Legion of Honor exhibits biggest Klimt collection on West Coast

"The Arts, Paradise Choir, and The Embrace."  Gustav Klimt. Casein paint, chalk, graphite, applied plaster, and various appliqué materials.
Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco/Courtesy
"The Arts, Paradise Choir, and The Embrace." Gustav Klimt. Casein paint, chalk, graphite, applied plaster, and various appliqué materials.

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To kick off the Klimt and Rodin exhibit at the Legion of Honor, the museum café across was sectioned off for a champagne toast to these two masters of modernism. Among the grape-garnished hors d’oeuvres and San Pellegrino were flutes of champagne being poured from golden bottles ornamented with Klimt’s iconic painting, “The Kiss.

The toast began with a recognition of this historic year by Max Hollein, CEO and director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, who oversees the Legion of Honor as well. Not only would this exhibit be the largest display of Klimt’s work on the West Coast, but it would also fall on the centennial of the artist’s 1917 death.

In just the year it took to put on the exhibit, the museum accomplished an impressive feat of curation on behalf of the staff and its donors. The works of Klimt were not only sourced from the national gallery in D.C., but also from galleries across Europe. Additionally, because of the precious nature of such works, the financial support of the donors made it possible to afford the insurance for this artwork — making “Klimt & Rodin: An Artistic Encounter” one of the Legion’s most significantly funded events in decades.

Although the show is a juxtaposition between the sculptor and the painter, the two contemporaries had hardly been in contact. The last time the two artists met was in 1902, when Rodin came to Vienna to see an exhibit put on by the Secessionists in honor of composer Ludwig van Beethoven. This exhibit is the first time since that moment that the two artists’ paths have crossed.

Before Hollein finished his toast, he pulled out a book the thickness of brick with Klimt’s 1909 “Expectation” decorating the cover. The writer, Tobias Natter — a scholar in Klimt’s work — helped to put together this exhibit along with the help of Martin Chapman, the curator of European decorative arts and sculpture at the Legion of Honor.

Going through the three-room exhibit, the shifting style of Klimt becomes apparent. Nevertheless, from his books of sketches to the unfinished portrait of Ria Munk III, works exhibit Klimt’s iconic, abstract use color and pattern. Each piece breathes with the delicate yet bold femininity in each of Klimt’s subjects.

Although Klimt’s female-centric pieces are what earned him his status as an icon, toward the end of his life, he moved away from portraiture and focused on painting landscapes. The exhibition proceeds almost chronologically, with the last portion of the exhibit being four square landscapes done by the artist. Even in these starker works, Klimt’s signature use of texture and color engross the viewer with the life of the earth he depicts.

Rodin_Fine-Arts-Museums-of-San-Francisco.Courtesy

Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco/Courtesy

“The Kiss.” Auguste Rodin. Bronze.

Though it is an exhibition of both Rodin and Klimt, there is this unshakeable feeling that one artists floats above the other. This exhibit is marketed with an emphasis on Gustav Klimt, but for good reason — it’s not very often that his works appear in this volume in the United States.

But it’s because of this emphasis on Klimt that the works of Rodin — an iconic sculptor and contemporary to Klimt — fall in the shadows. With Rodin’s works being placed in opposition with Klimt — as is the case in the main room, where Rodin’s “The Three Shades” are staring down into the two panel replicas of Klimt’s “Beethoven Frieze” — the sculptor’s work waters down impact of Klimt’s presence in the exhibition space.

klimt_fine-arts-museums-of-san-francisco-courtesy-copy

Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco/Courtesy

“The Virgin.” Gustav Klimt. Oil on canvas.

It’s not to say that the two artists don’t mirror each other. They both contributed historic artistic works to the Secessionist movement, revolutionizing the manipulation of texture and the eroticism in high art. But other than those similarities, the two artists seem to have evolved in parallel to each other instead of intertwining their development — which shows in the struggle for balance in the Legion’s exhibit of their works.

Nevertheless, this exhibit marks a historic moment for the exhibition of European art on the West Coast. The exhibit isn’t only a collection of Klimt’s works; it’s an expose on his life and the times that contributed to why he became such an iconic figure in art history. Klimt and Rodin at the Legion of Honor is an exhibit that builds the identities of these artists while exhibiting some of their most historic works.

Contact Annalise Kamegawa at [email protected].

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