Of all my favourite artists, Egon Schiele is the one I find hardest to explain. His art is rarely conventionally beautiful. He tells few stories and fights no political battles. I struggle to point out any single work as a ‘masterpiece’. His scope is small, narrowed down to the souls he could see tossing in his bed and reflected in his mirror, and intensely personal. And yet I cannot escape him. His art has a style that is all his own, a view of the world that feels painfully, and sometimes gleefully, honest.
Egon Schiele did not have much in the way of range when it came to subject matter. He painted and drew himself, his friends, dilapidated houses and, most commonly of all, naked bodies. Usually a combination of the above. He was a wonderful portraitist, but he gifted few of his subjects with the same depth of feeling, tortured as it often was, that he gave images of himself. Instead, it was through bodies – figures in motion, often in the throes of passion – that he expressed himself. Legs coil, backs stiffen, hands grasp and clasp. His subjects are caught in a state of undress, in poses that only a lover could, or perhaps should, be privy to, twisting themselves mere inches beyond the borders of reality. We enter a private world, where imperfection holds its own beauty.
Schiele catapulted out of the art schools of Vienna at age 20 with his unique style intact. He died in 1918, only 28 years old. Those eight years were enough for young Egon not only to produce thousands of paintings and sketches, but to encompass affairs and improprieties, war, arrest and condemnation. Looking at his images, it’s not hard to jump to a few conclusions about the man and his life. And many of them would be right. He was, by all reports, a hedonist and an egotist. He was accused of producing pornography, and rumours have long shadowed his personal life based on his depiction of young girls, although they were thrown out of court at the time. He certainly had a younger lover – his model ‘Wally’ Neuzil – who left Egon when he insisted on maintaining an ‘open’ relationship after marrying the more respectable girl next door.
There too was a taste for scandal – one of his most famous pictures re-purposes Klimt’s already-iconic ‘The Kiss’ with a Cardinal and a Nun. No doubt it was good for business. Less beneficial was the enmity he and his bohemian lifestyle inspired when he attempted to settle and work in the countryside – he was run out of the towns of Cesky Krumlov and Neulengbach, and hauled before the Courts. One local magistrate thrust one of his drawings into the naked flame of a candle, and let it burn. But back in the big city, Vienna, he was loved.
Just as his profile was ascending, Schiele was struck down in the Spanish Flu pandemic that swept Europe and killed more men and women than the Great War it followed. He and his pregnant wife died within three days of one another.
Egon Schiele came of age in one of the great creative flowerings of world history – Vienna in the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was the age of the Romantic composers Mahler and Strauss, the birth of Freud’s psychoanalysis and the Secession. An age of indulgence and decadence, where men and women were taught to voice desires hitherto kept locked away. He was a student of Gustav Klimt, an artist whose grasp of sensuality is unsurpassed, but not nearly as brazen as that of his pupil. Whereas Klimt’s art, lathered in vibrant colours and majestic patterns, veers into the world of dreams, Schiele’s images are an exaggeration of reality. Perhaps his most fitting contemporary is the similarly short-lived Toulouse-Lautrec (another favourite of mine), the Moulin Rouge’s resident draughtsman. He too was bewitched by the women of his hendonistic circles, and depicted them with bold clarity and colour. Yet Lautrec was as interested in the faces of his subjects as their plunging necklines. For Egon Schiele, an early expressionist, the body is all. He grapples for an emotional response through his bodies, not his individuals.
The human bodies Egon Schiele draws are distinguished by their vulnerability. His naked figures are objects of beauty, but also flimsy edifices as capable of collapse as the waterfront shanty homes he was so fond of painting. They are not merely erotic – they verge on the tragic. Often they are objects of pleasure, but the sensuality is enhanced by its fleeting nature. There is a stark reality to them, an aversion to romanticising these exposed bodies that borders on savagery. Strong whiffs of objectification can make some of his art uncomfortable – particularly the two year period where his naked women appear to have all the vitality and individualism of rag dolls – but they always feel like personal expression.
For all the unflattering exposure he gave his models, he repeatedly turned the same eye and unforgiving strokes on himself. In sketch after sketch, watercolour after watercolour, he offers himself up to the viewer; Schiele’s self portraits show a contorted, imperfect figure, laid out naked and emaciated. A scrawny body elongated and contorted by some internal struggle we are not privy too. Or he may just be staring too hard into that mirror. Schiele’s art – his bodies – feel like an exploration. A young man’s awakening and liberation played out via pencil and paint.
Would Egon Schiele’s art be any better received coming from a 20 year old artist today? While we’ve become more and more accustomed to open expressions of sexuality in mass media, the erotic maintains an uneasy relationship with art. Galleries in America in particular have been reluctant to exhibit Schiele’s risque works for years – which is tough, because honestly, they represent his most dramatic, arresting output. The battle over sensuality in art has been waged and replayed the world over ad inifinitum, no doubt since the first humans etchings of humans in charcoal became distinguishable from sticks figures on cave walls. For all our myths of Roman decadence, Emperor Augustus exiled the great poet of pleasure, Ovid, for his verses in the first days of the Empire. Did Bill Henson, displaying his images of nude young models in a modern metropolis, fare much better than Egon Schiele did in rural town nearly a century ago?
Posterity always vindicates good art. Provided, of course, it avoids the merciless licks of a hungry flame. Nonetheless, Egon’s work can still be a bit of a shock. My first reaction, on seeing a wall of his works, was an incredulous “they were allowed to paint that back then?! You can see -?!” But that reaction passes. A moment later, and I had been won over by their sincere, stark beauty.
The human body doesn’t get the same attention lavished on it in artistic circles that it used to. Which is odd, considering it has been man’s greatest subject since the Greeks went public with their fondness for nudity. Artists today are often more concerned about expressing their feelings in increasingly abstract ways, separated from the twist of an arm or a pouting lip. Photography now sates our appetites for the physical. One feels that today, with his perchance for bold, clear lines and movement, Egon Schiele is as likely to have been pushed towards illustrating comic books as hanging canvases.
Which would be a loss. No, instead, in venerated and stuffy galleries the world over, not far from the Old Masters, there is bound to be at least one picture of a scrawny, emaciated young man or harried young woman (perhaps both, perhaps embracing) shamelessly exposed to all the world without romanticism or virtue, but perhaps with traces of pain or pleasure.
Respectable at last? No doubt Egon Schiele would snigger.