Every generation has their punks. Be they musicians, writers, or artists, those individuals ahead of their times – while infamous during their lives – create legacies that last years after their deaths. Austrian painter Egon Schiele is certainly one of these controversial and memorable personalities. Best identified as a 20th century Expressionist painter, the short-lived artist’s explicit female nudes, distinctive style, and controversial biography mark him as a brief yet bright influence to the Expressionist movement.
Though his experimental self-portraits are certainly notable, Schiele is best known for his sexually provocative female nudes. A prolific artist, Schiele typically painted in gouache, oil, and watercolor. Many of his ink, crayon, and pencil drawings also survive today. The artist worked on wood and paper, and with multiple mediums, often painting atop previously finished drawings. Most distinctive and celebrated of all, however, is Schiele’s unique style, which can only be described as grotesque. His violent brush strokes, elongated figures, and intentionally disorienting foreshortening make his work as distinct as it does ghastly.
Schiele was born June 12, 1890, to Adolf Schiele and Marie Soukupova. Schiele’s family lived in Tulln, Austria, where his father worked as the station master of the town’s train station. The young artist was drawn to the trains and drew them so obsessively that his father, at one point, felt compelled to destroy his sketchbooks (Davies, “A Legend Laid Bare”). Many of his siblings tragically died young; his mother dealt not only with the death of a daughter at birth and a stillborn son, but also lost her elder daughter, Elvira, at the age of ten due to childhood illness. Schiele still had two sisters; Melanie, older, and Gertrude, four years his younger. Historians are mostly drawn to the artist’s relationship with his younger sister, Gertrude, for whom he displayed incestuous tendencies (Lucie-Smith, Lives). “Gerti” was often the subject of many of Schiele’s female nudes and is thought to be his first model. Gerti would later marry Anton Peschka, a fellow painter and friend of Schiele’s (Steiner, Egon Schiele).
When Schiele was fifteen, his father died of syphilis, and he was made the ward of his maternal uncle, Leopold Czihaczec. Recognizing his artistic talent, his uncle enrolled him in Vienna’s School of Arts and Crafts (Kunstgewerbeschule) in 1906. This is the same school that Gustav Klimt – who would later take Schiele under his wing as his protege – had graduated from in 1883. Schiele, however, was transferred within the year to Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts (Akademie der Bildenden Kunste) at the insistence of his teachers. Frustrated with his new school’s conservatism, Schiele left after three years and formed the “New Art Group” with likeminded students in 1909, writing a manifesto condemning the principles of the Academy and exhibiting work independently at the Kunstsalon Pisko (Artbios).
Overlapping his academic studies is Schiele’s private instruction with famed Art Nouveau painter Gustav Klimt, known for mentoring promising artists. Schiele sought him out in 1907; Klimt, recognizing the younger man’s talent, took special interest in Schiele, exhibiting his work and providing models for his new student. Klimt was vital to Schiele’s artistic growth, exposing the young painter to not only his own work, but that of Van Gogh, Georges Minne, and Ferdinand Hodler (Artbios), whose influences can often be seen in Schiele’s distinctive style. Free to disregard the stuffy ideals of his past educators, Schiele began to more heavily explore death, sexuality, and human form in explicit and often offensive detail.
Schiele, now 21, met and fell in love with 17-year-old Valerie “Wally” Neuzil in 1911. Wally, who had originally posed for Klimt, quickly became the inspiration and subject of much of Schiele’s work. The young couple soon moved to Krumau, Bohemia, where Schiele’s mother had grown up (Steiner, Egon Schiele). Though the young couple’s cohabitation was of little controversy in Vienna, they faced condemnation in the small town not only for their lifestyle, but for Schiele’s habit of using the town’s young teenage girls as models, often outside and in plain sight (Davies, “A Legend Laid Bare”). Schiele and Wally moved instead to Neulengbach, Austria, where the artist was able to set up a studio in 1912. The couple’s residence quickly became a haven for young delinquents (Artbios). Neulengbach was just as disapproving of Schiele’s conduct as Krumau, calling out his inclination towards young girls (Steiner, Egon Schiele), and his exposure of explicit art to the town’s youth. In April, 1912, Schiele was charged with statutory rape, arrested, and placed in jail for roughly a month (Davies, “A Legend Laid Bare”). At the time of his arrest, over a hundred drawings considered to be pornographic were seized, and a magistrate went so far as to burn one of the pieces (Lucie-Smith, Lives).
