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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Egon Schiele

Green Stockings, 1914, Egon Schiele
One of the most common stereotypes imposed upon artist is that: "All artists are weird." It's untrue, of course, simply because the word, "all," is an absolute. Adding the words "can be" (a relative element) to the verbal equation serves to make it true, but also takes it to the opposite extreme, making the phrase unlimited. "All artists can be weird," casts us in the same light as the entire human race--"All people can be weird," raising the question, what's the point? If we try prefixing the phrase with the more limited, "some" (some artists are weird) we again make it true, and perhaps a little more meaningful, but just as pointless--"Some people are weird." Thus the point in this discussion is that artist are no more weird than other people. From my own experience, they just like to seem that way. The attribute of weirdness (whether true or false) lengthens our social "leash," so to speak. Perhaps more accurately, this welcomed stereotype lengthens the heavy chain or rope artists must endure living in the world at large, giving us a greater degree of creative freedom. It can also give artists the rope they need to "hang" themselves. The early 20th-century Austrian painter, Egon Schiele, is an apt example.

Melon, 1905, Egon Schiele, painted at age fifteen.
Winding Brook, 1906, Egon Schiele
Schiele was born in 1890, the son of an northern Austrian railway station master. Not surprisingly, as a child the boy liked to draw trains. That was fine with his father until it came to the point that trains were all he would draw (his first sign of weirdness). His father felt the need to destroy all his son's sketchbooks. As young Egon began attending secondary school at the age of eleven, he stood apart from his peers, shy, and a poor student academically; he excelled only in art and athletics (a rather weird combination in itself) His Melon (above) painted when he was fifteen, demonstrates an extraordinary mastery of technique, color and composition for a boy so young. Likewise, his Winding Brook, (left) painted the following year, displays a similar aptitude for Impressionist landscapes. However, as a teenager, Egon also displayed an incestuous interest in his younger sister, Gertrude, at one point causing his father to break down a locked door to see what the two were up to. They were developing film.

Egon Schiele Self-portrait,
1906, age sixteen.
Self-portrait, 1914, Egon Schiele,
age twenty-four.
Sexual promiscuity apparently ran in the family. When Egon was fifteen, his father died of syphilis. The father's suspicions were not without cause. Free from his father's watchful eyes, a year later, when Egon turned sixteen, and without permission, he took his twelve-year-old sister by train to nearby Trieste and spent a night with her in a hotel room. Upon their return, Schiele was made the ward of his maternal uncle, who tried to discourage both his artistic and sexual proclivities. He succeeded at neither. Within a year, Schiele was sent off to the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts. There, the faculty and staff soon decided Schiele should attend the more conservative (and rigorous) Academy of Fine Arts, also in Vienna, where he studied under the painter (drill-sergeant), Christian Griepenkerl, whose strict, doctrinaire style of painting and instruction Schiele found most frustrating. To his credit though, he continued to endure for three long years while at the same time seeking out the Austrian painter, Gustave Klimt as a mentor. Klimt, who generously mentored younger artists, took a particular interest in Schiele, buying his drawings, offering to exchange them for some of his own, arranging models for him, and introduced him to potential patrons.

View from the Drawing Classroom, Klosterneuburg, 1905, Egon Schiele
Seated Woman with Bent Knee,
1917, Egon Schiele.
Klimt invited Schiele to exhibit some of his work at the 1909 Vienna Kunstschau. There he encountered the work of Edvard Munch, Jan Toorop, and Vincent van Gogh among others. Once free of the constraints of the Academy's conventions, Schiele began to explore, not only the human form, but also human sexuality. At the time, many found the explicitness of his works disturbing. For reasons just mentioned, I'm unable to display here the bulk of Schiele's figural work including many of his self-portraits. His Green Stockings (top), from 1914, is about as close as I can come within the bounds of good taste. It's interesting to contrast his early student work such as View from the Drawing Classroom, Klosterneuburg (above) with the stylized eroticism (putting it kindly) of work such as Seated Woman with Bent Knee (left), done a few short years later.

Portrait of Wally, 1912, Egon Schiele
From then on, Schiele participated in numerous group exhibitions, including those of the Neukunstgruppe in Prague, Budapest, the Sonderbund, Cologne, and several other Secessionist shows. In Munich, in 1913, Schiele mounted his first solo show, all of which culminated with a solo exhibition of his work in Paris in 1914. In 1911, through Gustave Klimt, Schiele had met the seventeen-year-old Walburga (Wally) Neuzil (above, right), who lived with him in Vienna and served as a model for some of his most striking paintings. Very little is known of her, except that she had previously modelled for Klimt and may have been one of his mistresses. In an attempt to escape what they perceived as the claustrophobic Viennese social scene, the two young lovers retreated to the small town of Český Krumlov in southern Bohemia. The town had been the birthplace of Schiele's mother (today it is the site of a museum dedicated to Schiele). Despite the family connections there, Schiele and his live-in model were driven out of the town by the residents, who strongly disapproved of their lifestyle, especially his alleged use of the town's teenage girls as models.

Seated Girl Facing Front,
1911, Egon Schiele
Children, Egon Schiele

Together Schiele and Wally moved to Neulengbach, just west of Vienna, seeking inexpensive studio space in which to work. As had been the case in Vienna, Schiele's studio became a gathering place for Neulengbach's delinquent children. And, just as before, Schiele's way of life aroused much animosity among the town's inhabitants. In April, 1912, Schiele was arrested for seducing a young girl below the age of consent. When the authorities came to his studio to place him under arrest, they seized more than a hundred drawings which they considered pornographic. Schiele landed in jail while awaiting his trial. When his case came 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. The judge even burned one of the offending drawings over a candle flame. The twenty-one days Schiele had already spent in custody were taken into account, and he was sentenced to an additional three days. While he was incarcerated, Schiele made the most of his time by creating a series of twelve paintings depicting the difficulties and discomforts of being locked up.

Egon Schiele (center)
with two companions during WW I.
In 1915, Schiele married Edith Harms, who lived with her parents across the street from his studio in the Viennese suburb of Hietzing. She was the daughter of a Protestant locksmith. Schiele, even though married, had apparently expected to maintain a relationship with Wally. However, when he tried to explain such an arrangement to her, she left him immediately and never saw him again. Despite having avoided conscription for almost a year, World War I was now creeping into Schiele's life and work. Three days after his wedding, Schiele was ordered to report for active duty in the army where he was first stationed in Prague. Despite military service, Schiele continued to exhibit in Berlin as well as Zürich, Prague, and Dresden. 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 where he was allowed to draw and paint imprisoned Russian officers. By 1917, he was back in Vienna, once more focusing on his artistic career. He died a year later, at the age of twenty-eight, a victim of the Spanish Influenza, which claimed the lives of more than twenty-million in Europe alone. One of those was Edith Harms Schiele who died three days before her husband. She was six months pregnant with their first child.

The Family, 1918, Egon Schiele, one of his last works.


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