Jun 10, 2012

What can Gustav Klimt teach you about writing?

All art is erotic.
Gustav Klimt

You probably know Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) though you've never heard the name before. This is the reason why:

The Kiss, 1907/8

Gustav Klimt was an Austrian Symbolist painter born in a small town which was not, strictly speaking, a part of Vienna. So it was a satellite town and back then if you wanted to make something of yourself you gravitated toward the big city, Vienna. The seat of Austro-Hungarian power.

Vienna had it all: a Rat House (no, I’m just kidding), an Opera House and a University. It was the New York of its day.

One of Klimt’s teachers once told him that it is dangerous to please too many people. I concur. Sexton Blake, a fictional character that appeared in 4,000 penny dreadful & pulp adventures, is nonetheless terribly obscure. Now Childe Harold, brought to life by one who was ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know,’ got much better press over the ages. But I can’t go into Lord Byron right now, lest I forget about Gustav Klimt and do both of them a disservice.

Maybe the secret to immortality lies in being your own crazy self and enduring the stings and barbs of pigheaded critics.

Klimt sure got stung. Because his women were too fat, too thin, too young, too old, too much. Because they were naked,  because they looked two-dimensional, because they reclined in obscene positions, and how dare he paint Zeus as a golden shower!

Danae, 1907 - a painting which came under fire for oh, an infinite number of reasons.

So, what can Gustav Klimt teach you about writing a novel, story or play?


“All art is erotic.”

You have to remember this is fin-de-siecle Vienna we're talking about; psychoanalysis was on the rise, thanks to Freud and his circle.

In this context, Eros is not just sexual. Eros is the life principle. If you were a car, Eros would be gasoline. To late 19th-C. psychiatrists, mental patients were running on fumes and you had to rev the engine, cock your head just so (like a mynah bird in greasy overalls, I suppose) and listen for indicting noises.

You know, the tinky-tinks and chugga-chugs and clankety-clankety-pows.

If in fact you embrace the notion of Eros as vital energy and accept that sex is a primary color in the human palette, then yes, all art is erotic. Writing included. I can’t point to a piece of good writing that isn’t visceral in one way or another. Can you?

Art needs scandal the way you need oxygen. Art isn’t meditation but a record of your inner states as you called forth the images in your brain. Why shouldn’t writing begin as tug-of-war and explode into bliss as one of the competing factions in that tug-of-war tumbles, yelping and laughing, into the mud?

One of Woody Allen’s characters said that sex was dirty when it was any good. What movie would that be -- Zelig or Take the Money and Run? I can’t remember.

Anyway, give yourself leave to be naughty from time to time. Poke some hornets’ nests that need poking.

“I can paint and draw. I believe this myself and a few other people say that they believe this too. But I’m not certain of whether it’s true.”

Excess modesty is no virtue – note that recent phenomenon, the humble brag, and tell me whether you think those people are really being modest.

Excess confidence is blinding and unpleasant.

As the Romans said, In medio stat virtus: The middle path is where virtue lies. Self-deprecation works just fine when you’re famous because you’ve got fans that will gladly tell others just how awesome you are. A writer like Cherie Priest can afford that “tiny Godzilla” Twitter bio and Jonathan Franzen can afford not to be on Twitter at all. (As for Cormac McCarthy, I’m glad he doesn’t have an account. He’s doing just fine writing those beautiful soul-rending books of his. Let him be.)

What’s my point here? That maybe it’s better to just work and let others decide what they want to say about you.

Be and do. Speak through your narrative worlds. Chase the magic -- don’t tell anyone why. Let them figure it out.

Perhaps Gustav Klimt did just that:
“There is nothing that special to see when looking at me. I’m a painter who paints day in day out, from morning till evening – figure pictures and landscapes, more rarely portraits.”


Post-Scriptum:
This wasn’t a piece on Symbolism. What I would like you to know is that we owe much of our current, phantasmal imagery to painters like...

Jean Delville


Carlos Schwabe


Victor Vasnetsov


What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times.

In early 2012, I decided to expand the scope of these articles to include remarkable characters in works of fiction. 

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