Max Klinger: The "Intermezzi" Print Cycle
June 3-Aug. 14
Fine Arts Gallery
23rd and West End avenues
The graphic art of Max Klinger (1857-1920) works its way deep into the psyche. For Klinger, printmaking was all about a journey to the dark side. "These are wonderful, quiet, yet disturbing images," says Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery director Joseph Mella. "They're easy to digest on the surface, but there's a lot more as you dig deeper." Just how much you want to find depends on just how deeply you want to dig, because it's all here: painfully sublimated eroticism, the murky relationship between mythology and reality, the ecstasies of life, the torments of love and the mysteries of death. In short, Klinger presents us with the formal preoccupations of psychoanalysisall the more intriguing, considering that the prints in "Intermezzi" were created more than 120 years ago.
While the themes of this show seem to mirror familiar modern psychoanalytical preoccupations, the aesthetic sensibilities on display here are very much of their time. Everything here is presented through the lens of late 19th-century Romanticism. Klinger inhabits a peculiar transitional moment in European historya twilight zone in which lyrical idealism was rapidly fading in the face of the dehumanizing march of industrialization and the long foreshadow of an advancing world war. Accordingly, there's an attractive wistfulness and poignancy to this work, but it's the erotic treatment of innocence (including its loss), metamorphosis, gender roles and death that lingers long in the imagination.
Max Klinger was an accomplished sculptor and painter, but he is generally known as an etcher and printmaker. His technically refined prints are chewythematically as well as psychologically. Born in Leipzig, Germany, in the mid-19th century, he was heavily influenced by Realism, Impressionism and Symbolism. Klinger spent a long time studying under the Symbolist painter Emile Wauters and is considered one of the most important fin de siècle symbolist artists. However, his lasting influence is as a proto-surrealist. In "Intermezzi" (one of his earlier cycles), the stirrings of surrealism can be clearly seen: the fascination with weird narratives, fantastic dreamscapes and the grotesque.
Klinger produced 14 cycles in total, all etching and aquatint. He considered each to be a "symphony of illustrations on a theme" and used the musical term "opus" accordingly. (Several of his print cycles were inspired by his friendships with the composers Brahms and Richard Strauss.) The "Intermezzi" cycle has no obvious theme. It's a diverse collection of prints pulled together to form a cycle, though four of the works are linked by a single inspiration: the German Baroque novel Simplicius Simplicissimus, written by H. J. C. von Grimmelshausen in 1669. Even if each of the 12 prints in the cycle tells its own story, Klinger's ceaseless fidgeting with the themes of love, sex, death and gender conflict ensure that there's a sub-visible coherence to the whole enterprise. Each print holds enough psychological data to detain the viewer for a long period of time; although the visual information is simply presented, there's as much or as little meaning in these works as one cares to extract.
The cycle begins with "Bear and Fairy," a curiously erotic image in which a naked, tree-bound fairy taunts and baits a large bear reclining in the lower branches. In the next, "Centaur Pursued," horse riders, naked save their helmets, ride determinedly through a deep sea of grass in pursuit of fleeing centaurs, one of which has been hit in the neck with an arrow and is rearing in the desperate throes of death. "Moonlight Night" is a placid, eerie nocturnal scene in which two centaurs (a recurring theme) languish on a ledge above a deep ravinea satisfying contrast. Next comes "By the Sea," a playful and coquettish image in which a young woman modestly attired in many layers of Victorian costume stands at the edge of a vast expanse of rolling ocean. She casts an impish look over her shoulder, looking as though she could threaten to disrobe at any moment and daring the viewer to follow her.
Now come the four prints inspired by Simplicius Simplicissimus. The novel is a peerless social picture of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and chronicles the fate of Simplicius as he is thrown into the conflict at the age of 10 (as the author himself had been). "Simplicius' Writing Lesson" is the first plate. Here the protagonist sits with his teacher and mentor, the Hermit, at the beginning of his odyssey. The young boy is a study in innocencefresh-faced and wide-eyed. Then follow three vignettes from the life-journey of Simplicissimus: "Simplicius in the Wilderness," "Simplicius Among the Soldiers" and "Simplicius at the Hermit's Grave."
Moving around the gallery, one comes next to "Fighting Centaurs," in which two centaurs are locked in a fight to the death on a snow-covered landscape of mythic, almost Wagnerian proportions. "Landslide" depicts yet more centaurs moving in and out of boulders strewn in a dangerous rock-fall. In the powerful, darkly Romantic "Fallen Rider," an anonymous rider, thrown from his horse, lies motionless on a forest path. The horse, too, lies stillpresumably dead. Carrion crows circle ominously above. "Love, Death and Beyond," the final print in the series, is perhaps the most striking and disturbing in the cycle. Love, arrow drawn, sits on the front wheel of a speeding demonic contraption captained and steered by the skeletal Death, scythe in hand. Behind, a series of ghostly faces (representing Beyond) rise and fall in a wave of souls.
The exhibit is jointly organized by Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery, the State University of New York at Potsdam (from which the "Intermezzi" cycle is on loan), and Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa. There is an additional Klinger print on show that stands outside the cycle: "Artist in the Attic" belongs to the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery and is considered to be a self-portrait of the artistthough the image is ostensibly of the Norwegian artist Christian Krohg. Regardless, it's a vivid depiction of the struggling Romantic artist with all the stereotypical trimmings: barely furnished garret studio, candle, crust of bread, collar turned up to the cold.
Klinger believed that painting should be concerned with depicting the beauty of the natural world, but that prints should mine and expose the deepest emotions in the viewer, forcing us to create psychological associations, however disturbing. It's certainly hard to cast a detached, dispassionate eye over this work; it demands interactive participation. There's something irresistible about Klinger's troubled vision. Perhaps it lies in the universal themes that he repeatedly stakes out, or in the vestige of mythological DNA that exists within us all and links us to Klinger's fantastic, often morbidly dark, Goya-esque interior world. Whatever the attraction, the "Intermezzi" cycle represents an experience highly resistant to definitive interpretation. The viewer is left to make the connections, join the dots and make whatever he or she can of these visual mysteries.
Ultimately, Klinger turns out to be something of an illusionist. On the face of it, many of these pieces appear to be simple, pleasant landscapes or storybook images. Look closer, however, and these prints begin to release their unsettling undercurrents. Some of the symbolism is extremely unnerving, but the visual elements are arranged so innocuously, almost casually, that one can begin to doubt whether one is looking at a delightful fairy tale or a living nightmare. It's usually both, and it all adds up to an intriguing psychological game in which the viewer is alternately the observer and the observed.
Why does joining a cult have to look so pretty, but be so ugly?
I'd say the hats are more BILLY JACK, but that fits into the whole hippy-cult…
Thank you for the write up. We greatly appreciate it! Hope we raise the funds…
Looks like he was a great Artist.......who left his Legacy behind for others to follow.....
Indianapolis (CA-35), not Indiana.