An Art of Anxiety: The brief, tortured life of Egon Schiele

"Portrait of Edith Schiele, The Artist's Wife," 1915 (Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands)

The artist dying young is one of the founding myths of 20th century Modernism. A. E. Houseman celebrated the athlete dying young. In England Wilfred Owen became the icon of the poet giving his life for his country. August Macke and Franz Marc, lost at the front in the Great War, had been radiant hopes of German painting. Amedeo Modigliani, a victim (and hero) of his excesses, succumbed to tubercular meningitis. But no one blazed more dramatically and briefly over the horizon than the Austrian, Egon Schiele, the subject of a thrilling exhibition currently at the Neue Galerie in New York that focuses on his nervous, agonized, unforgettable portraits. (It has been extended through April 20.)

Alessandra Comini, a longtime Schiele scholar, has organized the show with theatrical flair around family and fellow artists, patrons and sitters, experiments with photography, erotica, allegorical works and searing self-portraits. (Schiele studied himself unforgivingly throughout his short life. He could not pass a mirror without stopping to scrutinize his image in it, and on the stairs to the exhibition there is a classic photograph of his double-portrait in a mirror.)

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Born in 1890 outside Vienna to Roman Catholic parents, Schiele moved to Vienna with his mother and two sisters in 1906 after the death of his father. He enrolled that year as the youngest student at the Academy of Fine Arts, where his skillful draftsmanship was immediately recognized. The next year he met Gustav Klimt, the leader of the Secession (founded 1897) and the young artist’s supporter and friend for the rest of his life. In 1909, with Oscar Kokoschka, Max Oppenheimer, Anton Peschka and several other students, he left the Academy to establish the Neukunstgruppe (New Art Group).

The first gallery in the show has a wall of early charcoals from 1906-07 that show his dexterity with the traditional drawing taught at the Academy. (Younger students were not permitted to paint in oils.) By 1910, breaking through to a personal style, his oil, gouache and charcoal portrait of his painter friend Karl Zakovšek shows the sitter placed on a daring diagonal against an unarticulated background. (It is a tribute to van Gogh’s 1890 “Portrait of Dr. Gachet.”) Another wall offers remarkably vivid, later portraits of Anton von Webern, Karl Otten (looking very much like Eddie Redmayne in “A Theory of Everything”) and, especially striking, Arnold Schoenberg.

But the room is dominated by two large oil portraits, one of Schiele’s sister Gerti (1909, from the Museum of Modern Art), the other of his father-in-law Johann Harms (1916, from the Guggenheim Museum). The autumnal color scheme of the Modern’s painting is somewhat faded, but the canvas is an excellent example of Schiele’s sharply defined contours, especially in the young woman’s face in profile, here against an opalescent, undefined background. The Guggenheim painting is still more compelling, Done a year before the old workman died, it shows him sitting in a chair, leaning to his left, his large left hand cradling his inclined head—an incarnation of beloved weariness. (Painted almost entirely in tones of gray, it is an Austrian “Whistler’s Mother.”)

There was nothing decorous or conventional about Schiele’s early work. He bridled at the self-satisfaction of academicians and equally at what he considered society’s repressive, hypocritical approach to sexuality. Drawing himself and young women in startlingly erotic scenes, he incurred the wrath of authorities in the town of Neulengbach, outside Vienna, where he was living with his mistress Walpurga (“Wally”) Neuzil. He was arrested on April 13, 1912, and spent 24 days in the St. Pőlten prison, an experience that clearly traumatized him. (The small, third-floor room at the Neue Galerie documents these days, with Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night” playing softly in the background. On view there also is a 1967 copy of the artist’s death mask.)

But his friends and patrons, including Klimt and the art critic Arthur Roessler, remained loyal to him. An oil portrait of Dr. Erwin von Graff from 1910 displays both Schiele’s maturing style and his risk-taking approach to subjects and his relations with them. (Von Graff, portrayed with cadaverous candor, was a gynecologist who allowed Schiele access to his patients.) After the imprisonment, though, his approach softened. Klimt, for example, persuaded the wealthy collector August Lederer to invite the artist to spend Christmas with the Lederer family at their estate in Hungary, and there are superb drawings of Lederer, his wife Serena (shown as a great and sympathetic beauty in one of the show’s very best pieces), and their daughter Elisabeth. There are also four studies of son Erich, only a few years younger than the artist and also artistically inclined. (See particularly “Erich in Front of a Window, Győr” from 1912, with its nod to Cubism and the window that may really be a curtain.)

Schiele could at times be tender, as in the intense “Seated Woman” of 1918, in which the figure leans toward us over a table (or perhaps a chair), her unfinished hands clasped comfortably together, her tousled hair only darkly suggested, with a look of pensive reverie on her beautiful face. More typically the women who fascinated him are shown in unusual but extraordinarily life-like poses—red-haired Wally in a red blouse lying on the floor with her legs tossed up to reveal her knickers (1913), or later his young wife Edith seated and holding her right leg provocatively toward her body (1917).

The final, and largest, gallery in the show displays erotic work and self-portraits on opposite walls. Schiele’s pursuit of eros rivaled—and outdistanced—Klimt’s, and Ms. Comini gives us a quite sufficient sample of it. Two sheets from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Standing Woman (Prostitute)” (1912) and “Observed in a Dream” (1911), one with a fully clothed, buxom figure, the other with full frontal nudity, each equally shocking, are unlike most of the material you’re used to at the Met. And a viewer will rub her eyes before recognizing that what she sees in “The Red Host” (1911) is indeed what she sees. (Nearby are some murky allegorical works and a gymnastically arranged painting of two lovers that only emphasize the artist’s troubling talent with the erotic.)

As for the self-portaits, they rank among the most accomplished, and tortured, of any artist’s. Schiele portrayed himself in various guises—as a hermit, a monk, a saint—and early on often naked. He had a broad forehead beneath a great shock of hair, dark searching eyes, a small sensuous mouth, and strong hands with long, expressive fingers. These features reappear in his almost crazed “Self-Portrait with Arm Twisted above Head” (1910), the foppish but exquisitely painted “Self-Portrait with a Peacock Waistcoat, Standing” (1911), and even, pierced by arrows, in “Self-Portrait as St. Sebastian” (1914). Indeed, he sees himself in many other portraits as well, where many of his male subjects have hands much like his own.

The final gallery is dominated, however, by “Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Standing (Edith Schiele in Striped Dress)” from 1915. Schiele had met Edith and her sister Adele in 1914 and married Edith the next year. Here she looks ready to dance, her haired piled high and a look of surprised happiness on her apple-cheeked face. (Adele thought Schiele made her look dumb.) She wears a striped vest and purple belt over a white blouse and above a voluminous, striped skirt. But it is no ordinary striped skirt. Edith had made the dress from black and white curtains, and her husband transformed it into a rainbow of colors with no discernible pattern but a jubilant expression of what now seems like impossible hope.

And then the show ends with a final shock. Schiele chaired the 1918 exhibition of the Secession, to great acclaim. But Edith, who had discovered that year that she was pregnant, died in October of influenza, and Egon himself died four days later, on October 31, the day of her burial. Thus ended the dream that he had with seeming hope imagined in “The Family,” from the same year and now in The Belvedere in Vienna, in which he portrays himself (yet again) as the father, standing above a woman and the child he was never to have.

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