A forgotten spark plug who helped fire up the surrealist movement, German fin de sicle artist Max Klinger offers images that combine lush beauty and a screw-loose creepiness so unsettling that I found myself flipping over one downloaded image, unable to look at it any longer.
Largely unknown, Max Klinger has slipped through the cracks of the big art movements around which most old-school art history books take shape. Of three authoritative such books I checked, one gave him a paragraph, another a phrase, and the third — an Oxford edition — dropped him entirely. The Britannica knows better, with a generous mention deservedly equal in length to that of his more famous contemporary Gustav Klimt.
Perhaps Klinger is neglected by art history because his startling, breathtaking prints (putting aside his paintings and sculptures) combine elements of more than one identifiable style. There's swirly art nouveau stateliness, Romantic realism, and dreamlike symbolist weirdness. Add a shadowy morbidity, and the memorable result may be seen in the Glove series of prints on display at the U-M Museum of Art.
One of several series by Klinger, the ten Glove prints form a dream-narrative of a man finding a lady's dropped glove at a roller-skating rink. From this modest start, the glove becomes the symbol of a loved one, and as the series progresses, a rising wind of increasingly intense and dreamlike images mounts to an inferno of obsession that slips farther from reality — it doesn't take long. Print 1 shows a group of men and women in period dress chatting at the rink. Even now, something's tilted and shadowy about the reflections in the windows behind them. Print 2 shows a roller-skating man leaning down to retrieve the glove, dropping his hat in his haste. Print 3 resembles a Tarot card symbolizing sadness, with a man weeping before the glove laid beneath a lacy tree next to a lone candle.
And we're off into a raging night sea where a boat captain tries to fish the glove from whitecaps. The glove attains life in print 5, holding the reins of a lordly chariot riding on ornate curlicues. It becomes threatening, creeping over bedclothes to a dreaming man pillowed in an illogical litter of dream-images made real objects.
Curator Carole McNamara's favorite (mine too, although it's the one I had to flip over) is print 9. A batlike pterodactyl flies away from a building at night, the glove in its beak. Two arms have smashed through two now-jagged broken panes of a closed window, with the pterodactyl's tail tip barely between the desperate hands about to grab it.
You can catch the pterodactyl and the other images at UMMA December 20 through February 29.