Wally and Schiele moved back to Vienna soon after the artist’s release. In 1914, the well-off Harms family moved in across the street from them; Schiele quickly became enamored with their two daughters, Edith and Adele. Wishing for a socially acceptable marriage, the artist decided to marry the younger sister, Edith, despite her parents’ disapproval. Though Edith demanded monogamy (Davies, “A Legend Laid Bare”), Schiele also intended to remain romantically involved with Wally. When Schiele described the situation to Wally she left him immediately, never to be seen by the artist again.
With World War I and Schiele’s conscription soon approaching, Edith and Schiele rushed to marry in June of 1915. Schiele reported for service only four days after their wedding, though he never saw combat (Artbios). The artist was stationed in Prague guarding Russian prisoners of war, and was able to continue painting and sketching along with seeing Edith on a regular basis. The two were back in Vienna by 1917, and though WWI caused them little hardship, the Spanish flu would soon claim both of their lives. Edith, who was six months pregnant at the time, contracted the disease and died on October 28, 1918. Schiele completed a handful of sketches of Edith before dying three days later, on October 31, 1918, at the young age of 28.
The controversial and tumultuous nature of Schiele’s life can be seen within his work. Schiele’s bizarre exaggeration of anatomy and sickly color choices are complimented well by his expert use of line and composition, using inventive new perspectives from which to paint his subjects to further expand on the disconcerting atmosphere of his paintings. His enthusiastic experimentation with subjects of death and sexuality, while condemned during his short life, make his works a celebrated contribution to art history today. Schiele’s avant-garde approach to art precedes modern art’s similar principles. His unique distortions of anatomy and near violent application of paint can be seen mirrored in many Neo-Expressionist artists’ work, such as Lubomir Tkacik and Francis Bacon, and the brunt, unapologetic sexuality of his paintings is shared with 20th century painters like Jean-Michel Basquait and Keith Harring.
Schiele’s prolific and well-documented contributions to his movement mark him as a cornerstone of 20th century Expressionism. Short lived though he may have been, he is survived by the gritty sexuality and bold defiance of his oeuvre, and while his work may have been the cause of controversy during his time, it is cherished today by artists, historians, and aesthetes alike. After all, we were all punks once.
Portrait of Gerti Schiele
The artist’s sister sits, feet dangling in space. She is turned away from the viewer to smile to herself, eyes closed. There is no background, the blank negative space around her forcing her form as the only focal point. Though the rendering is relatively flat, Schiele suggests planar changes with his deliberate line work and coloring. The unusual cropping of the image, along with its unnaturally golden tones, mark it as a unique piece of art.
At this point, Schiele had been working closely with famed Art Nouveau artist Gustav Klimt for roughly two years. The influence of Klimt’s unique style is unmistakable. Schiele’s flat rendering and elongated figure alone are comparative to the elder artist’s style. Bearing even more influence, however, are the distinct golden tones and intricate patterning that Schiele uses to adorn his subject. That is not to say that Schiele is directly copying Klimt’s work; his mentor did not usually leave his figures floating in space the way Schiele nearly always did, and Gerti’s clothing, though simplified to only a few shapes, works with her body to accentuate the form. Klimt, in comparison, dwarfed his figures in brightly patterned robes, often concealing everything but their face and hands. Schiele also uses a more subtle, silvery color scheme than his mentor’s gleaming golden compositions.
