Freedom and fearlessness in Klimt and Monet
San Francisco Bay Area—When one thinks of Klimt and Monet, what springs to mind but exuberant color that brings a joyous lift to the heart?
San Francisco is home to several world-class museums, among them the Legion of Honor, which houses European paintings, decorative arts, and sculpture, including a fine collection of Impressionist art.
Until Jan. 28, the museum is also showcasing 20 paintings and some drawings of Austrian master Gustave Klimt alongside works of French sculptor August Rodin. The exhibition, entitled “Klimt and Rodin: An Artistic Encounter” is a study in contrasts—Rodin’s static, poised busts and full-figures frozen in marble or bronze beside Klimt’s extravagant, vibrant splashes of colors and patterns indeed make for an interesting juxtaposition.
Klimt’s early works were in the realist style. As his style matured, he began experimenting. His “Portrait of Sonja Knips” (1898) is his first foray into a square format, a life-size rendering of the sitter, and the capture of “snapshot” moment—Knips is balanced on the edge of her seat, her left hand on the arm of her chair as if she were about to stand up. Knips’ pink and white frock is conventional for the period, but rendered in swift strokes that evoke the fuzziness of tulle; only her face is fully detailed.
Greatly affected by the deaths of his father and brother Ernst, Klimt moved on to pursue a different artistic vision, one that catapulted him to fame. This is the Klimt familiar to us, that of the “golden phase” that produced works such as “The Kiss.” From the early 1900s to his death in 1918, a bold use of colors and fascination with patterns became integral to his artistic expression.
At the Legion of Honor, his “The Virgin” (1913) is prominently displayed, and rightfully so. It is a cheerful riot of patterns—spirals, circles, flowers made of circles within circles, all painted in the “weird” colors of the crayon box—red-orange, blue-violet, red-violet, yellow-green, yellow-orange. Nestled in the midst of the color explosion are the placid, dreaming faces of six pale maidens, their limbs tangled with each other’s. It literally made my jaw drop. It is that beautiful, that awesome, as in “inspiring awe.”
Similarly, “The Baby” (1917) seems rather to focus more on the quilt wrapping the baby than the baby itself, whose head is located at the upper center of the canvas, close to the edge. The tiny face on a white pillow is almost undiscernible for the colors of the swaddling catch the eye first, and they make no sense, it is a hodge-podge of shapes and colors that do not easily resolve themselves into patterns. No matter. It is enough that it looks like Klimt enjoyed himself with this one, daubing paint on the canvas as he pleased.
Also housed in the Legion of Honor are works by Impressionist masters. The star of the collection is Claude Monet’s “Water Lilies.” Actually one of a series of 250 paintings that the artist made of his flower garden, this particular painting is exceptionally vibrant in color. (Later renditions made when Monet had developed cataracts are mostly white and look washed out, an interesting interpretation of how the pond and flowers actually looked to his poor, blurred eyes.)
The Legion of Honor’s Water Lilies is a delight to behold. It is a painting of flowers and leaves on a pond. If it were a photograph, it would look like a tight crop or a close-up of that particular spot. The pond waters are a swirl of blues and greens, the flowers are red, pink, and lavender. The effect is one of lightness, brightness, and natural splendor.
It was a privilege to see the master’s brushstrokes up close. The painting has moderate to heavy textural layers, perhaps where paint was applied with a palette knife and blended on the canvas, while swirls and daubs of blue and green indicate the movement of water. The flowers, surprisingly, are quick simple swirls of deep red, lavender, and white.
If there were a lesson to all this, it would be: Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid of color—love it, embrace it, use it in your art, even the weirdest hues. Do not be afraid of making up your own patterns, even if they make sense to no one, not even yourself. Do not be afraid of using simple shapes to describe complex figures and subjects. Do not be afraid of freeing up your strokes, of laying on paint with a flourish of the fingers like Salt Bae.
Klimt and Monet painted without fear and with the utmost freedom of expression and confidence in their own desire and delight. This is why we enjoy their works, because they exude that freedom and fearlessness and enjoyment which attracts us and stimulates response.
And that is why we need art—to remind us that the human spirit is always free.
Dr. Ortuoste is a California-based writer. Facebook and Twitter: @jennyortuoste