of the three artists in this exhibition, Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) was the only one alive during Scofield Thayer's art-buying spree in Europe between 1921 and 1923. The two men met at a dinner in summer 1923, and the following day Thayer visited Picasso at his Paris studio. Thayer proudly wrote to his mother that he admired Picasso more than any other living artist. He acquired fourteen watercolors and drawings, six prints, and two paintings by the artist. The group includes fourteen nudes, all shown here.
The earliest work in this gallery is Erotic Scene (1902–3), an imaginary re-creation of Picasso's sexual initiation in a Barcelona brothel. The other drawings fall into two main groups. Those dating from 1906 feature nudes drawn during a sojourn in Gósol, a remote village in the Pyrenees. Most of the remaining works date to the early 1920s, when Picasso spent summers at Cap d'Antibes (in the French Riviera), Fontainebleau, and Dinard (in Brittany). In these bucolic surroundings, the artist created a series of drawings showing nude female bathers in various postures of languid repose. Thayer, who despised abstract art, notably ignored the Cubist period of the artist's career.
Egon Schiele (Austrian, 1890–1918). Self-Portrait (detail), 1911. Watercolor, gouache, and graphite on paper, 20 1/4 x 13 3/4 in. (51.4 x 34.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Scofield Thayer, 1982 (1984.433.298ab)