The juggler of Vienna
Of all 20th-century paintings to date, those by Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) are among the most attractive and accomplished. He isn't everyone's favorite, of course. His canvases and drawings strike many as a bit too pretty and decorative , as just a touch too precious. He has also been accused of producing artificial , highly calculated works more in line with fashion illustrations than with serious art. His portraits of women, in particular, disturb the more tough-minded of his critics. They see little in them except evidence of an exquisite decorative sensibility and a remarkable ability to capture the limpid, slightly decadent opulence characteristic of turn-of-the-century Viennese society.
This criticism is not altogether unjustified. With a few exceptions, Klimt's paintings do project a hothouse aura suggestive of tight-laced formal attire, exotic perfumes, and an overabundance of jewelry, furs, and silk. They also achieve a level of exaggerated elegance beyond even John Singer Sargent's wildest dreams, and portray a kind of haughty, regal femininity calculated to make those not so depicted green with envy.
High-society recognition was Klimt's original objective, and in order to acquire it he at first emulated the florid, grandiose style of the then-fashionable painter Hans Makart. He worked on the latter's major accomplishment, the five-hour-long festival parade arranged to celebrate the Austrian Emperor's silver wedding anniversary, and thoroughly enjoyed the heady exper-ience.
He himself soon began to receive important commissions. Together with his brother Ernst and painter Franz Matsch, he produced ceiling paintings for one of Empress Elizabeth's bedrooms and for the newly constructed Burgtheater. The latter earned him a gold service cross from the Emperor and paved the way for the most important commission yet, a project in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum.
Klimt's independence began to assert itself about this time, and in 1897 he and a group of other younger artists organized a society to represent more modern views than those permitted by the established and staid Kunstlerhaus. It wasn't long before he was in the midst of a public scandal, thanks to his painting ''Philosophy,'' which he had executed for the University of Vienna.
In it, nudes cavorted freely without the excuse of historical precedent or high moral intent, something the official society of the day couldn't at first accept.
The picture went on to win a major prize in Paris, however, and helped establish Klimt as an important figure in Viennese art circles. He became the darling of wealthy society ladies, weathered a few more scandals caused by his work, and continued to evolve an increasingly free and colorful approach to painting. One of his last canvases, ''Baby (Cradle),'' suggests that, had he lived longer, he might have freed himself entirely from the somewhat perfumed and decadent nature of his art, and launched forth into a much warmer and more directly Expressionistic mode. He would almost certainly never have reached the blunt, tough dimensions of Egon Schiele's Expressionism - his deep-seated tendency toward decoration would have prevented it - but he would at least have moved more clearly into the 20th century rather than balancing so precariously between it and the 19th.
Klimt represented the fading end of an era, Schiele the dynamic beginning of the next, and yet they shared the same cultural roots. Schiele, in fact, had been influenced and encouraged by Klimt, and was in some ways his extension into the future. The mystery is what Schiele might have produced had he not died - also in 1918 - at the age of 28.
Klimt's genius was more contradictory than Schiele's and probably less acute. Perhaps because of that, our fascination with Klimt lies less in the ''perfection'' of his imagery than in the remarkable manner in which he attempted to reconcile, even to synthesize, that contradiction. At his best, Klimt balances the decorative and the real, the ideal and the actual, like a master juggler keeping several balls in the air at the same time.
At his worst, we find small ''realistic'' faces, hands, and feet floating ambiguously in a sea of opulent, often garish ornamentation.
In works like ''The Battle of Life (The Golden Knight)'' and ''Wooded Slope in Unterach on the Attersee,'' decoration wins out - but with a clear acknowledgment of what acute observation and a talent for precise depiction can contribute to a primarily decorative subject. Both images project a tautness and a clarity that would have been impossible without a solid understanding of the laws of nature and the rules of art. The former picture, in particular, evidences a level of sensitivity to line and surface effects seldom achieved in this century.
For all his genius and productivity, however, Klimt remains an enigmatic figure. His effect on modernism was minimal if not nonexistent, and he has usually been overshadowed by Schiele in exhibitions devoted to Vienna's important painters. Even so, he has left a body of work that continues to enchant and that stands as a testament to his richly exotic vision and highly original approach to color.