Egon Schiele died of the Spanish flu in 1918, commemorating the 100th anniversary of his death the Museum Georg Schäfer in Schweinfurt showcases the work of the enfant terrible of Austrian art at the turn of the century. All of the 68 works presented under the exhibition title Freedom of the Ego are loans from the Leopold Museum in Vienna, which possesses the most comprehensive collection of works by Egon Schiele, including 42 paintings and 184 drawings, watercolors and graphic prints.
In the era of the fin de siècle, when Vienna was equally characterized by a sense of change and a feeling of doom, Egon Schiele created a pioneering oeuvre in a distinctive style during the short productive period he was granted, turning him into the most provocative artist of the Viennese Modernist period and making him popular beyond the borders of Austria. As leading figure of the Neukunstgruppe founded in 1909 he became one of most flamboyant representatives of a generation of young artists who broke social taboos and shocked the audience with disturbing images. Egon Schiele explored psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud, spiritism and mysticism, while society in Vienna condemned his libertarian lifestyle for being outrageously offensive.
The title of the exhibition Freedom of the Ego was chosen by museum director Wolf Eiermann and curator Karin Rhein to point out the cross-border liberty Egon Schiele took as an artist, but also to illustrate his subjective self-reflection in a period of far-reaching changes. The concept of the exhibition follows his most important subject matters, the self-portraits und his self-promotion, his disconcerting poses and body presentations, nature as reflection on the ego, as well as the experience of the First World War. The goal of the exhibition concept is to question the common stereotype of Egon Schiele to be a representative of erotic art of the Viennese Modernist period, in order to provide an unrestricted look at him as an existentialist.
Egon Schiele – Freedom of the Ego, Museum Georg Schäfer Schweinfurt
Egon Schiele grew up in a women’s household and was familiar with female nudity early on.
The artistic environment in Vienna at the turn of the century was characterized by society’s double standards that choked on the conservatism of the Kaiserzeit, while Sigmund Freud made the taboo subject of suppressed sexuality public and artists such as Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka attacked the hypocrisy of the elites with permissive depictions of the naked female body. Beauty and the Abyss, the motto of the Viennese theme year 2018, commemorating the era that was ended by the death of Gustav Klimt, Otto Wagner, Koloman Moser and Egon Schiele 100 years ago, also represented the conflict that young artists on their way to the Modernist period were subject to back then.
Egon Schiele‘s relation to the female sex was strongly shaped by his childhood, when he was mostly surrounded by women only. Together with his mother, his sisters and the maid they lived in constricted rooms, which resulted in the fact that it was an inevitable part of Egon Schiele’s everyday life that he saw his female family members dressing and undressing. Schiele’s father being a station master mostly stayed in Vienna, where he visited prostitutes regularly. When he was at home he ran a tight ship. On new year’s day in 1905 Egon Schiele’s father died of syphilis, whereupon Egon’s uncle Leopold Czihaczek was appointed guardian.
Egon Schiele, Portrait of Grete Wolf
Egon Schiele, Reclining Girl with Hair Bow
Young Egon Schiele sought refuge in art, in which he was encouraged by his art teacher Ludwig Karl Strauch who also supported him applying for admission to the academy of fine arts of Vienna. At the age of sixteen Egon Schiele was accepted at the academy, which led to serious differences with his uncle and guardian for the first time. Schiele’s initial enthusiasm studying at the academy was on the wane quickly, the conservative teaching program bored him soon, with the result that he left the academy after two years already and founded the Viennese Neukunstgruppe together with several fellow students. In 1907 Gustav Klimt became his mentor, he supported Egon Schiele by all means and put him in touch with important persons of the art scene in Vienna, to gallerists and collectors such as the industrialist August Lederer. Being influenced by Gustav Klimt’s decorative elements of the Viennese Jugendstil at the beginning, Egon Schiele developed a style of his own in a short time that showed a clear turning to expressionism in its radicality.
Egon Schiele, Stylized Flowers in Front of a Decorative Background
Egon Schiele, Chrysanthemums
For Schiele art was a mirror of his inner conflicts and an expression of the mental crisis, many intellectuals at the turn of the century went through.
Under the impression of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis Egon Schiele discovered the contradictions of the ego and the own psyche as artistic experimental ground. Also the slowly progressing mental decline of his father caused by syphilis, which he was forced to witness closely, was likely to have interested Egon Schiele in delusional ideas strongly. Art as a mirror of the soul, caught between Eros and death, was the prevailing background noise of the intellectuals in fin de siècle Vienna. In 1903 Hermann Bahr had discussed the multeity of the subject in his treatise The Unsaveable Ego, discarding the idea that the subject should represent a self-contained entity and a holistic being. Instead he picked up on Nietzsche’s concept of the dividuum, describing a divisible individual.
In 1911 Egon Schiele rented a little house in Neulengbach, where he lived in sin with his model Wally Neuzil, affronting the conservative Viennese society. After having been accused of sexual abuse of minors, which proved false, Egon Schiele was detained in custody. The charge of having abducted and raped a girl was dropped, but the court sentenced him to 24 days in prison for having distributed “indecent drawings”. Sick of the animosity of the Viennese society Egon Schiele and Wally Neuzil moved to Krumau, the birthplace of his mother. Schiele’s fatherly friend Gustav Klimt kept believing in his talent and despite the bad reputation that he had acquired in Vienna, he enabled him to regain a foothold in the Austrian art scene, where he soon had great success at the exhibition of the Viennese Hagenbund.