Schiele was incredibly close with his sister – many would say even too close. Not only was Gerti one of his dearest childhood friends, but she was also his first model. We can clearly see Schiele’s love for Gerti in this painting. She is rendered as a beautiful golden figure, slender and lovely. A shy and charming smile lights up her idealized face, despite Schiele’s tendency to exaggerate his models’ features to the point of caricature. There is nothing else in the composition because there is nothing else important for Schiele to render; the focus is solely placed on the centrally placed figure. Here, we see none of the grotesque exaggeration of anatomy that Schiele became so famous for. Instead, we see an undeniably lovely young woman, smiling to herself in a small and happy moment.
Egon Schiele. Dead Mother I. 1910. Oil on panel. 101.2 x 126”.
Dead Mother I
Two distorted and disturbing figures wrap around each other in a canvas full of black, nondescript brushstrokes. A frail, corpselike woman wraps her arms around and rests her head on what can only be described as a womb, though, indescribably, it does not seem to be attached to her. She glances listlessly towards the center of the canvas, where a fetal form bulges and contorts from a too-tight window of space. Two hands, seemingly too large for the figure they must belong to, float near it with no indication of wrist or arm. The ghastly figure almost seems to smile, staring almost but not quite out to the viewer.
The near violent brush strokes and grossly exaggerated figures mark this as a distinctly expressionist piece. The delicate patterns and flat, graphic rendering of Gerti are nowhere to be found, and Klimt’s influence on Schiele, though still visible through a similar distortion of form, has been set aside in favor of exploration of individual style. Some could argue that the thickly applied paint may have been inspired by the work of Van Gogh, whose sunflower series Schiele had often painted tributes to. However, the short, near pointillist way Van Gogh often used his paint has instead been replaced with deliberately long and linear strokes.
Dead Mother is full of meaning and deliberate choices. The fetus that Schiele portrays is, however ghastly, distinctly alive. Unlike anything else in the composition, this central form is painted with bright reds and oranges. One could almost see the blood coursing through its small body, in contrast with the drab greenish black tones achieved throughout the rest of the piece. The womb is surrounded by the mother my all sides; she rests her head atop him and glances, emotionless, down at it; a skeletal hand comes up to support him from the bottom, and her thin shoulders and drab hair surround the fetus from the left and right.
What did Schiele mean to accomplish with this macabre piece? Surely he was inspired by the many tragedies his family faced when it came to babies and children – his family lost one sister as a child, another right at birth, and his mother had even delivered a stillborn boy at one point. Though his inspiration is clear, what was the interpretation? Is the contorted fetus an innocent form entrapped by a cold and unfeeling mother, or is it sucking the life out of her? It quite literally seems to have blood on its hands.
Dead Mother I belongs to a series that Schiele worked on throughout his career, starting with his striking Madonna and Child from 1908. Schiele painted multiple disturbing images of young children or infants with their ominous or corpselike mothers, with similar symbolism and themes. The personal meaning to Schiele certainly must have been of great importance.
Mystery surrounds this grotesque and fascinating painting, and meaning can be found on a distinctly individual level. Like many of Schiele’s pieces, this deeply personal work easily resonates with its audience, leaving it open for interpretation for years to come.
Egon Schiele. Female Nude. 1910. Black chalk, gouache, opaque white on paper. 122 x 176”.
A woman lays reclined on her back, peering up at us from an otherwise blank canvas. The cropping of the picture is odd, deliberately cutting of the woman’s legs and forcing a highly asymmetrical composition. Here, Schiele hasn’t even completed the figure. Her legs cut off at the thighs, and she has no arms, only the implication of a shoulder and a single gnarled hand, delicately resting against her ribcage.
That is not to say that the drawing is incomplete. Schiele focuses beautifully on the subtle color and reflected light of her abdomen, showing off his expert draughtmanship with deliberate black lines, and suggests weight and emphasis by changing the line quality. He highlights the figure with a bright white outline to set her off from the rest of the page. A great detail is how he follows the kinetic energy of the woman’s hair, spread out around her, by using short radial strokes with his white paint.
