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No "kitschmaster" - Marc Haefele reviews Getty's Gustav Klimt drawings exhibit

Gustav Klimt. Fishblood, 1898. India ink and pen on brown paper. Private collection, courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York.
Gustav Klimt. Fishblood, 1898. India ink and pen on brown paper. Private collection, courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York.
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One cultural snob called him "A kitschmaster glitteringly and preposterously back in fashion." But from Vienna to Brentwood, the rest of us are celebrating the life and work of Gustav Klimt. This spring, for his 150th birthday, Vienna was bulging with Klimt. From the Albertina museum in the old Imperial city center to the vastness of the Belvedere Palace, the streets were hung with yellow Klimt banners and streamers, and they were showing everything from his early drawings to his wondrously four-square Alpine landscapes to his masterpiece portraits of the grandest ladies of the old Empire in gold and oil-paint mosaic.

Long excoriated as a degenerate figure, then as a mere trend-marker along the developmental line of Art Nouveau, Klimt has finally won acceptance as a major art figure and innovator.

Along with Picasso, he is probably the most recognized modernist painter. His work is reproduced endlessly, in ads, posters, postcards, and the Internet. The legal battles to return his works stolen by the Nazis made world news a few years ago. And some of those works were then sold for well into 9 figures -- among the highest figures ever paid for paintings.

The big mystery is how over just 50 years Klimt evolved from being a degenerate representative of the twilight of a fading European empire to a multiversal artistic icon sprawled across 21st-Century human culture.

Now Los Angeles is getting what's said to be its first exhibit of Klimt's work, a show at the Getty that takes us to the very roots of his genius--the fantastic draftsmanship that lies beneath all the great paintings, watercolors, murals and friezes. The 100 drawings at the Getty date back to when Klimt was in his 20s, making his name as a sharp young decorative artist limning colorful nymphs and satyrs on the interior walls of Imperial Vienna's museums, mansions and theaters.

By the 1890s, Klimt took to the mainstream of European art with his acute sensual sketches of women, some floating iconically, others in a wide range of erotic poses. He became the leader of the Secession movement that marked Central Europe's move toward modernity, symbolism and a sense of a portentous and ominous future.

Klimt himself, for years a darling of the Austrian establishment despite his increasingly erotic tendencies, hit the authoritarian wall with his1900s murals for the new university that showed Philosophy as a sleeping blind monster in a random universe, Law as a cruel force oppressing humanity, Medicine as a mere player in the game of life and death. The storm of opposition his visions evoked drove him from the public sphere.

For the rest of his life, his work consisted largely of gold-leaf and mosaic portraits of beautiful women, and singular, almost impressionist landscapes of the Attersee, his favorite Alpine lake. His later work also included immortal symbolic masterpieces like "The Kiss."

In 1918, he died with the Austrian Empire that nurtured him.

The Getty show includes many sketches and studies for the most famous works. It also includes, on a grander scale, studies for the notorious University paintings, works that were later burned by the Nazis. And, as a bonus, there's a version of his murals based on the last movement of Beethoven's 9th--perhaps his most monumental completed work, and the greatest surviving work of his imagination.

It's not kitsch, but he was a master.

("Gustav Klimt: the Magic of Line" is at the Getty Center through September 23. Marc Haefele comments on art, lit, culture, and life for Off-Ramp.)