Egon Schiele, Mother with Two Children II
At this time his artistic self-discovery already had been completed by establishing his own expressive style. From the plane ornaments of Jugendstil Schiele developed his unique technique in his paintings, by laying translucent glazes of heavily thinned oil paint on impasto. In doing so, he achieved an enamel-like effect and brilliance in his colors that resemble stained glass of church windows. In 1915 Egon Schiele broke up with his longtime girlfriend Wally Neuzil and got married with his neighbor Edith Harms. In the meantime World War I ravaged Europe, but Schiele was spared serving at the front, instead he worked in the military administration service and had himself transferred to a museum two years later. After Gustav Klimt’s death on February 6th 1918, Egon Schiele rose to fame as undisputed star of the art scene of Vienna, with the 49th exhibition of the Vienna Secession being dedicated to him, where he exhibited 19 paintings and 29 drawings.
With exalted gestures Egon Schiele presented himself as martyr and savior of art.
In contrast to his mentor Gustav Klimt Egon Schiele didn’t want to create representative portraits, but to turn the innermost of the portrayed person to the outside under his dissecting gaze. He undermined the beauty cult of the Vienna Secessionists by cultivating the ugly, which he developed by means of distorted and overstretched figures. Through exaggerated facial expressions and gestures Schiele subjected his models to a relentless bodily inquiry, with emaciated extremities and provokingly highlighted genital organs, which he emphasized in color. He was interested in the awakening sexuality, the transition from child to man and woman, girls going through puberty he preferred to display in intimate moments of self-exploration. In his portraits hands play a major role, they seem to live an autonomous life independent from the portrayed person, thus expressing the fragmentation of the individual.
Egon Schiele, Sitting Female Nude Back View with Red Garter
Egon Schiele, Sitting Girl with Thighs Spread
Egon Schiele, Nude Self-Portrait
Egon Schiele, Self-Portrait with Splayed Fingers
Anatomical distortions and separations in combination with astonishing perspectives serve Egon Schiele as mirror of inner tensions. For this purpose he even climbs up ladders in order to paint his models from above, and portrays them sitting without any seat, as if they were held captive by the vacuum of the image space. Schiele’s showcased voyeurism and exhibitionism appear disconcerting yet 100 years after the Viennese modernist era, which is why his nudes regularly fall victim to censorship in public until today. For him the nudity of the human body becomes a symbol of struggle for life, with sexuality being the driving force for life and art.
Thus Schiele’s figures are thrown back upon their own physicalness, without anything they can hold on to in space they writhe in lust and pain. In doing so, he carried the practice of painful self-inquisition to the extremes, with 170 self-portraits bearing witness to. While he presents himself as a prophet and medium communicating with a supernatural reality in his works, he treats his own body with means of expression borrowed from dance, theater, silent films and spiritism playing various parts. His mannered V-gesture with his forefinger and middle finger splayed became a distinctive element of his exalted self-representations, which he adopted from the Renaissance period, such as in his painting Self-Portrait with Lowered Head from 1912. Also in Byzantine art the V-gesture was a synonym for Christ blessing, which met the understanding of the artists of the fin de siècle as priests of spirituality. Schiele expressed his artistic religiousness through scenes of martyrdom that represented metaphors for love and hope as well as pain and salvation. He combined his self-presentation as seer and martyr with autoerotic exposures that broke all social taboos of his time.
Egon Schiele, Self-Portrait with Lowered Head
Egon Schiele, Dead Mother I
For Egon Schiele flowers and trees were metaphors for the human struggle for life in the face of an uncertain future.
In a letter from 1911 he wrote: “Also the most erotic work of art has sacredness!” He used his own body as projection screen for Christian and mythological scenes, understanding the male nude as symbol of the Passion of Christ in the tradition of medieval representations of the Pietà. Many of Schiele’s self-portraits are influenced by Christian iconography, which he merged with occultism that was popular around 1900. In his double self-portrait Self-Seer II from 1911 his alter ego embodied by death steps next to him, gazing at the viewer with hollow eye-sockets. Schiele’s self-portraits are expression of the existential crisis of the subject, which was shaken by disintegrating certainties in the social, political and economic areas at the turn of the century. The ambivalent sensation of disruption between a doomed past and an uncertain future resulted in a loss of control in contemplation of the threat of the First World War and death, which made people seek refuge in spiritism.
The inner conflicts that are revealed by Egon Schiele’s portraits are transferred to nature as mirror of his state of mind. After he had left behind the decorative borrowings from Jugendstil, especially here the ideas of expressionism strongly come to live. His landscapes are characterized by a fateful gloomy atmosphere, the streets of Krumau appear dead and depressing. His depictions of flowers and trees look like metaphors for the human body. The graphic lines of the bald branches in Autumn Tree in Stirred Air, painted in 1912, remind of Schiele’s emaciated bodies, the tree is windswept by gusts from opposite directions, while it is trying hard to grasp at the soil.
Egon Schiele, Self-Seer II (Death and Man)
Egon Schiele, Autumn Tree in Stirred Air (Winter Tree)
In a letter from 1913 Schiele writes: “Mostly I’m observing die physical movement of mountains, water, trees and flowers now. Everywhere one is reminded of similar movements in the human body, of similar sensations of joy and suffering in the plants (…).” He was granted one decade only to realize his ideas of an art on the way to the Modernist period and to create his comprehensive oeuvre in such a short time. In 1918 the Spanish flu rages with similarly apocalyptic dimensions as the Black Plague in the Middle Ages and claims more victims than the First World War. On October 28th Egon Schiele’s pregnant wife Edith dies of the flu, he hurries to paint a fictitious portrait of the family that never was to exist and dies himself on October 31st at the age of 28. His last words are said to have been: “The war is over and I have to leave.”
14.10.18 – 13.01.19 Museum Georg Schäfer, Schweinfurt