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Schiele, Egon

Category: Artist and sculptor

 

Egon Schiele (12 June 1890 – 31 October 1918) was an Austrian painter.

A protégé of Gustav Klimt, Schiele was a major figurative painter of the early 20th century. His work is noted for its intensity and he is also remembered for the many self-portraits he produced, including naked self-portraits.

The twisted body shapes and the expressive line that characterise Schiele's paintings and drawings have aroused intense interest and provoked considerable discussion.

Schiele is not a ‘heavenly’ artist, his paintings are raw and graphic, disturbing and at times dark.  But Schiele is one of the best examples on this site of an artist who faithfully represented his time, his culture and his psyche – the psyche created by that culture.  All art reflects the culture and the time in which it is created.  If we were to say the art of our time was banal, materialistic and brutal, then we are saying this of our own culture.  All art mirrors, it reflects, it exposes and characterises.  It throws back into our faces what we have become.  And Schiele did this perfectly.

Wally in a red blouse

Schiele and his models

Schiele was born in 1890 in Tulln, Lower Austria. Shy and reserved, and considered as rather different by his fellow pupils, he suffered an early trauma when he was 15 years old, when his father died from syphilis, an indication that maybe things were not as they should have been in the Schiele family.

Schiele has been accused of “displaying incestuous tendencies towards his younger sister Gertrude”. When he was sixteen he took the twelve-year-old Gerti by train to Trieste without permission and spent a night in a hotel room with her.  She also posed nude for him.

 

In 1911, aged 21, Schiele met the seventeen-year-old Walburga (Wally) Neuzil, who lived with him in Vienna and served as a model for some of his most striking paintings. Schiele and Wally wanted to escape what they perceived as the claustrophobic Viennese milieu, and went to the small town of Český Krumlov in southern Bohemia. He and his lover were driven out of the town by the residents, who strongly disapproved of their lifestyle, including his alleged employment of the town's teenage girls as models.

The Austrian painter Egon Schiele struggled with society’s ideas on male artists and their choice of female subjects. Models in Vienna were difficult to find ….. But all through this turbulent period he lived with Wally Neuzil. Paintings of Wally, such as Woman in Black Stockings (1913), are not so much erotic as anatomical. But contemporaries deemed the drawings pornographic.

 The court case

The Wider, Not Wilder, Egon Schiele - By Ken Johnson NYTimes
Schiele's …. interest in the underage girls who often modeled for him, and his arrest and 24-day imprisonment in 1912 on charges -- eventually dropped -- of abducting and molesting a 13-year-old girl are legendary. The myth of his transgressive predilections remains intact.

 
 

In around 1911, Schiele moved to Neulengbach with Wally, 35 km west of Vienna, seeking inspirational surroundings and an inexpensive studio in which to work, his studio became a gathering place for Neulengbach's children. Schiele's way of life aroused much animosity among the town's inhabitants, and in April 1912 he was arrested for seducing a young girl below the age of consent.

When they came to his studio to place him under arrest, the police seized more than a hundred drawings which they considered pornographic. Schiele was imprisoned while awaiting his trial. When his case was brought before a judge, the charges of seduction and abduction were dropped, but the artist was found guilty of exhibiting erotic drawings in a place accessible to children. In court, the judge burned one of the offending drawings over a candle flame. The twenty-one days he had already spent in custody were taken into account, and he was sentenced to a further three days' imprisonment.

Not a great deal is made of this imprisonment by writers, but the effects it had on Schiele were dramatic.  Wrongfully accused, humiliated, he also saw a sort of censureship of his work in operation.  Prison is not a place for the sensitive, it can destroy them or damage them for life, they become embittered, cynical or broken and deranged.  While in prison, Schiele created a series of 12 paintings depicting the time.  And all his subsequent work is flavoured by this experience.

War

Edith in 1915

In 1914, Schiele glimpsed the sisters Edith and Adéle Harms, who lived with their parents across the street from his studio in the Viennese suburb of Hietzing.  They were a middle-class family and Protestant by faith; their father was a master locksmith. Despite some opposition from the Harms family, Schiele and Edith were married on 17 June 1915.

