VIENNA - Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele are now so firmly part of the canon of great artists that it seems impossible that they were relatively unknown in the period immediately after the Second World War. It was in Vienna at that time that Rudolf Leopold, then a student of medicine, began a love affair with their work that would see him become one of their greatest collectors, and play a major role in their establishment as leading artists of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Egon Schiele with toy horse in his hand, in his studio in Vienna, 13th district, Hietzinger Hauptstrasse 101. Photography. 1914. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images).

Leopold collected the two artists, and others from their epoch, with such fervour and passion that his holdings became the pre-eminent private collection of Austrian fin de siècle and early modern art and design. The collection remained private until 1994 when a foundation was set up, and this in turn led to the creation of the Leopold Museum in 2001. For the last ten years, it has been an unmissable venue in the Austrian capital’s museum quarter.

The Leopold Museum is famous for the art of ‘Vienna 1900.’ The collection is known for its paintings, works on paper, sculpture, applied art and furniture from the turn of the century. Known all over the world, museums from Europe, the United States, Asia and Australia request loans for their exhibitions. Among the masterpieces are several works by Klimt, including stirring and lyrical landscapes, almost 100 exquisite drawings and Death and Life (1910/11, reworked 1915/16), which Klimt once referred to as his most important painting. But the major attraction of the Leopold collection is its unrivalled holdings of Schiele. Some 41 paintings and 188 works on paper reflect the extraordinary breadth of his achievement in the years before he died at just 28, a victim of the Spanish flu pandemic that killed countless millions across the world in 1918.

Egon Schiele’s Self-Portrait with Chinese Lantern Plant.

Among the masterpieces Leopold collected are some of the most indelibly memorable paintings of their age. Schiele’s Self-Portrait with Chinese Lantern Plant of 1912, for instance, with its equally powerful pendant, Portrait of Wally Neuzil, with Schiele’s then-girlfriend similarly thrust into the viewer’s space. Wally was Schiele’s sweetheart, muse and loyal companion through both good and bad. Seated Male Nude, made when Schiele was just 20, is a jarringly stark nude self-portrait, set against an almost white background, the body reduced to angular, stylised forms. A landscape, Crescent of Houses II of 1915, similarly distills houses to a flattened cluster of shapes. Among the works on paper are a delightful, clearly Klimt-inspired watercolour of a dancer and a strange but tender portrait of a naked girl and her clothed mother, both of which reflect Schiele’s sinuous line and brilliant compositional sense. Rudolf Leopold observed that you would need to go back to Dürer and Rembrandt to find a draftsman of comparable assurance and intensity.

Egon Schiele’s Portrait of Wally Neuzil.

Visitors to the Leopold Museum today benefit from Leopold’s unshakeable conviction in Schiele, Klimt and their peers when almost no one else valued their contribution to the history of art. “It really needs to be underlined because it is hard to believe how negatively people reacted to Schiele and his provocative art in the 1950s,” says Tobias G. Natter, the director of the museum. Indeed, some of Leopold’s purchases were initially greeted with derision and mockery.

So what gave him the belief to ignore the barbs? Elisabeth Leopold, Rudolf’s widow, witnessed his obsession flowering into a great collection. “Continual comparison strengthened him in his conviction that Klimt and Schiele should belong in the first tier of world artists,” Elisabeth tells me. “You could say that ‘one man stood against the whole world’ in those early days.”

Although she is quick to credit her husband with forming the collection, Elisabeth was involved from the earliest stages. “I helped to purchase the works of art from the beginning,” she says. “But I was not active to the same extent as Rudolf since I operated a large medical practice and cared for three children. But I have continued to work as an active member of the board since Rudolf’s death in 2010.”

Elisabeth and Rudolf Leopold.

I ask Elisabeth what triggered Rudolf’s collecting impulse. “As Rudolf visited the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna after the war, the expressiveness and beauty of the images struck him like a bolt of lightning,” she replies. “A restless search began for art and artists who could inspire him and were affordable. During this search he found Egon Schiele’s first oeuvre catalogue by Dr Otto Nirenstein. “It was there that he saw the significance and expression of the great artists of the past and an unbridled modern vision. Schiele touched upon the questions of our time: existential hardships, provocation, melancholy and sexuality,” Elisabeth says. And Rudolf was not just a collector, but a promoter of their work. “He campaigned in exhibitions, discussions and eventually with a large, pivotal monograph: Egon Schiele: Paintings, Drawings and Watercolours,” Elisabeth says.

The collection expanded to include Viennese paintings of earlier and later generations and furniture and design from Klimt and Schiele’s epochs, so much so that it outgrew the family home. “It was too overwhelming and many things lay in storage, so a consolidation had to be made,” she says. “In addition, the collection became world-famous and so significant that [we felt] it should be accessible at a public museum.”

She is clearly proud of the fact that the Leopold is the most visited of all the buildings in the museum quarter and both she and Natter are keen to point out the museum’s combination of different artistic disciplines — paintings, drawings, furniture, crafts, sculptures, folk art and non-European art — which “cannot be found in any other museum with this level of coherence,” she says.

