Surprises From A Master. Some early Klimt work is so precise and exquisite it could be Pre-Raphaelite

ART: REVIEW

THE reputation of Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) has grown by leaps and bounds here ever since his first solo American exhibition at the Galerie St. Etienne here in 1959. It was also given a boost by the 1960s psychedelic movement, which saw kinship in Klimt's dense, extravagantly designed canvases, and by the eye-opening 1965 ``Gustav Klimt/Egon Schiele'' exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Today, Klimt is a favored 20th-century master, generally even better known and liked than his famous (and greater) Austrian contemporary, Egon Schiele, with whom he is often linked. Even so, exhibitions of his work, especially of his earlier paintings, remain relatively rare.

To counter this, and to celebrate its 50th anniversary, the Galerie St. Etienne has mounted a special showing of Klimt's paintings and drawings, with a particular emphasis on his early academic and formative canvases as well as on his landscapes. The oils are on loan from public and private collections, including the Museum of the City of Vienna and the Austrian National Gallery.

This exhibition will be of particular interest to those familiar only with his sumptuous ``golden'' period, which peaked around 1909, and during which he combined elegantly drawn realistic subject matter with freely improvised, exuberantly colored decorative patterning. The greatest surprise for these individuals will be the 1890-92 oil, ``Two Girls With Oleander,'' a canvas so precisely rendered and exquisitely finished that it could easily be mistaken for a Pre-Raphaelite work. A moment's study, however, will indicate that Klimt did indeed paint it. The sensitively idealized young women give him away - as does the quietly understated decorative backdrop against which they are placed.

``Love'' (1895) is considerably less surprising, for it reveals Klimt's sensibilities and stylistic tendencies a bit more clearly. In fact, the Klimt we now know is already essentially in place in this haunting depiction of romantic love. All that is needed is his brilliant, decorative approach to color. But that wouldn't appear for a few more years.

In numbers, Klimt's delicate linear drawings dominate the show. There are 46 of them, ranging from an academic study of 1886 to several loosely executed sketches of 1917-18.

At the Galerie St. Etienne, 24 West 57th Street, Through June 10.

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