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Why is this Austrian painter on this page?

Strange as it may sound, the legacy of Gustav Klimt could be recovered not by the West, but by India. Indrajit Hazra elaborates.

india Updated: Feb 27, 2009 23:04 IST
Indrajit Hazra

On Thursday, the Austrian Cultural Forum of the Embassy of Austria hosted a very special evening at the Lalit Kala Academy in Delhi. Art historian Gabriela Krist of the University of Applied Arts, Vienna, spoke about ‘the style’ of the turn-of-the-20th-century artist Gustav Klimt.

She also spoke about Jugendstil (‘youth style’, named after the Munich magazine, Die Jugend, that featured such designs), the ornate, organic, plant motifs-influenced artistic style that was to become the international rage as Art Noveau until the 20th century cramped it with its Modernist styles.

Did I go and listen to Doktor Krist? Nein. I was stuck to the neo-classical contours of my smudgy laptop screen in office. But the knowledge of the ‘Klimt evening’ triggered the need to revisit the unique works of the artist, 12 of whose pencil and black chalk human figures, almost abstract but always firm, form the dozen pages of the calendar below which I twitched and worked on.

While Jugendstil primarily started in the form of graphic art in the 1890s, it seeped out into architecture as well as in painting. Klimt’s mature works, marked by their ivy-like depictions of contorted female bodies and Freudian iconography, have the tendency of appearing slightly ‘undergrad’ (because of its poster-ish qualities) and queer (because of its hyper-eroticism) to modern eyes that prefer more nuanced, more sophisticated fare. But Klimt’s purpose was to dazzle with form as
well as substance — the artistic equivalent of style and content in the literary world locked in a rumba.

The 1901 work, Judith I (left), depicting the Jewish heroine from the Old Testament who seduced and decapitated the invading Assyrian general Holofernes, has her eyes half-closed in ecstasy. The natural clasping of death and the erotic, made so thrillingly poetic by the French Symbolists a generation ago, takes a rich, visual form. But the masterstroke in Judith I is the golden choker clasped around the femme fatale’s neck as she caresses the hair on Holofernes’s stand-alone half-visible head. The necklace almost merges with the stunning gold background providing the viewer the illusion of Judith’s head itself floating a few inches above her taut body.

In a country where naked depictions in art can rustle up a mob, what place does Klimt have? Also, thanks to the corridors that link us to contemporary Western aesthetics — where Klimt’s sensual art is passé as it borders on High Art kitsch —his swirling, organic lines of flesh are neither part of accepted radical Western art nor in step with our prudish judgment of stirring art.

The Kiss (1907-08), after adorning millions of calendars and coffee mugs, and with its depiction of the bodies/clothes of the two figures drenched in a golden-swirled forest of designs, is more familiar and more acceptable. We are able to go beyond getting stalled at the surge of eroticism as depicted in other of Klimt’s works, like the disturbingly rapturous Goldfish (1901-02) and Danäe (1907-08), and come face to face with the elegance of lines made flesh.

In a strange way, we in India are still stuttering about defending the erotic in art against the banal; our literalised mob can see Klimt’s paintings in their full glory. The West, bored by an over-fed diet of visualised sex and incapable of reacting with the right mix of wonderment and shock, may not be Klimt’s keeper any more. It’s us who need to get ready and recover the grandeur of the finest Jugendstyl. Which is why this secretly slipped-in manifesto in lieu of a regular column.