Monday, Feb. 4, 2008

John Malkovich: Being Gustav Klimpt

By David Luhrssen
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John Malkovich is everyone’s idea of a decadent, slightly dangerous aesthete. He brought this persona to its sharpest point as the cultured American expatriate killer in the little seen Ripley’s Game and as the Faustian German filmmaker F.W. Murnau in Shadow of the Vampire. He was cast by director Raul Ruiz as the titular figure in Klimpt, a film (out now on DVD) about one of the titans of Viennese art at a time, the turn of the last century, when Vienna was arguably the world’s most flourishing cultural mecca.

Malkovich infuses Gustav Klimpt with his usual feline air of aloofness, wielding rapier words with velvet-gloved hands. Ruiz decided to be challenging by composing Klimpt in mosaic-like fragments that viewers less familiar with the artist may find hard to assemble into a picture of the man and his work. Trapped within the cliché of the artist as iconoclast, Ruiz makes too much is of Klimpt as a rebel. In reality the artist gratefully accepted awards and commissions from Austria’s imperial government as well as wealthy patrons, even as he painted in electrically charged erotic brush strokes. The Victorian Age had ended by the time of Klimpt’s ascendance and sensuality was in the air.

One of Ruiz’s other motifs is more insightful. Sounding over and over, often as disembodied voices, is the Procrustean campaign by critics, academics and cultural theorists of all stripes to measure Klimpt’s vision according to their own inadequate and inappropriate standards. Klimpt was a traditionalist and a modernist. Rooted in past and present and lacking any discernable Utopian notions about the future of art and society, he might be better understood in today’s postmodern environment than he was through much of the 20th century.

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