Art that hovers on the brink of the 20th century

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I know a young painter who has already seen the Gustav Klimt-Egon Schiele exhibition at the Galerie St. Etienne here three or four times -- and intends to see it at least as many times again.

Having seen the show myself, I'd say his interest is perfectly reasonable, for this small selection of Klimt's and Schiele's works contains some of the best drawings and watercolors produced in this century, as well as a few of its more interesting oils.

Schiele, especially, comes off as the genius-draftsman he was. No one in this century, not even Picasso, surpassed him in his ability to reach deep into the unique identity of an object or individual and to bring it forcefully to the surface in the form of a few lines and washes of color. His images wriggle with the living ferocity of something wild caught in a trap. And indeed, his grasp of form and of personality was as total and as inexorable as a trap. Once "caught" by Schiele in a sketch or drawing, his subjects remain forever present on paper or canvas.

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Schiele had the rare ability of uprooting an individual from its species and making if fully representative of its kind -- whether something as complex as a human being or as "simple" as a plant. His 1910 "Portrait of Edward Kosmak," for instance, is at once a precise portrait of an individual, a penetrating study of pre-World War I European Angst,m and an accurate portrayal of 20 th-century alienation. It is also a stunning aesthetic object and, in many ways , a devastating self-portrait as well.

As a draftsman, Schiele had the tenacity of a hungry dog digging for a bone and the uncanny knack of knowing exactly where the clue to individuality was buried. Klimt was another kind of artist altogether: reticent, lyrical, and brilliantly decorative, a product more of the dying 19th century than of the emergent 20th.

Klimt, unfortunately, does not come off as well as Schiele in this exhibition , but through no fault of his own. His highly ornamental vision demanded a pictorial complexity achieved most successfully by him in large portraits (mostly of women), complex alleforical paintings, and flatly patterned landscapes. Most of the best of these are in Europe and were not available for this show. As a result, we are presented with some lovely drawings and a selection of paintings which, excellent as some of them may be, give us only a hint of Klimt's real accomplishments.

Even so, his 1897-98 oil "Woman With Fur Collar" gives us an essential clue to the sort of women he painted best: elegant, allof, and mildly provocative, a sort of John Singer Sargent lady grown a bit precious and self-conscious. And in "Portrait of Mme. Primavesi" we find Klimt's highly personal blend of precise draftsmanship and lightly colored decoration in full swing. His landscape style is well represented by "Island in the Attersee" and by "House in Garden." At least they give us a very clear indication of what he was about in these highly original outdoor works.

I had hoped to see his marvelously radiant "Baby (Cradle)" recently acquired by the National Gallery in Washington, but that was not to be. And so I must alert the potential visitor to this show that, while there are some excellent examples of Klimt's art on view, judgment should not be based on what is to be found in it.

It's interesting that both artists are frequently coupled, both in the public's mind and in most exhibitions of their period. If we find a Schiele (or a Klimt) on a wall, the other will not be far away.

While some of that results from the fact that both were Austrian and contemporaries (although Klimt, born in 1862, was almost three decades the older), it is at least as crucial to this pairing that they represent two profoundly complementary cultural aspects of turn-of-the-century Europe: increasing individual alienation and a powerful desire to retain the elegances of the just-departed period.

Schiele was a 20th-century expressionist to the core, although he had gone through some earlier experiments with Art Nouveau. This movement, begun in the 1880s and peaking just after 1900, emphasized a highly complex linear style based on such natural rhythms as waves and flames. It was very much to Klimt's taste, for its extremely ornamental nature suited his predilection for busy overall patterning.

Where Schiele saw life raw and starkly, Klimt saw it through a thin veil of idealization and romance. Klimt's women are always languid and swanlike. They hover on the border separating the 20th century from the 19th, and wish that somehow they were back in the 1870s and '80s.

Schiele's women, on the other hand, are very much of this century -- despite their great elegance and style. His 1915 "Woman in Green Blouse and Muff," for instance, belongs in the same world as his intense and anxious men.

Although I know such comparisons are limited and somewhat foolish. I've always felt that, in some ways, Schiele and Klimt added up to one Toulouse-Lautrec, with Schiele representing Lautrec's genius for sharply focused characterization, and Klimt his extraordinary capacity for linear elegance.

I think this exhibition bears me out, for it reveals that Klimt and Schiele shared a blend of sources and ideals that joined them in as many ways as their divergent temperaments drove them apart.

This excellent exhibition will remain on view at the Galerie St. Etienne through Dec. 27.

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