Theater & art

Art Review

MFA, Worcester base pithy shows on a single work in context

Detail of “Adam and Eve” by Gustav Klimt.

Museum of Fine Arts, boston

Detail of “Adam and Eve” by Gustav Klimt.

An occasion in itself, the first ever display of a painting by Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) at the Museum of Fine Arts, also confirms a new trend in museum showmanship — and I like it.

It involves negotiating with other institutions to borrow, for a few months, single works of art, and then making a bit of a fuss over them. Put them on display. Adorn them with one or two, maybe half a dozen, other works from your own museum’s collection — works that enhance or illuminate some aspect of the borrowed work. And voila! There’s your show.

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Inexpensive, juicy, surprisingly satisfying.

In this era of rising borrowing costs and ballooning overheads (often the result of ill-conceived expansions), this more modest approach to temporary exhibitions is at once practical and commendable. It’s all about focus.

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The Museum of Fine Arts has been mounting such shows for several years under the auspices of its Visiting Masterpieces series. The program has an improvised, what-will-they-pull-out-of-the-hat-next? aspect that I enjoy.

Since 2010, the museum has played host to Van Gogh’s “The Sower” (from the Van Gogh Museum), Cezanne’s “The Large Bathers” (from the Philadelphia Museum of Art), Renoir’s “Dance in the Country” and “Dance in the City” (the Musee d’Orsay) as well as the Capitoline Brutus and works by Caravaggio and Piero della Francesca from Italy.

It has borrowed the Klimt, which was painted within 12 months of the artist’s death and left unfinished, from the Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere in Vienna.

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Inevitably, these loans involve a quid pro quo — usually a work or works sent from the MFA to the lending institution. But such arrangements seem more spontaneous and civil than the more brutish business of organizing large-scale blockbusters, with their colossal logistical and financial challenges and necessarily long lead times, and obviously preferable to gutting the museum of its masterpieces for traveling shows that raise revenue.

The MFA’s “Visiting Masterpieces” approach is also being pursued by other museums in the region. The Worcester Art Museum recently launched its so-called “Master Series,” which is all about spotlighting a work — often borrowed, but sometimes taken from Worcester’s own collection — and pairing it with one or two others.

Presently, it is showing a gigantic Norman Rockwell drawing, recently acquired from the Higgins Armory Museum, and Raphael’s beautiful “The Small Cowper Madonna,” which is on loan from the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

national gallery of art

Raphael’s “The Small Cowper Madonna.”

The visiting Raphael has been paired with a similar painting of the Virgin and Child from Worcester’s own collection, which the museum acquired in 1940, believing it to be a Raphael. That attribution was long ago set aside. It’s easy to see why — especially when you see it next to “The Small Cowper Madonna,” which Raphael painted as a young man, shortly after coming to Florence from Urbino.

worcester art museum

A Virgin and Child once believed to be by Raphael.

The Worcester picture is lovely enough, but there is something thwarted and incomplete about it. The background landscape feels insubstantial; the infant Christ’s fingers are absurdly stubby; and his mother’s face — with its half-closed eyes and strikingly long, straight nose — is stylized to the point of vacancy.

Note, too, the way the arc describing the back of the boy’s head perfectly touches the arc of the Virgin’s cheek. As a compositional conceit, it’s suspiciously contrived — not at all a trick Raphael would have played.

Raphael epitomized instead the Italian ideal of sprezzatura: the notion, which was soon to be developed by Baldassare Castiglione in “The Book of the Courtier” (1528), of a personal freedom and nonchalance that avoids any appearance of over-diligence. His art expressed what Raphael’s contemporary, Giorgio Vasari, called “a grace beyond measure.”

It is exciting, up close, to see Raphael’s under-drawing in “The Small Cowper Madonna.” We can see, in these visible outlines, the beginning of what we think of now as the modern style — a style that was massively influential not only in Raphael’s day, but for the next 400 years. I’m talking about Raphael’s special way of combining an unprecedented naturalism, a fidelity to the three-dimensional appearance of reality, with a form of idealization — a style.

In unexpected ways, that distinctive combination raises its head again in the work of Gustav Klimt, which is part of what makes these two mini-exhibitions so interesting to think about in tandem.

In Raphael, style amounts to an ongoing conversation between the earthly world of appearances (with all its imperfections) and a divine or ideal realm. You can see the dialog at its most rudimentary level in the contrast between, on the one hand, the realism of the fabric that is stretched across the Virgin’s bust so that it forms creases at the seam, and, on the other, the idealization expressed by the uninflected curve of her jaw line and the continuous, apparently boneless curve of her right shoulder.

In Raphael’s many studies for his paintings of the Virgin with the infant Christ (and often John the Baptist), what stands out are the circling motions of his pen. You can feel the beginnings of a Christian theology in these simple-seeming motions.

For Raphael, the circle was a perfect form, linked to the divine. But in his drawing, the circles, even as they seem to search for the perfection of completion, are never actually complete. Instead, they are left as unfinished arcs, or they are distended into ellipses — imperfect circles, suggestive of the earthly, rather than the heavenly realm.

Of course, these ellipses and incomplete arcs also serve important pictorial functions. On the one hand, they are decorative: They establish rhythms and echoes across the surface of the picture.

But they are also fully alive, fully plastic (bendable, malleable); their smallest inflections help Raphael carve out the illusion of space, pushing his figures back behind the flat surface of the image into an imaginary depth, an earthly, embodied landscape. Repeated with small variations, they also convey bodily animation.

