Breezing through “Klimt and Schiele: Drawn” at the Museum of Fine Arts, it would be easy to be enthralled by Egon Schiele’s nervy, galvanic drawings, and to miss the delicacy of Gustav Klimt. He may have used finer lines, but he didn’t shy from confrontation.
Klimt worked simply, in graphite or charcoal. Schiele added watercolor. His blotted, sometimes aggressively brushed pigment can read like spilled blood. Then, too, Schiele considered his drawings finished; notionally and compositionally, they are whole works of art. Klimt’s drawings were preparatory, all jotted ideas and problems being solved.
But Klimt was a magnificent graphic artist — perhaps a better draftsman than he was a painter — and his drawings lushly satisfy scrutiny.
“Klimt and Schiele: Drawn,” up through May 28, comes from a trove of drawings held by Vienna’s Albertina Museum, offered to commemorate the centenary the artists’ deaths. Klimt died at 55 in February 1918, after suffering a stroke and then contracting the Spanish flu. The flu took Schiele that October; he was 28.
Klimt had his career well in hand when Schiele approached him to trade drawings, sometime around 1907. The art student offered several sheets for one of the master’s, but Klimt saw the raw power of the young man’s work, and replied, “Why do you want to exchange with me? You draw better than I do.”
It was a new day in turn-of-the-century Vienna. Freud’s books on sexuality, psychopathology, and the unconscious opened new windows into the mind; composers such as Schoenberg repudiated Strauss’s sumptuous romanticism. Visual artists shook off the pageantry of preeminent history painter and designer Hans Makart for a more intimate, psychologically fraught naturalism.
Klimt took cues from Makart, delighting in decorative pomp. We know him best for his gold-besotted Art Nouveau paintings, the opulence of which can outweigh their import. In drawings, the overblown lavishness falls away to reveal a fierce sensuality.
In “Seated Woman in a Pleated Dress,” the first Klimt piece in the show, the model sits with the soles of her feet touching, her body a sturdy pyramid. She leans forward, jaw strong, eyes penetrating. Casual, unprepossessing, completely in command.
Across from her hangs Schiele’s “The Artist’s Mother, Sleeping.” This is no sweet, domestic counterpoint to the defiant “Seated Woman.” Schiele’s works bristle and strain; every figure has a thready pulse and a haunted soul. Here, he has upended his reclining mother into a vertical, her pale face tilted and mussed with shadow, her body blanketed by passages of bruised, mottled color. He has hung her up to dry.
Katie Hanson, the show’s organizer and the MFA’s assistant curator of paintings in the Art of Europe department, wisely keeps the Schieles away from the Klimts — Schiele’s pigment alone would shout down the seeming quiet of Klimt’s drawings. Then she elucidates what the two artists shared.
Both endured scandal. Critics decried Klimt’s 1894 designs for ceiling paintings at the University of Vienna’s Great Hall as pornographic. In studies for them, Klimt places female nudes hovering above us, leading with their pubes, breasts thrust upward, heads vanishing. They’re not pornographic by today’s lights, but they are frankly erotic.
Schiele, meanwhile, was arrested on charges of abduction, molestation, and immorality after a teenage runaway sought refuge with him and his girlfriend in 1912. He was found guilty only of immorality, because the girl had been exposed to his paintings of nudes. He spent 24 days in jail, where he drew a self-portrait that, like the portrait of his mother, sets a reclining figure precariously upright. He indignantly called it “Hindering the Artist Is a Crime, It Is Murdering Life in the Bud!”
In a section devoted to portraits, we find the most Schiele-like Klimt and the most Klimt-like Schiele. In Klimt’s “Lady with Plumed Hat” the sitter’s dress and hat are brushed with black ink — his only use of pigment in this show, à la Schiele — setting off the fine lines of her masklike face and upswept hair.
Schiele’s “Alfred Spitzer,” meanwhile, is drawn only in graphite, Klimt-style. But while Klimt often left faces out of his portrait studies, puzzling instead over stance and dress, Schiele draws this lawyer and collector’s expression with a caricaturist’s flair. Spitzer looks both stern and startled, as if whoever just goosed him will have hell to pay.
Most urgently, both artists, perhaps awake to Freud, appear to have seen the body as the seat of the psyche, a transparent envelope through which we can read desire (in Klimt’s case) and trauma (in Schiele’s).
For Klimt, drawing women was a life’s work. His reclining nudes are challenging to read, cut off or obscured, inhabiting odd spaces, exposed yet enigmatic. In them, the artist wrestles with formal challenges, and probably, too, his muddled feelings about women.
If Klimt was working something out in his drawings, Schiele appears to have explicitly set out to confront life’s ragged edge, and even glory in it. His “Nude Self-Portrait” is a slap in the face. He’s naked, rail thin, and contorted. One eye is open and one nearly closed, and his skin looks scabrous and bruised. A white outline throbs around him. It’s typical of Schiele’s figures — gaunt, attenuated, skin so blotchy it might be putrefying.
There are lovely, pleasing, benign drawings by both artists in “Klimt and Schiele: Drawn,” too. But the works that wrestle with what it means to be a man, and to be mortal, are the ones to remember.
KLIMT AND SCHIELE: Drawn
At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through May 28. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org