Pornography and women’s liberation: It is an incongruous coupling, but one that characterizes the artistic output of Gustav Klimt.

The painter and designer was well-known for his ambivalent relations with women — and at his death he was discovered to have fathered no fewer than 14 illegitimate children by his models and other women. Throughout his career Klimt never did self-portraits, shied away from historical works and only occasionally indulged in the odd landscape. Mostly, he painted women.

These works form the heart of “Gustav Klimt and Images of Women, Vienna 1900,” now showing at the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art in Kobe. As this is a themed exhibition, however, a number of works by Klimt’s contemporaries are also displayed: Egon Schiele’s masterful “The Embrace,” paintings by Oskar Kokoschka, canvases by Max Oppenheimer and a host of works by lesser-known artists, including the female painters Elena Luksch-Makowsky and Alois Delug.

These artists are recruited to illustrate the role of the artist in creating and reflecting the desires and anxieties surrounding the changing role of women at this time.

The focus is on Vienna. At the turn of the century, the Austrian capital’s moral climate was still heavy with the stuffiness of the Victorian era. Thanks to its prominence as an artistic center, however the city also held a Bohemian, at times erotic, charge. This duality is well expressed here: There is the gentle domesticity of Carl Moll’s “Mother and Child” and Alois Delug’s “Markl Family,” and a striking portrait of the wealthy and uber-respectable Bertha von Piloty, painted by Hans Makart. These works show us women in their appointed, feminine roles: women who belong to the home and should be dedicated to child-raising; their clothing is formal finery with restrictive bodices underneath.

Clothing in disarray — or discarded altogether — gives an erotic charge to a separate category of works showing here, labeled “Naked Truth” by the exhibition curators (after an eponymous work by Klimt). We have a group of female bathers painted by Leo Putz, another bathing scene by Blaho Bukovac, and a wide range of nudes, some tense, others teasing. In the earlier, portrait section, Hans Makart’s “Dame vor Spiegel” depicts its subject as if in a Gothic romance, her chemise falling off her shoulder revealing her right breast. These images exist to titillate a male audience, their provocatively posed or naked bodies clothed in a painterly artfulness.

These polarized views of women were challenged by the far-reaching social changes that followed the Industrial Revolution that swept across Europe during the 19th century. Women slowly began acquiring the rights previously denied to them in social, economic and political spheres.

These changes perhaps underlie a distinctive category of female representation that became popular later in that century — the femme fatale. Artists (and writers) turned to historical stories of strong, transgressive women and produced their own interpretations of them, exploring contemporary issues of power and sexuality.

Thus Max Oppenheimer’s “Salome” follows the lead taken by Oscar Wilde in his 1891 verse-drama of the same name, which casts Salome as a psychotic temptress. Whereas the biblical Salome asks for John’s head to further her mother’s political power games, Wilde’s and Oppenheimer’s Salome has John the Baptist executed so she can fulfill her perverted desire for him by kissing his bloody severed head. In this disturbing painting, Salome sits naked and smiling astride the saint’s head, an incarnation of men’s fear of women who could assume power and control and assert their sexuality.

Spanning all these categories, we find the versatile work of Klimt. His “Judith I” is a passionate femme fatale endowed with the same macabre qualities as Oppenheimer’s “Salome.” But he also produced frank portraits of finely clad women.

Klimt is the most technically daring of the artists on show. In the “Portrait of Fritza Riedler,” Klimt departs from the conventions of portraiture by depicting his subject’s face and hands naturalistically, but reducing the rest of the picture to pattern and decoration. In paintings like this and his “Portrait of Eugenia Primavesi,” the objective representation of the female subject is secondary to the miasma of color and design.

And Klimt’s designs were no less revolutionary than his painting style. The “Portrait of Emilie Floge” depicts Klimt’s lifelong companion; Emilie and her sisters owned a fashion house and Klimt enjoyed designing dresses for them. Like his pictures, Klimt’s designs are sumptuous and decorative, loose and free-flowing in form — a number of these (and also photographs, a few dresses and other items, such as scarves and bags) are showing here. They were an open challenge to the restrictive sartorial codes of Viennese society, just as Klimt’s erotic paintings were to contemporary morals.

In some ways, however, Klimt was merely moving with the currents of his time. With growing economic prosperity and a gradual shift toward more liberal thinking, pornographic art was more widely available than it perhaps had ever been. Klimt made literally thousands of pornographic drawings, though only a handful are showing here. These sketches are voyeuristic notions that exist to fuel the viewer’s fantasy — their visual language is readily recognizable in pornographic photographs today. Although never displayed, these drawings contributed to Klimt’s reputation as a “decadent.”

Klimt himself was famously reticent about his work. In one cryptic comment, the artist said, “I am less interested in myself as a subject for painting than I am in other people, above all women. But other subjects interest me even more.”

He never elaborated on those “other subjects,” but after seeing the remarkable variety of women Klimt painted — high-society figures, demonic seductresses, pregnant women, masturbatory fantasies — there is little doubt that the female form was a source of fascination for him. He had no monolithic conception of “woman,” and in this he reflects the growing social, political and sexual possibilities for women, those both feared and welcomed, that were unfolding in his day.

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