This piece is typical of Schiele’s female nudes. The artist was still studying under Klimt during this time, who often experimented with figure drawing in similar ways, and most likely provided him with the model. Like most of his figure drawings, there is a blatant sexuality to this piece. The woman is angled with an unusual perspective typical of Schiele. The pose forces the viewer to look up her body, her legs spread slightly and suggestively, hips opening up towards us. Her body, particularly her breasts, is flushed with heat, and she stares at her audience confidently. There is an objectifying quality to the piece; Schiele has portrayed only her torso in any semi-realistic detail, opting to greatly simplify her features and disregard her limbs entirely. Though his rendering of the female form is beautiful, one can’t help be reminded of a carved piece of meat. This drawing could even be considered tame compared to Schiele’s other female nudes, which often focused more explicitly on their genitals. Though the eroticism in Schiele’s work is certainly why he struggled with public outcry and censorship throughout his career, it is lovely to see his themes reoccur multiple times, and to be able to group his works together in such finite categories.
Egon Schiele. Self-Portrait with Physalis. 1912. Oil on canvas. 156.7 x 126.8”.
Self-Portrait with Physalis
Schiele paints himself peering out haughtily at the viewer, head tilted above and away from us and shoulders angled delicately. Behind him is a mostly abstract background, the orange plant on the left side forcing an even more asymmetrical composition. Swirling brush strokes in varying color patches of pale gray fill the rest of the canvas, and his sparse and delicate outlining help to bring the various forms of the piece together.
Though Schiele was often incredibly deliberate with his brush strokes, there is something particularly wonderful about the way he uses his paint here. The mottled, muddy blotches of color in his face are well-balanced by the smoother strokes of the background behind him. The angular, almost patterned shapes that Schiele depicts in the color of his shirt help to make an otherwise formless and uninteresting shape come to life.
If not for his nudes, Schiele would certainly be best known for his self-portraits. The artist depicted himself countless times and in varying ways; sometimes as a swooping, graceful figure as in his 1910 Seated Male Nude; others as a fool, or with a comically pinched grimace. That being said, Schiele’s 1912 Self-Portrait takes on a pose and expression also typical of the artist. What is not typical, however, is how complete the image is, including a full background and working in deliberately textured brush strokes far different than the blank spaces typically left around his figures. Even though he works throughout the entire canvas, however, the emptiness of space normally found in his paper drawings is still found here, only the gangly form of the Physalis and the subtle whorls and tonal changes in the gray paint breaking up the background.
Schiele gives us a self-portrait that exudes confidence, practically preening from within the canvas. He looks at the audience from, essentially, down his nose, yet somehow manages to maintain an inquisitive air. One cannot help but compare the pose and expression to that of a modern-day selfie, especially when considering the youthful, curious mood his likeness presents. As far ahead of his time as he was, perhaps Schiele may have fit in with today’s media- and appearance-based culture.
Egon Schiele. Death and the Maiden (Self-Portrait with Walli). 1915. Oil on canvas. 59 x 73”.
Death and the Maiden
Though many of Schiele’s paintings are haunting and tragic, few can compare to the scene depicted in Death and the Maiden. Two muddily-painted figures contort and twists towards each other in an embrace, nearly weightless on the backdrop of a white cloth. The two teeter dangerously on an abstractly painted cliff, perhaps already in the process of falling off the edge. In fact, little of the perspective in this piece makes much sense; our subjects do not sit in a rational space. The fractured, indistinct shapes of the rocks help to make the unease of the two figures more apparent, and the figures do not rest the weight of their bodies in any way. The woman is on her knees, but still appears to be adrift in a sea of cloth, and the man’s body does not behave in a rational way at all, his elongated form existing solely to curl around her.