Wally, however, was no pushover. When Schiele announced he was to marry a respectable girl called Edith, yet still expected to carry on a relationship with his mistress, Wally left. Schiele, heartbroken, poured his anguish into the dark and troubled painting Death and the Maiden.

Three days after his wedding, in 1915, Schiele was ordered to report for active service in the army where he was initially stationed in Prague. Edith came with him and stayed in a hotel in the city, while Egon lived in an exhibition hall with his fellow conscripts. They were allowed by Schiele's commanding officer to see each other occasionally. His first duties consisted of guarding and escorting Russian prisoners. Because of his weak heart and his excellent handwriting, Schiele was eventually given a job as a clerk in a POW camp near the town of Mühling.

Death and the Maiden
 
 

Again this experience is somewhat passed over by biographers, but if we compare Schiele and, for example, Max Ernst who said "On the first of August 1914 M[ax].E[rnst]. died. He was resurrected on the eleventh of November 1918."  then again we can see that this too had a great effect.  Despite his military service, Schiele was still exhibiting in Berlin. During the same year, he also had successful shows in Zürich, Prague, and Dresden.

By 1917, he was back in Vienna, able to focus on his artistic career. His output was prolific, and his work reflected the maturity of an artist in full command of his talents. He was invited to participate in the Secession's 49th exhibition, held in Vienna in 1918. Schiele had fifty works accepted for this exhibition, and they were displayed in the main hall.

But in the autumn of 1918, the Spanish flu pandemic that claimed more than 20,000,000 lives in Europe reached Vienna. Edith, who was six months pregnant, succumbed to the disease on 28 October. Schiele died only three days after his wife. He was 28 years old.

Schiele’s art

 

War, angst, isolation, humiliation, grief and possibly abuse in his early life.  There is a tension in Schiele’s art that is tangible, a tension every bit as dramatic as the story of his life.

But his art also reflects the times he lived in.  On the one hand the morality of the Victorian era was still alive and kicking, repressive, brutal, aggressive.  Hellfire and brimstone still rang from numerous Catholic pulpits – sin featured prominently in many a sermon.  And yet the Vienna in which Schiele spent some of his time was described as ‘debauched and fascinating’ as well as   "pregnant with squalor behind its Imperial veil."

 

Remember that it was not that long afterwards that Christopher Isherwood gave up his studies to join W H Auden for a few weeks in Berlin.  Rejecting his upper middle class background and embracing his attraction to men, Isherwod remained in Berlin, the capital of the young Weimar Republic, drawn by its reputation for sexual freedom. There, he "fully indulged his taste for pretty youths. He went to Berlin in search of boys and found one called Heinz, who became his first great love."  Those who have seen the film Cabaret should be able to derive some sense of the culture of the time.

Well before Schiele’s birth and in Germany, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (15 October 1844 – 25 August 1900) had been attempting to break down the repressive, hypocritical, aggressive and anti-Semitic society in which he lived.  He tried, he is remembered, but he largely failed at the time.

In the 1890s there emerged men and movements of such importance that fin-de-siecle Vienna is now generally recognised as a formative cultural crucible for the elements that shaped the 20th century world.  Klimt in art, Wittgenstein in philosophy, Mahler in music, Freud in psychiatry.  Freud published his first book in 1899 ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’.

 

Turn of the century Vienna offered a political education to the young Adolf Hitler, who fully appreciated the potency of such forces as enraged German nationalism and anti-Semitism.  For Herman Broch, Vienna was the city of the ‘gay apocalypse’.  For Karl Kraus, it was an ‘experimental laboratory for the end of the world’.

In 1899, when Schiele was only 9 years old, Vienna also witnessed the trials of Joseph and Juliane Hummel who had tortured their 5 year old daughter to death; the case was followed two weeks later by another trial of a father and stepmother – Rudolf and Marie Kutschera who had tortured and mutilated seven of their children and finally killed one of them.  Not much before an unmarried mother Hedwig Keplinger had shot herself and her illegitimate daughter in the woods outside Vienna.

