Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Magic of Line

More than once I've argued that drawing is the harder discipline than painting.  Painting in many respects is blocking out objects in space in color, so that, in even some of the crudest paintings, the objects can still be distinguishable.  Drawing, on the other hand, relies not only on the quality of line but the conscious choice of how and where to use lines to represent form and shape.  I think it one of the great ironies that John Singer Sargent was criticized in his time for drawing with the paint (as opposed to painting with the paint?).  And yet the two are so elegantly co-dependent: my drawing informs my painting as much and as often as my painting informs my drawing.

So, on opening day, I marched up the hill (literally, the tram was packed and taking far too long) to the Getty Center in Los Angeles to take in a show of Gustav Klimt's drawings.  In all, fighting an enormous crowd, I went through it piece by piece three separate times.  Well, more accurately, I went through it once, then cleansed my palate (or arguably cluttered it) by going through the entire Getty collection, then went through it a second time, and when the second time came to a close, I merely looped around and started pass #3.  Somewhere in that third pass, I became overwhelmed to the extent that I was then ready to make a swift exit.

So what happened?

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) produced thousands of drawings in his lifetime, and so despite the breadth of work that was on display, it was still only a glimpse.  The show presents the work consecutively, starting with his most classical work through to his mature style.  As with many retrospectives of this type, it's the early work that often provides the most surprise, since the public is usually most familiar with the more popular work.  This is especially true here, as the early work is so detailed and lovingly rendered compared to the pieces that would follow.  In fact, as well rendered as many of the figures in his paintings are, it was surprising just how loose the drawing became.  Not that Klimt would need that level of detail in studies having spent so much time at the drawing board, but I couldn't help but wonder  why it had become so simple.  Ultimately, it's likely a moot point. Most everything on display was studies for future paintings, and not meant to be works unto themselves.  Also, no matter how simply or quickly rendered, there was still an expert yet sensual line on display.

But it was these contradictions of sorts that led to the doubts that had me so ridiculously in my head that eventually, I couldn't look at them anymore.

Admittedly, the crowd was not of much help.  Multiple times I heard people bemoaning the lack of paintings (For those of you wondering, there are 2: one small completed work, and one finished study for another work).  First of all, the show is clearly advertised as "The Magic of Line" with every indication that it's meant to be a show of drawings.  Second: as a master draughtsman, this side of Klimt's work is more than deserving of its own show (The curators did a lovely job of featuring images and details of the finished works that the drawings corresponded to). Finally, with the endless parade of coffee table books, posters, and calendars, it is far less difficult to see at least a reproduction of a Klimt painting than his drawings!  Mainly the problem was just volume, both in terms of noise and simply numbers.  The drawings have a very intimate feel, but that's tough to get at with people squeezing and squishing to jockey for a clearer view.  But, it is a summer show, and it is the highly populated Getty...where more people are often outside snapping photos of each other before a smog-blanketed view of the city than inside looking at the art.

On the flip side, I'm not sure that if I had been allowed to go through it alone I wouldn't have been even more in my head.

I should mention that in the West Pavilion, there's a small room that's referenced a few times in the show for contemporaries of Klimt.  Though it's only a few pieces, I must recommend seeking it out, if only to see a lovely pastel study by Alfons Mucha for one of his famous illustrations.

Gustav Klimt: The Magic of Line is on display through September 23rd at the Getty in Los Angeles.