12 January 2015

Egon Schiele: Portraits

"Reclining Woman with Green Stockings" Egon Schiele (1917)

The Austrian artist Egon Schiele (1890-1918) was something of a boy genius and rebel. At the age of 16 he was accepted into Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts. At 17 he counted Gustave Klimt as a mentor and at 18 had his work included in a public exhibition. At 19 he and some friends dropped out of school to found the New Art Group and by 21 had his first solo exhibit. He would die young, leaving behind a body of work that would make him one of the most important European artists of the early 20th century.

“Egon Schiele: Portraits” is a compelling exhibit at the Neue Galerie that includes 125 of his drawings and paintings. Although often shocking, sometimes grotesque, and rarely beautiful, you can’t help but be captivated by them.

"Erich Lederer in Front of a Window, Gyoer, Hungary" Egon Schiele (1912)

The portraits in the front of the show are of a variety of family members and acquaintances. There’s the Klimt-influenced portrait of his sister, Gertie (there were rumours about an incestuous relationship between the two siblings); the portraits of the Lederer family, including multiple ones of the son, Erich, looking like a follower of Oscar Wilde (Schiele caused some trouble when it was discovered that he was introducing Erich to his female models); and a portrait of gynaecologist Dr. Erwin von Graff that is absolutely terrifying with his long arms covered in what looks like a combination of blood and burns.

Some of Schiele’s favourite subjects were children who he would invite into his studio to pose for him. In 1912 he was arrested and accused of kidnapping and raping a minor. In the end he was only charged with offences against morality (for having pornographic material on display for minors to see) and spent 24 days in prison. Afterwards, Schiele primarily stuck to painting adults. The exhibit includes a small room dedicated to this event with sketches Schiele completed while in prison.

"Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Standing (Edith Schiele in Striped Dress)" Egon Schiele (1915)

In the final gallery two of Schiele’s obsessions, women and himself, come together. Here the visitor is greeted with numerous images of women in various states of undress and sexual arousal (sometimes with Schiele joining in). Knickers and stockings of all colours play an important role. Sometimes the women look at the viewer; other times their faces are hidden among their clothes or covered by their hair. A few are of his longtime partner, Wally, while others are nameless. A nearby full-length painting of his wife, Edith, stands in stark contrast, fully dressed and while colourful a bit dull in comparison.

"Self-portrait with arm twisted above head" Egon Schiele (1910)

And then there are the self-portraits: Schiele pouting and preening, his body twisted, emaciated, sometimes dressed, sometimes not, looking like an Austrian Sid Vicious. A few have religious connotations including one that comes right out and announces that it’s Schiele as St. Sebastian pierced through with arrows. Seen collectively, it's hard not to think of Schiele as a narcissist (or maybe he was just young).

One of his later paintings from 1918 gives a clue that the artist was looking forward to starting a new chapter in his life. “The Family (Squatting Couple)” depicts a father and a mother, naked, with a baby at their feet. Schiele posed for the figure of the father while a model stood in for a pregnant Edith. Yet this imagined scene of Schiele’s future was not to be. Edith died while she was six-months pregnant, a victim of the Spanish Flu epidemic. Schiele followed her just three days later. He was 28.

"Self-Portrait with Peacock Waistcoat, Standing" Egon Schiele (1911)

One can only speculate what direction his art would have taken had he lived and how he would have fared a few decades later as a middle-aged man living under Nazi rule. Schiele's early death means he will forever be the young artist who left behind a trove of work that continues to shock and fascinate a hundred years later.

"Egon Schiele: Portraits" is at the Neue Galerie through January 11, 2015. For more information, visit here

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