handprint : egon schiele
 
Egon Schiele (1890-1918) was the son of an Austrian railway engineer. He began drawing locomotives at an early age and was a compulsive drawer of landscapes. His father, invalided with syphilitic dementia, retired early and died just as Schiele became a teenager. His overbearing and prosperous uncle, Leopold Czihaczek, became his guardian, though Schiele continued to live with his mother. He was bored and did poorly in high school, but was mentored in watercolor painting by a high school art teacher, who recommended the boy quit regular school and apply to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. Schiele was admitted there in 1905, moved with his mother to Vienna, and began studies under Christian Griepenkerl. In 1907 he met Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), who became his close friend and mentor. Schiele and other artists left the Academy in 1909 to found the Neukunstgruppe (New Art Group), which mounted its first show at the Salon Pisko, and in the following years Schiele exhibited with similar artist groups in Munich and Budapest, and began occasional work for the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop), an artists' collective founded by Josef Hoffmann. He also met several supporters and patrons, including Arthur Roessler, Carl Reininghaus and Heinrich Benesch, and took up residence with a model, Valerie (Wally) Neuzil. He moved to rural Krumau, then Neulengbach, but small town distrust of his bohemian lifestyle led to his arrest and brief imprisonment for offending public morality. He continued to exhibit widely in Germany in 1913, and in Rome and Paris in 1914. He married Adele Harms in 1915 and lived with her in Vienna while serving noncombat functions in the Austrian Army during 1915-18; throughout this period he continued to travel, exhibit, paint commission portraits, and contribute to Austrian periodicals such as Die Aktion and Der Anbruch. He died of influenza in the great epidemic of 1918, at age 28.
 
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Many of Schiele's early drawings adopt the austere, elegant style of commercial art of the time, which effectively put on display Schiele's assured and alluring drawing skill. Schiele was at this time struggling to absorb into his own artistic personality the oppressive traditional academy training and the influences of Klimt, Kokoschka and the linear Viennese Art Nouveau. The result is illustrated in Seated Female Nude with Raised Right Arm (1910, 45x32cm), a carefully finished piece submitted to Josef Hoffmann at the Wiener Werkstätte. Carefully outlined in black crayon on tinted paper, watercolor has been used to decorate the figure in a muted warm palette of orange, yellow green and ochre; the tiny wedge of cerulean blue above the head adds a complementary color accent. The line shows a tendency to peak at points of tension (the outline of the hip, the top edge of the left shoulder and forearm), a trick that makes the contour static but not heavy. The effect is decorative, to suit the postcards and knicknacks turned out by the workshop, but the figure also seems tense or vigilant, as if waiting for mother to burst through the door. For the red hair, dark straight eyebrows and slim figure confirm that this is Schiele's favorite model from these years: his younger sister Gertrude (Gerti), whom Schiele drew obsessively from childhood up until she broke off nude modeling at age 16.
 
When Gerti disappeared from Schiele's drawings, around 1910, he replaced her with young prostitutes and truant children — apparently, figure models were as hard to find in Vienna as gallery representation. Schiele paid these minors token sums, or let them hang out in his apartment in Vienna and later in Neulengbach, cultivating their familiarity and coaxing them into modeling for him, sometimes nude. One of these, a Neulengbach teenage girl infatuated with Schiele, ran away from home and wheedled him and his model/lover Valerie Neuzil into taking her to Vienna; the next day she changed her mind and went with them back to Neulengbach. By that time, her father had brought charges of rape and kidnapping against Schiele, and he was arrested. During a search of his home Schiele helpfully produced an erotic drawing or two, and the charge of "insulting public morality" was added. Imprisoned three weeks until trial, the charges involving the girl were dropped, the judge burned one of Schiele's drawings in court, and he was fined and released three days later. I describe this episode to make sure you see the farcical reality, and Schiele's responsibility for it all, because naive Egon experienced it as a descent into Hell. He made about a dozen self portraits during his brief lockup, such as Hindering the Artist Is a Crime, It Is Murdering Life In the Bud! (1912, 49x32cm), and the discrepancy between his legal bother and the histrionic posturing in these drawings is a kind of benchmark for the emotional disorientation that runs through most of his early works. Schiele often used figure portraits of himself, nude or clothed, as a kind of imaginary ethnography or narcissistic role playing — brooding, exulting, suffering, sneering, lusting or leering. Here he plays the part of persecuted victim, a Christlike martyr for art. He disorients us with a trick he used frequently: making the drawing in horizontal orientation (lying in bed covered with a blanket), then signing and inscribing the sheet in vertical orientation. The major contrast to the previous example is the weakness of the line and the dominant texture of the watercolor tinting, slathered on with coarse brushstrokes. This struggle to find a balance between painting and drawing characterizes many works from 1910-13: Schiele was venturing into more ambitious oil paintings, and perhaps sought to consolidate his style across both media, or he may have wanted to command higher prices by producing more elaborate drawings. Either way, his style in these years shows many variations, as if groping for a way forward.
 
Around 1914 Schiele's style begins to settle into figure studies using a combination of ink, charcoal or crayon for line and watercolor or gouache for color. These drawings increasingly minimize stylization and caricature, and go beyond mere sexual confrontation; the figures become more substantial and sculptural; the line achieves a new strength and complexity, and color is used to signal surface texture and contour. Schiele's increasing success brought him a larger range of adult models and portrait commissions, and in 1915 he married, influences that stimulated a new sensitivity to the individuality of his subjects. Crouching Male Nude (Self-Portrait) (1917, 46x29cm), drawn just a year before Schiele's death, reveals many of these developments. The sense that Schiele is playing a narcissistic fantasy character is gone; his life as an individual matters more. As in nearly all his drawings, the figure is isolated against the bare page, stripped of context or props. The left arm seems to put a hammerlock on the negative space, some invisible adversary that has chewed off both hands. (Oddly, Schiele seems to have greatly disliked showing hands and feet: they are usually hidden or omitted, and when they appear are harshly drawn.) A coil of gray extrudes from under the grotesquely dislocated hips, drawn as if a rumpled sheet, but alluding to excrement or evisceration. Yet these bizarre aspects of the drawing lend the figure a taut energy, alertness and resilience. The pose, and the treatment of line, texture and color, closely resemble the male figure in Squatting Couple (1918), a large canvas left uncompleted at Schiele's death. One of his late allegories, it shows a man, woman and infant seated together in a somber brown space, the figures realized with a heartfelt new sympathy and simplicity. Although this promising new direction was cut short by his death, Schiele's works on paper, arrogant, contrived or disturbing as they often are, have a technical command and visual imagination that ensures their place among the master drawings of the 20th century.

The standard reference for Schiele's works is the expanded (second) edition of Egon Schiele: The Complete Works by Jane Kallir (Harry N. Abrams, 1998), which includes a lengthy biography and catalog raisonné. Briefer but with a better and larger selection of color reproductions is Egon Schiele 1890-1918: Desire and Decay by Wolfgang Fischer (Taschen, 1994). Kallir has also rewritten her full catalog biography, adding more intimate details, for the smaller format but amply illustrated Egon Schiele: Drawings and Watercolors by Jane Kallir (Thames & Hudson, 2003).

 

Last revised 11.12.2007 • © 2007 Bruce MacEvoy