But while the collection is at the core of the Leopold museum, it is also the starting point for much wider activities. When Rudolf Leopold died in June 2010, when he was still the director, the museum inevitably reached a crossroads. But since his appointment in 2011, Natter has ensured that it has continued to look to contemporary art as well as reflecting the past. “I was always convinced that the collection is the fundamental basis of our activities, but what we don’t want to be is simply a treasure house,” says Natter. One of the ways this is achieved is through an exhibition programme that explores far beyond the core artists in the collection, particularly through dynamic contemporary art exhibitions. Looking at the past through the present “brings a new energy” to the historic work, he says. “But it also works the other way round – it gives contemporary art its historical base, and shows where artists are coming from. What might look radical or controversial gets an historical depth by looking at how different generations and artists approach certain issues.”

Among the Leopold Museum’s recent programming is the highly publicized exhibition Nude Men.

The exhibition, Nude Men, which runs until 4 March, reflects this ambition. A subject that is long overdue a detailed examination of the diverse and changing depictions of naked men from 1800 to the present, the exhibition shows the range of artistic approaches, competing ideas of masculinity, in addition to changes in the concept of beauty, body image and values, and – by no means least – breaking with conventions. “It features a subject that has hardly been seen before, certainly not as the key theme of an exhibition. There have been lots of exhibitions on nudity, always linked to the female body, but we focused on the naked and nude man,” Natter says. The collection is the bedrock of the exhibition, with key works by Richard Gerstl and Anton Kolig playing prominent roles, but with Schiele as the linchpin. “In Vienna around 1900, he developed a totally new approach”, Natter says. “His gaze shifted from the nude vis-à-vis to the naked self. With the multifaceted interrogation of this naked self, Schiele radicalised the tradition of the European nude. He opened a door to 20th-century art, where the political potential of the naked body becomes crucial.”

As well as looking at contemporary art, the exhibition also explores more distant times. “The oldest item is Egyptian and more than 5,000 years old,” Natter says. “We went back to the Age of Enlightenment, and, of course, we come forwards towards the present day, with artists like Andy Warhol, Louise Bourgeois, Francis Bacon or Gilbert & George.”

The poster for the exhibition features Pierre & Gilles’ Vive La France, a 2006 photograph by the French artists in which three sportsmen stand facing the viewer wearing nothing but football socks in the red, white and blue of the tricolore. But it was deemed too risqué and the men’s private parts were covered up. Did Natter have to think twice before programming a show with potentially challenging subject matter? “When we made the decision to do a groundbreaking exhibition featuring nude men, it was clear from the beginning that not everybody was going to cherish it,” he says. “Our approach was not to create provocation but confrontation. That means, bringing together the best loans from all over Europe and from museums and galleries in the United States. We don’t want to build up barriers for people, but we want to open the doors of the museum by showing them that this is an old topic for art.”

Natter worked on Nude Men directly with Elisabeth. “It was so interesting to do it together, coming from different points of view and creating this major show,” Natter explains. “And I am quite convinced that without her commitment, it would have been very difficult to realise it so successfully. But she really said, ‘This interests me, I want to do this.’ And she was familiar with Schiele doing all his often provocative things without any taboos, so she had no prejudice about such an exhibition.”

Tobias G. Natter, director of the Leopold Museum.

The breadth of work in Nude Men reflects the freedom that Rudolf and Elisabeth Leopold’s collection permits Tobias G. Natter in his programme. While Schiele may be the museum’s headlining act, and the inspiration for the current show, the rich holdings of other artists and designers of Schiele’s era, and those immediately before and afterwards. For instance, in March the exhibition Clouds. Images between Heaven and Earth looks at artist representations of clouds. As Natter explains, “Clouds are more than simply climatic phenomena – which are crucial to our climate and to the very existence of humanity. With their myriad shapes and fascinating optical colour effects, they also have an aesthetic appeal, be it as poetic metaphors or signs of danger or omens. Selected masterpieces by artists like William Turner, Claude Monet, Ferdinand Hodler, Max Beckmann and Gerhard Richter show their intense interest in the theme of clouds.”

“That makes it such a pleasure to work in such a museum,” says Natter, “There are people like Professor Eric Kandel, with his book [The Age of Insight], who have tried to underline that not only the arts, but in the natural sciences and medicine and psychoanalysis, there was some kind of extraordinary interaction in Vienna 1900.” The combination of all these add up to a cultural phenomenon, the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, he says. “In no other museum, not in Vienna, not in Austria, not worldwide, do you have the Gesamtkunstwerk under one roof. In our museum, thanks to professor Leopold, we can bring it all together, very close to the initial idea of the collection, and that is a vision that art should touch all aspects of our daily life.”

Ben Luke is a regular contributor to several arts publications and is Contemporary Art Critic for the London Evening Standard.

Watch the video, The Leopold Museum: Preserving Schiele's Vision below. Or Egon Schiele: Works from the Leopold Museum here.

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