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As the century turned, so did these artists

Exhibit shows shift away from realism

On a gallery wall in Harvard's Busch-Reisinger Museum hangs a huge black- and-white photo of Gustav Klimt's mural ''Jurisprudence," one of a trio of paintings the University of Vienna commissioned from the artist at the beginning of the 20th century.

More than 100 years after it was made, the imagery in the work, which was destroyed in World War II, is still unsettling. An impotent, flabby, stooping old man is engulfed by the undulating tentacles of an octopus. He is surrounded by three nude women, themselves surrounded by amorphous shapes, as if encased in bubbles.

Klimt was painting nothing less than the end of patriarchy and the phallic order, the transfer of power to women. At the top of the painting are allegorical female figures of Truth, Justice, and Law, engulfed in the decoration that was the artist's signature, as if they were ''naught but ciphers."

''As though my body were naught but ciphers" is a line from poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, a contemporary of Klimt's and a fellow rebel against the Hapsburg dynasty, which was disintegrating, and its rigid aesthetic.

Von Hofmannsthal's line is the title of the Busch-Reisinger show, which looks at the crisis in representation in both literature and the visual arts around the turn of the last century. Writers and painters were questioning the prevailing naturalism and realism that didn't reflect their experience of the world.

They banded together, under various names in various countries. In Austria, the major players called themselves the Vienna Secession and the Wiener Werkstatte. The 2003 centennial of the Wiener Werkstatte's founding spawned many exhibitions that, among other things, paid tribute to the belief that art should extend into all aspects of life, everything from furniture to jewelry. There was even a Wiener Werkstatte thermometer. So successful were some of these designs that many never went out of production. In the posh shopping streets of Vienna, you can still buy textiles, glass, and silver designed by the movement whose elegant logo was two intersecting W's.

Although there are fabric swatches on the Busch-Reisinger walls, the exhibition goes further than the usual inclusion of decorative arts in shows devoted to this period. It tries to connect the visual arts with literature, philosophy, and psychology, bringing Freud, Nietzsche, and other thinkers of the era into the picture through examples of their writing.

The link doesn't quite work. A big painting by Klimt is inevitably going to draw your eye before a case of books does -- even if a first edition of Freud's 1905 ''Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality" is among the rare tomes on display. You get the full experience of the Klimt: A painting is meant to be seen. You can't get the full experience of the books, which are of course meant to be read but here are necessarily locked up in glass vitrines for their protection. You can't have a first-edition Freud available for handling.

To help balance the inequities, big binders in the gallery contain excerpts from most of the books in the show, along with the syllabus for the course that generated it: ''Repression and Expression," taught by Peter Burgard, a professor in the university's Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures. For those with enough time, a good way to experience the show would be to see it, go home, read some of the texts, and return to explore the relationship between words and the visual arts.

Words and pictures are most likely to harmonize well when the writer is also the illustrator, as is the case in Oskar Kokoschka's 1908 ''The Girl Li and I." It starts innocently enough, looking like a conventional children's book, but the drawings and the texts take on a darker air; the book turns into a rather frightening view of puberty.

The book as object is a facet of the relationship between the visual and the literary that the show explores through examples of innovative typography, bookbindings, and even endpapers. In their design for von Hofmannsthal's ''Venice Preserved, Tragedy in Five Acts," members of the Wiener Werkstatte used as a point of departure the convention of marbleized endpapers and so altered the pattern that it no longer looked like marble at all. It was another blow to realism, another point chalked up in the decorative column.

Kolomon Moser's 1902 portfolio of 30 designs for surface coverings -- wallpapers, fabrics -- also alter or avoid realism to the point that you have to look hard to see that the pattern in ''Waves of the Danube" is made of mermaids acting like a synchronized swim team, contorting themselves to create a design Moser intended for use in the bathroom.

Egon Schiele's art is more expressive and anxious than the other work in the show, but he, too, uses pattern that looks as if it's about to swallow the humans in the pictures. In the 1910 ''Sleeping Figure With Blanket," a plaid blanket hides most of the girl underneath it. In this and other works, Schiele leaves the viewer disoriented through the ambiguous placement of the figure in space. The images work just as well as horizontals or verticals.

This show says as much about Harvard as it does about Viennese art and writing around 1900. It has two curators: Laura Muir, from the Busch-Reisinger, and Burgard. Involving academic departments in art exhibitions is a rarity at Harvard, although not at other schools. In the Boston area, the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College does a superb job of collaborating on exhibitions and programming with BC professors in fields from Irish studies to music and more. It's a shrewd strategy, one that has solidly embedded the McMullen in the life of the school.

Harvard's art museums have been more insular. They're central to the field of art history, indisputably the country's finest training ground for future museum professionals and scholars. But they're not central to the university. Bringing Burgard onboard is a fine start at the kind of cross-pollination that can make 21st-century university museums essential to their institutions.

As is, the Busch-Reisinger show is a good example of something the Harvard museums are very good at: a highly focused, thoughtful assemblage of objects that make particular points. Consider Klimt's 1903 ''Pear Tree," which in another context could easily be read as merely pretty. Daubs of vivid colors quite unlike the palette of a real tree suggest pointillism, or the mosaics that were another medium in which the artist worked. While not out to shock, as ''Jurisprudence" was, it is subtly disconcerting.

The tree swells, pushing at the edges of the canvas, creating the sensation that it's about to burst its rectilinear boundaries. The canvas itself is a square, not the horizontal that is the convention in landscape painting. And, most important, if you cropped the work just enough to eliminate the narrow frieze of tree trunks and fragments of sky, you'd have a completely non-representational painting. In rejecting realism and championing pattern and decoration, the artists in this show were well on the path to abstraction.

Christine Temin's ''Perspectives" column appears on Wednesdays.

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