by Robert J. Hughes
The German artist Max Klinger (1857-1920) gives us the troubled eroticism of dreams. A fascinating show at Strasbourg's Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, "Max Klinger – The Theatre of the Bizarre," running through September 16, is the first exhibition of his work in France.
Between 1878 and 1915 Klinger executed fourteen sequences of etchings, which inspired artists such as Edvard Munch, Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico. His engravings are Schopenhauer-influenced ruminations on love, Eros, mythology, nightmares, passion, seduction and death. They evoke a fin de siècle world infused with longing, and cosseted by reveries unsettling and mystifying. The etchings have the strange allure of a Joseph Cornell box rendered in a two-dimensional plane that seems to evoke a fevered sub-consciousness, as Cornell managed in using the detritus of the everyday arranged in a way to evoke the unreal mingled with memory.
Klinger, a music lover, affixed the word "Opus" to his sets of engravings, as if they were pieces of music. They aren't of course, though in this exhibition is a lovely series of works illustrating a Brahms song, "Langsam," which is a lovely homage to the composer.
But the bulk of the works here are series that concern love, romance, longing. Klinger was interested in how women were treated in society, in religion, in romance.
For example, Eve and the future shows the first woman seated in contemplation as Adam sleeps in the near distance; she can be meditating on sin, perhaps, but more likely seems to be in a reverie, the kind of romantic indecisiveness one would see in pre-Raphaelite paintings. In any event, the illustration implies that her decision, her "original sin," was made to explore the unknown rather than the result of a lapse of conscience, an intellectual choice rather than a moral dilemma. Another engraving, Eve and the serpent, shows the serpent hanging from a tree addressing Eve. Eve also regards a mirror, one that the serpent seems to hold so that Eve's temptation is not the forbidden apple – which she holds in her right hand – but her own reflection.
A Glove, from 1881, is a series of engravings tracing the impact of the discovery of a glove on an ice-skating rink, which leads to the imagining of encounters that are anguished – the loss of a potential partner – or lushly predatory – the pursuit of amorous prey. In the second scene from this series, a man on ice skates bends to retrieve a fallen glove as the presumed owner skates away, ignorant of her loss; at the same time a small dog scampers along before her on the ice, and a trio – a woman between two men – is also skating away. Klinger captures the motion of the skaters here remarkably well and you have a dynamic sense of movement, fleeting time, of hopeless love – especially in the shadows of the figures on the white ice, the retreating skaters, the faces turned away from the viewer.
Max Klinger, Opus XIII, Vom Tode, zweiter teil, 1903. Planche 6. Pest (Peste) . Burin eteau-forte sur papier, 61,7 x 46,1 cm / 42,9 x 34,1 cm (hors marge). Strasbourg, Musée d’Art moderne et contemporain. Photo : M. Bertola.
But the images turn increasingly outlandish and nightmarish, involving a shipwreck, monsters and even, at the end, a pterodactyl.
Klinger created his own narratives but also, in the fifteen plates that make up Cupid and Psyche, illustrated a text, in this case a tale from the Metamorphoses by Latin poet Apuleius. The illustrations are beautiful, classical studies of figures within a frame: book illustration that tells a tale and also leaves you hungry to dive into the text.
The show has dozens and dozens of works on two levels in this attractive and welcoming museum. It's worth taking the time to absorb Klinger's drawing, and because the museum is not swarming with crowds, you can actually look at the art. You will be able to appreciate Klinger's graphic energy in the use of opposing lines, the tension of the diagonals within a frame.
Max Klinger, Opus I, Radierte Skizzen, 1879. Planche 1. Titelblatt (Planche de titre). Eau-forte et aquatinte sur chine appliqué. 55 × 40 cm / 41,4 × 29,7 cm (hors marge). Strasbourg, Musée d’Art moderne et contemporain. Photo : M Bertola.
But the subjects are the most alluring. Klinger's imagery is haunted by a sense that we never truly arrive: we are always searching. You may find yourself puzzled by the mix of mythological creatures and Art Nouveau maidens, of scenes that play out like ghostly re-enactments of James Tissot tableaux: society and despair and mixed signals.
But you won't want to turn away: Klinger asks you to face your fantasies and, if not live them, at least accept that your dreams have a certain substance.
—Robert J. Hughes
(Image on top: Max Klinger, Opus VIII, Ein Leben, 1884, Planche 10. In die Gosse ! (Dans le caniveau !) Eau-forte et pointe sèche, 60 x 40,4 cm / 20,8 x 18,9 cm (hors marge); © Musée d’Art moderne et contemporain/Photo : M. Bertola)