Europe on Paper
200 years of potential art crushes
by Sally Wright Day
From the November, 2016 issue
Yes, I admit it. I went all wide-eyed and weak-kneed when the U-M Museum of Art used lures like Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt in the previews for its current exhibit, Europe on Paper. I wasn't this excited or rubbery in the Louvre waiting to see the Mona Lisa. Fair warning: This review is absolutely biased by the reviewer's awe toward certain artists. But it does also include respectful admiration for the whole exhibit of prints, paintings, and sketches now at UMMA.
There are plenty of other famous names here--Oskar Kokoschka, Emil Nolde, Ernst Kirchner--and the works are notable and historical, powerful and beautiful. And this collection's time span, from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, is an impressive proof of the excellent range and taste of the collectors, Ernst Pulgram and Frances McSparran, both U-M professors and married to each other. And, yes, the exhibit traces a lovely arc of art history, from the dense black-and-white engravings of formal landscapes in the exhibit's start to the sparse lines and radical compositions of the later artists.
Wait, I'll get back to him.
For those of you who prefer sequential order, view the collection as organized in its three parts. The first section, "The Natural World and the Metropolis," greets you at the entrance of the Taubman Gallery. Here you'll find those tight, formal landscapes of the 1700s and the freer, looser sketches of urban scenes in the World War I era. You can easily see the art's progression from meticulous to expressive.
The second section, "The Spiritual and the Sinister," is a mostly dark exploration of the mystical, from Christianity to the paranormal. One brilliant exception is Kokoschka's Crucifixion, which, despite its gruesome subject, is a bright watercolor. This, the exhibit book says, is an example of this section's "challenge" to the expectations of Christian art. Me, I enjoyed the challenge of having Alfred Kubin's Black Magic, which really is almost entirely black, right next to it.
The third section,
"The Human Body and Its Conditions," is where the real fun is. The works here "deconstruct the notion of the glorified and decorous nude," says the book. Yes, they do. And Schiele is paramount in the deconstruction.
His compositions! His perspective! These are no beautifully draped, languorous nudes to adore. This is straight-on nakedness, a bit perverse, a tad repulsive. Take Female Nude Lying Back. Schiele gives you the front view, with knees and genitalia as the center focus. Hip flesh and breasts flop gracelessly to each side, and the face flattens from this viewpoint. Schiele's perspective always seems a bit "off" by just enough to make his work strangely extraordinary. And then there are his lines: undulating, articulate, gorgeous, perfect--with creepy results.
Even babies, the ultimate cuteness, aren't immune. Nude Infant is gruesome, with its spare lines outlining skinny legs and arms and flicks of hair. I found this and Schiele's other work utterly captivating, so much so that Klimt's pieces paled by comparison. Poor Gustav. He's suffering from overexposure these days, with his oeuvre unfairly boiled down to The Kiss. I still love his rarer work, but his protege outdid him.
You can find your own artist-crush somewhere among the exhibit's 200 years of art until it closes January 29.
[Originally published in November, 2016.]
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