Obsession: Nudes collected by Scofield Thayer

1984.433.315ab

[Image: Egon Schiele, (Austrian, 1890–1918), Egon Schiele, (Austrian, 1890–1918)
Standing Nude with Orange Drapery (1914), Watercolor, gouache and graphite on paper
18 1/4 x 12 in. (46.4 x 30.5 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Scofield Thayer, 1982]

The sudden rise to prominence – and subsequent descent into obscurity – of Scofield Thayer (1889-1982) reads like an F. Scott Fitzgerald story. A young American playboy tours Europe then returns to the USA to marry. When he returns to Europe after the Great War, the young man is an editor of a literary journal and uses his fortune to support the literary lions of London, Vienna and Paris. He undergoes analysis with Dr Freud in Vienna. Now divorced from his wife, he is a dedicated libertine and decadent, his life devoted to the compulsive pursuit of novelty: principally promoting avant-garde writing, collecting erotic art and engaging in sexual conquests (both women and men). He amasses a great collection of art, some of it striking erotic art. On his return to the New York, he slowly descends into insanity and lives out the largest part of his long life in obscurity, spending periods in various institutions. By the time of his death, he has long outlived his notoriety and his death goes almost unnoticed.

Thayer edited Dial, one of the most important literary journals of the 1920s. It published ground-breaking prose and verse by T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, E.E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence and many others, famous and unknown. Dial also brought advanced European art to American readers. Thayer bought large quantities of art, mostly because he liked it but also a few pieces he intended to trade at a profit. In Vienna, he encountered the art if the recently deceased Klimt and Schiele. In war-impoverished Vienna, excellent drawings were cheap and Thayer could amass a fine collection of graphics, especially erotic drawings by the pair, some priced as low as $6 each. His collection of almost 600 pieces of art, ranging from German Renaissance prints and Toulouse-Lautrec lithographs to paintings by the Expressionists, Braque, Bonnard and Matisse, was bought before Thayer’s mental instability sent him into seclusion at the end of the 1920s. Some of collection was erotic in character. This uneven and partly salacious collection was bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum on his death in 1982. One can only imagine the mingled pleasure and embarrassment among museum administrators and curators discovering the unabashed sexual nature of much of the art received into the collection. This catalogue documents the exhibition Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection of 52 nudes by three prominent Modernist artists: Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Pablo Picasso. The exhibition will be held at the Met Breuer (Metropolitan Museum of Art), New York from 3 July to 7 October 2018.

Klimt drew thousands of studies – mainly figures – during pauses between painting sessions. He drew as preparation for his Symbolist paintings (including public commissions, such as the murals for Vienna university) and also as a general exercise to keep his skills sharp. Visitors to his studio recalled nude models lounging around, ready to inspire the artist with a gesture or position. Klimt had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of ready models. The drawings of nudes in the Thayer collection are typical of the late period of Klimt. Slender young women with bountiful tresses drape themselves over undepicted beds, sometimes pleasuring themselves. The style is dreamy, with the often undifferentiated subjects drawn lightly, with little shading, most executed in pencil. Outlines – which are almost all there is to Klimt’s figures – are sometimes uncertain and repeatedly reworked to build up solid but insubstantial forms.

1984.433.196

[Image: Gustav Klimt, (Austrian, 1862–1918), Reclining Nude with Drapery, Back View (1917–1918), Graphite, 14 5/8 x 22 3/8 in. (37.1 x 56.8 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Scofield Thayer, 1982]

The best of the drawings is a standing figure of 1906-7. The unusual rounded hairstyle, striking pose (with hip jutting) and evidence of a revised pose all make this piece stand out as memorable. The other pictures by Klimt are fair examples of their type but not very engaging.

Egon Schiele’s interests were even more frankly sexual. Unlike the more expensive and public oil paintings that he made, Schiele could use drawing on paper as medium in which to be more adventurous and explicit in imagery and subject matter. Thayer’s 32 drawings and prints (29 of which are reproduced in the catalogue) cover the whole of Schiele’s short career, starting in 1911 and ending the year of his death, 1918. The earliest drawings are sketchy, with simple lines picking out aspects, those lines sometimes floating as if detached from the motif.