Raphael’s easy naturalism is reinforced in a painting like “The Small Cowper Madonna” by his beautiful rendering of light and his subtle modeling. The way this naturalism harmonizes so comfortably with the divine is what makes his works so fresh, and so timelessly beautiful.

Raphael forged a style, as personal and unmistakable in its way as any 20th-century style, but it was a style of unassailable integrity. By 1917, when Klimt painted his “Adam and Eve,” on show at the Museum of Fine Arts, the world had moved on from the idea that the relationship between an ideal world and reality — between the heavenly realm and the “fallen” world — could be expressed so comfortably, so seamlessly.

Yet Klimt’s art expressed exactly the same underlying tensions as Raphael’s. It was the tension between naturalism and idealism; between a decorative organization of the picture’s surface, and a convincing illusion of reality.

Against Raphael’s repeating arcs, Klimt expressed the scurrying, flickering, twitchy character of modern life with his wild, unraveling line, full of serpentine energies ominously disturbed.

The line, for instance, that defines the contour of Eve’s left side (on our right) has no natural grace or proportion — not by Raphaelesque standards, anyway. It seems to ripple and bend wherever it will. And yet Eve’s frontally displayed body, with its veinous pallor, thick thighs, and pink knees, also feels extremely naturalistic.

“If he wants to make a woman, let him make a woman,” said Picasso after seeing Matisse’s “Blue Nude (Memory of Biskra)” in 1907. “If he wants to make a design, let him make a design. This is between the two.”

The same thing could be said of Klimt — but with a crucial difference: Where Matisse struggled endlessly to unite his feeling for decoration with his fidelity to sensual reality, Klimt was happy to play up the dissonance.

It is often observed that Klimt’s preoccupations overlapped with those of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, who was thinking and writing and treating patients in the same social milieu in Vienna in which Klimt was painting. The painter’s unfinished rendering of Eve (which may have been the last woman he ever painted) suggests a similar desire to excavate the instinctual and especially the erotic side of existence, buried beneath layers of civilization and repression.

Klimt, who was the cofounder and first president of the Vienna Secession, had been painting erotic subjects since the 1890s. But to be addressing this theme in 1917, against a backdrop of mass death and destruction — and indeed the artist’s own impending death — must surely have felt charged. (Freud at the same time was cogitating on ideas that would soon become “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” — his brilliant, speculative meditation on the so-called “death drive.”)

In the Bible, the story of Adam and Eve is linked not with a knitting together of heavenly and earthly realms, as in the art of Raphael, but with a fall from perfection, with the curse of original sin.

But in this painting Klimt is less interested in any traditionally Christian take on original sin, and more concerned with emphasizing Eve’s powerful eroticism. She may, as she emerges from the thigh of the shadowy male figure of Adam behind her, represent the liberation of female sexuality, but it is a sexuality you feel Klimt, and men in general, might feel threatened or overwhelmed by.

His Eve, in other words, is not just a pretty woman. She is the archetype of the femme fatale — that evergreen product of the patriarchal imagination that was especially in vogue in Klimt’s day.

What are we to make of Klimt’s vision a century later? His ideas, and his take on female sexuality, do not seem particularly current. It seems that he, like Freud and like his Scandinavian contemporaries Edvard Munch and August Strindberg, wanted to register the radical, tragic nature of the conflict between the sexes — to see it in all its terrible grandeur.

Although these visions suggest strong streaks of misogyny — Strindberg, for instance, was “mocked and maddened,” as Germaine Greer once wrote, “by the very inscrutability of the female body compared to the pathetic exposure of male libido” — they might in some ways contain truths ignored by our current tendency to trivialize the problem of male-female relations.

Still, aesthetically, I find Klimt’s style uncomfortable. At times, he can seem like a society portraitist and decorator looking for, but never quite finding, a deeper purpose.

His much younger protégé, Egon Schiele, represented here by a charcoal and watercolor drawing and a drypoint from the MFA’s collection, pushed his master’s delicately dissonant aesthetic powerfully in the direction of naturalism — but it was a neurotic naturalism that frequently tipped over into histrionics.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

“Two Nudes (Lovers)” by Oskar Kokoschka.

The same tendency manifested itself, albeit with different results, in the work of Oskar Kokoschka. The MFA’s Kokoschka, “Two Nudes (Lovers)” from 1913 — a portrait of the artist awkwardly embracing his lover, the legendary Alma Mahler, in a dismal-looking Eden — hangs here next to Klimt’s “Adam and Eve.”

The juxtaposition intensifies, by contrast, the Klimt’s decorative aspects, just as the Klimt’s blushing fragility brings out the blowsy Expressionism of the Kokoschka. Neither is especially enhanced by the pairing.

Klimt’s drawings, it must be said, are among the most beautiful of the 20th century. They turn Raphael’s incomplete arcs into looping, dancing tangles that twitch with erotic energy. Two are included here, along with Ferdinand Hodler’s famous “Secession” poster from 1904, rounding off a fascinating, provocative display.

Art Review

Visiting Masterpiece:

Gustav Klimt’s Adam and Eve

At: Museum of Fine Arts, through April 27. 617-267-9300. www.mfa.org

Raphael: The Cowper Madonna

At: Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, through Sept. 27.

508-799-4406, www.worcesterart.org

More coverage:

More from Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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