On a recent art excursion to Washington, D.C. we came upon this Gustav Klimt painting at the National Gallery of Art. Ensconced in the recently refurbished East Wing, Baby (Cradle) of 1917/1918, beckoned from the wall in a tussle of haphazard exuberance. I thought I was over Klimt, but this one totally hit me right between the eyes.
Say what you will of the dorm-room-poster kitsch or cliché romanticism of works like The Kiss, but lately I’ve enjoyed Klimt—the intricate patterns, the sublime colors, the gold, the drama—it’s all hitting the spot right about now. Seeing Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II at MoMA last year might have softened me up a bit. Beauty is underrated. Looking at a picture and enjoying it purely for the aesthetics is something I’m comfortable with at this very moment.
Baby (Cradle) offers a lot to look at. The complex marriage of dense pigment and ornament in the foreground piled onto the languid washes of color in the background brings the subject squarely into focus. Well, sort of. First you must navigate the swirling tatters of colors and marks that command your attention and toss your eyes aimlessly about.
A white piece of cloth offers a welcome respite and cuts a trail right up through the center of the mountain of material. But it’s not really a mountain at all and the top is not the top. You’re looking back into space and at the vanishing point there’s a baby’s head and hand peeking out from beneath the dizzying pattern work.
In that moment, time stands still. It’s as if, for a second, matter translates to sound and the chaotic din radiating from below is instantly sucked out of the room. All that’s left is peace, quiet and tranquility.
Compare the crisp, pale representation of the subject’s face to the haphazard array of elements draped amid the composition. The swaths of fabric look to have been painted at a feverish pace and smashed flat into the canvas while the face appears to have been created with a delicate touch that raises the baby up and away from the surface.
Baby (Cradle) is a study in contrasts and—like all great art—offers something new every time you look. It was painted in Klimt’s last year of life and appears light and open unlike much of his earlier work. It’s tempting to think that he was on his way to another breakthrough as evidenced by Portrait Of Amalie Zuckerkandl painted (and left unfinished) around the same time in 1917.