Observed in a Dream (1911) is an unusual showpiece from Schiele’s early years. The fanciful title (prominently inscribed on the front), thorough colouring with watercolour paint and coquettishly sexual pose all indicate the artist aping the pornographic photographs and drawings easily to be found in Vienna in that period.  Ultimately, Schiele’s art became more sophisticated and personal without losing its sexual edge. One gets the impression that a more confident and independent Schiele would later collaborate with his models to explore expressions of sexuality that were less clichéd.

The drawings and drypoints of 1914 include the button eyes and doll faces typical of that phase. There are a few of Schiele’s typical line drawings coloured by broken patches of gouache diluted with gum arabic. By 1918, Schiele’s lines were fatter (conté crayon or black chalk replacing pencil) and the curves more emphatic. The models were no longer the scrawny adolescent waifs of the early years but adult women bursting with health, some of them buxom. There are drawings of a child model, who was apparently the child of a female model, as evidenced by a drawing showing the mother and child together.

The art by Picasso is less explicit in general. Although Picasso was often driven by erotic impulses, it came out in playful, indirect and witty ways rather than straightforward realistic depictions of nude figures. One exception is Erotic Scene (1902), showing a woman with long hair performing oral sex on the artist. The work is from the Blue Period. It is poorly painted, with little feeling or care. Picasso later disavowed the painting and refused to authenticate it. However, there is no doubt about its authenticity. Picasso’s biographer John Richardson had a dim opinion of the painting, suggesting that the artist painted it hastily for money.

11. Pablo Picasso. Youth in an Archway, 1906

[Image: Pablo Picasso, (Spanish, 1881–1973), Youth in an Archway (1906), Conté crayon on paper, 23 1/4 x 16 3/4 in. (59.1 x 42.5 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Scofield Thayer, 1982. © 2018 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York]

Other drawings by Picasso are of standing nudes executed in Gosol and Paris in 1906 and bathers executed in the artist’s Neo-Classical period of the early 1920s. The gap is not accidental. Thayer disliked Cubism and abstract art, so had no desire to collect any art made by Picasso during the 1907-1917 period. There is a 1922 pastel portrait of an idealised woman (probably a composite of Sara Murphy and the artist’s wife Olga) which is more tender than erotic. Picasso’s art seems distinctly public; the art of Klimt and Schiele is definitely of a private character. Picasso seems to be engaged in dialogue with artists of the past; Klimt and Schiele were more concerned with depicting reality and establishing connections between artist and subject. Picasso deals with ideals; Klimt and Schiele deal with actual subjects. Picasso worked from memory; Klimt and Schiele worked from life.

The selection of works tells us about Thayer’s priorities. It is notable that despite his sexual preference for men (though Thayer was apparently bisexual), the majority of subjects of the art he purchased were female. This is partly due to the fact that erotic depictions of nudes by the most prominent artists of the period were female ones, made by heterosexual male artists, which meant that the majority of erotic art of the time featured female subjects. Thus most of the nudes available were of female subjects. It also tells us that the quality of the art was more important to Thayer than its erotic potency. There was plenty of homosexual erotica for sale but none of the artistic quality of the art that entered Thayer’s collection. Thayer’s collection of non-erotic art was excellent, including some fine pieces by Matisse, Bonnard, Chagall and Demuth.

The catalogue is a useful addition to the body of literature on erotic art. The exhibition promises to be a celebration of erotic desire, the urge to present the beautiful in art and the lasting appeal of this art for viewers.

 

Sabine Rewald and James Dempsey, Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (distr. Yale University Press), 2018, paperback, 132pp, 110 col. illus., $25, ISBN 978 1 588 39 65 25

[Revised on 21 June 2018 to correct factual inaccuracy]

© 2018 Alexander Adams

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