There is something undeniably haunting in the man’s expression. Though his entire body reacts and curves towards the woman he is entwined with, his eyes are distant, almost unseeing. It is an expression of great mourning or shock. In contrast, we cannot see the woman’s eyes at all, concealed by her bangs. Though she looks down and away from the figure she embraces, we can still see the sternness of her mouth. The piece almost echoes Ilya Repin’s 1885 Ivan the Terrible Killing his Son, a scene of the aftermath of great violence and tragedy.
By this point, Schiele certainly has his own style. His muddy brush strokes bring a dark and graphic atmosphere to the entire piece, and the distortion of anatomy here is distinctly his own. Even here, however, we can still see the influence that Klimt had on the younger artist. The woman’s dress holds the sort of abstract, rectangular pattern that Klimt had imprinted on him. Schiele also allows the male from to become lost in his robes, placing emphasis only on where the body is not concealed – the head, hands, and legs, in this case. This was also a distinctly Klimt idea, and one that seemed to follow Schiele throughout his life’s work.
Many of this artist’s paintings have deep personal meanings that seem to shine through the layers of oil. In this case, Death and the Maiden represents profound loss and heartbreak. Schiele’s lover Wally stood by his side through court trials, public condemnation, and even jail time, yet the artist still decided to marry a more respectable woman instead. In 1914, when Schiele suggested to Wally that she remain his mistress while marrying the more socially acceptable Edith Harms, his former lover left him immediately. This piece is undeniably the aftermath of her loss. Schiele takes on the persona of Death, a grieving, corpselike thing, and clings to his lively and youthful Maiden. His expression is one of absolute anguish and regret. Yet, even here, in this embrace, there is distance between the two figures; Wally’s legs angle out and away from Schiele, only making contact with him from the chest up. This is symbolic of the distance between them that Schiele had caused, and the fact that he had lost what he had once held most dear. The painting screams grief in the fractured, disarrayed state of the rocks and the grungy colors and brushstrokes that Schiele employs. This is not just two lovers holding each other; this painting is a goodbye for what the artist had been foolish enough to lose.
Egon Schiele. Edith Schiele. 1918. Black crayon on paper. Dimensions unavailable.
Little more than a sketch, a stylized portrait of the artist’s wife, Edith, sits off-center on an otherwise blank sheet of paper. She leans back and watches the audience with tired eyes, resting a gnarled hand on her face. Her wedding ring sits visibly on her finger. Other than her collar and the start of an arm, perhaps the sleeve of her clothing, there is nothing else in the piece. Schiele relies entirely on actual line to create this image, adding no color or shading to the image. His strokes become significantly looser in her hair, becoming swirls of blurred line instead of form. The entire image gives off the atmosphere of an old candid photograph, as if Edith is glanced up from something else to find the camera raised and taking a snapshot. Still, something deeper still remains in Edith’s face. Her eyes are hooded and almost unfocused, the lines around them visibly detailing her exhaustion.
Edith Schiele is a haunting final portrait of the artist’s wife, drawn the day she died. The young couple both succumbed to the Influenza pandemic of 1918 within three days of each other. Edith had been six months pregnant with their child at the time of her death – almost poetic, considering Schiele’s own parents’ struggles with pregnancies.
Something in Schiele’s pieces matured after his marriage to Edith. While his work was still often erotic, particularly relating to female forms, his figures gained realistic weight and mass in a way they hadn’t in his previous work. The artist often painted couples, most likely portraits of himself and his wife, depicting women with maturity and strength and men as foolish, sexual beings. Edith became one of his favorite subjects, tending to depict her as something beautiful and almost idealized rather than the unflattering caricatures he became known for. It only makes sense that here, three days before his death, he would do little more than sketch his deceased wife. Instead of focusing on his own mourning and loss, the way he did with Death and the Maiden, Schiele shifts the focus more selflessly to those who are actually gone. This piece is not the frantic dismay of a lover scorned. Instead, it is remembrance of the woman Schiele loved and died with. This last work gives us a chance, as his audience, to also remember the life of the couple.