I sometimes pose the question to myself and other critics “Why are we doing this?” and “To whom are we doing it for?” The answer, if we are honest, is this is our way of making our living but this does not apply to every case.
Charles Saatchi is not short of a bob or two yet weekly he contributes an excellent appreciation of a painting in a Tuesday column in the Telegraph. I do not know the man but I suspect, conscious of the criticism that he deals in modern art treating it as high finance, he wants to show he is as much connoisseur as collector. Whatever the motivation the end result is an entertaining and informative read. This week he wrote of the well known portrait of Whistler of his mother, rightly accentuating the strong sense of composition and palette to create a picture of some austerity.
A month or so ago he wrote of The Virgins or The Maiden by Gustav Klimt painted at the end of his life in 1913.
This painting had quite a history as it was confiscated by the Nazis, recovered from the Austrian State Gallery by the niece of Adele Bloch who ultimately sold it, and it now hangs in the Neue Galerie in New York.
Yet his lack of recognition outside the art world was illustrated to me the other day when I was at Bob Tickler’s home. His charming p/a, who loves art, freely admitted she had never heard of him. Bob recalled a dinner party in the 1980s when he made a similar comment and his hostess whispered to him “I would not advertise that”. As it happens I had the Saatchi article with me which both read. I said that, whilst Klimt might not have severed his ear or given up his job as a stockbroker for the sexual delights of Tahiti, in his own way he was as brave as either Van Gogh or Gauguin.
By the 1890s he was an established court painter at the palace of Franz Josef, the Habsburg emperor, and primed to take over from Hans Makart. No one nowadays has heard of Hans Makart but he was the most celebrated artist of his day.
In the 1890s Klimt had a creative crisis and eschewed his successful career as a portraitist for erotic paintings of swirling colour like The Virgins. These baffled the public and were not nearly as marketable as his society portraiture but he pressed on with his Secessionist movement and is now regarded as one of the most important painters of his lifetime (1862- 1915).
He never married and was protected – one might say insulated – by his mother and sister with whom he lived. He seemed closest to his cat as though he had a prolific sex life, largely with the models who disported themselves on the floor of his atelier, he was never in an intimate relationship. Bob made the point that it is rare and commendable thing when someone departs from the path of comfort and success to test him or herself. Initially it did no favours to Klimt but he is now esteemed by critic and art lover alike.