These were the first child abuse cases to be publicly exposed and it rocked the nation.  The child abuse cases mentioned above were not buried by time, but deliberately buried, their graphic details and alarming implications were totally repressed.  Within 14 years there would be war of a brutality equal to any child abuse case.  Slaughter of millions, gassing, torture.

 

Herman Broch went on to write about this time in the novel The Sleepwalkers published in the early 1930s.  He called Vienna the ‘centre of the European value vacuum’.

Schiele is simply a mirror of this time.  Simply a mirror.  An agonised tortured mirror, one who was clearly deeply traumatised by much of what he was experiencing.

The Wider, Not Wilder, Egon Schiele - By Ken Johnson NYTimes

Was Schiele a pornographer? In some sense he surely was making art with the purpose of provoking sexual arousal -- in addition to shocking the bourgeoisie -- and there were people who purchased his work with that purpose in mind, so the answer is yes. …. But there have been few pornographers who drew as well as he did. His ways with composition, line and color and his responsiveness to paper were nothing short of exquisite.


 

One of the undercurrents in Schiele’s work is death. His figures are quite skeletal, but there is something more subtle going on, it is the longing, the absolute longing of the sensitive for release, the ‘going home’ to the spirit world – the death that releases:

Egon’s death figures are full of life, … erotic, perhaps in the way that the orgasm is an erasure of consciousness and of the ego, a sort of forgetfulness. Egon’s shrivelled bodies are erotic because they are full of death which is the ultimate pleasure to the spiritualist.

The strange postures he adopted for himself in particular in his self portraits are just an extension of the torment – the psychic torment – he was experiencing for his culture and himself

Schiele’s depiction of his body in his self-portraits in a twisted, contorted, dystonia-like pose raised questions about the possibility of his suffering from dystonia. However, there are no grounds whatsoever for such a hypothesis. Schiele's conception of distorted, at times bizarre, body postures reflects … the Expressionist formal style of displaying extroverted emotions and psychic conflicts. ….. There are reliable indications that Schiele knew the images of diseases published in the 'Iconographie Photographique de la Salpetriere' and the later 'Nouvelle Iconographie de la Salpetriere' including hysterical and dystonic postures. PMID: 20375521

 

Schiele was thus saying I am sick, traumatised, but because I am a reflection and a product of the society I live in, society is sick too – our culture is sick.

The Wider, Not Wilder, Egon Schiele - By Ken Johnson NYTimes

The brevity of Schiele's life adds to the popular fantasy of the outlaw who lived fast and died young. His career lasted only about eight years, from around 1910, when at age 20 he suddenly found his own vision, until his sudden death by flu in the pandemic of 1918.

He was not neglected during that time, however. As a student, one of his mentors was Gustav Klimt, the dean of Viennese Modernism, and as a young professional he was included in important group shows in Vienna and elsewhere in Europe.

His drawings sold well to discerning collectors, and a solo show at the Vienna Secession just months before he died was a critical and financial success.

Moreover, he was a dandy with a taste for well-made American shoes and a keen awareness of the cut of his silhouette, as photographs of him in the exhibition prove. So the myth of Schiele as a sacrificial outcast does not tell the whole story.


All Hail, Egon.....

But the story of the Schiele who lived to represent, to mirror and to condemn society’s moral hypocrisy and its side into a sort of anachic degeneracy is true.

"Self-Portrait (With Arm Twisted Above his Head)” from 1910, in which Schiele appears before the mirror. What does the young artist see in his skeletal physique? Is he shocked by this deterioration; panicked by this weakened system; threatened by further sickness; ashamed?

Yes, but not of himself.

 

 

 

 

References

We have provided some observations with this entry, but in memory of his father, who died of Syphilis when Schiele was 15, we have placed a number of Schiele's painting in the entry for Syphilis.  His father's death affected him for the rest of his life and largely determined his style of painting.

We have also used his paintings for the entry on Gonorrhea.  And in the entry for Chancroid.

 

Observations

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