In 1918, the Spanish Flu epidemic took the life of a prolific Austrian artist, Egon Schiele (b. 1890- d. 1918) but not before he could leave behind a highly extraordinary and profoundly haunting collection of the art. A young protege of Gustav Klimt, Schiele is characterized as being one of the most significant contributors to the development of Modern Art. Through his technical virtuosity, highly original vision, and unflinching depiction of the naked figure, the works by Egon Schiele remains timeless for contemporary artists and viewers alike.
During his short life, Egon Schiele created more than three thousand works on paper and approximately three hundred paintings. His work as an artist began to flourish in 1906, when at the age of sixteen, he enrolled at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. But three years later, he became disillusioned with traditionalist methods, and with fellow artists, formed the Neukünstler (New Artists) Group.
Financially cut off by his family, Schiele unintentionally embarked upon being the ‘bad-boy’ of the art world, producing a series of nude portraits using Expressionist vocabulary of exaggerated gestures, unconventional color combination, and jagged contour lines. These audacious, fervid works remain some of the most vivid portrayals of women in art today.
Known to be fervently and emotionally invested in his art, many of his peers either revered or reviled him. This could be due in part because Schiele had an unfettered fascination with, and appetite for, and access, to the female form. That, along with his eccentric behavior and promiscuous nature, made him a magnet for the ‘undesirables’ in his small town—where he was often observed drawing them nude and in various poses and states of undress.
The intensity of Schiele’s work lies in his engagement with his models. To differentiate himself from his mentor, Gustav Klimt, Schiele constructed oddly foreshortened poses by positioning himself above or below his subjects, and eliminated their limbs to reinforce a sense of disconcertion. Schiele was a master at capturing the female form as they openly exposed themselves beneath raised skirts and set off their nakedness with a surrounding white gouache halo. He wanted their demeanour to appear confrontational, sometimes seductive, but always in control.
In the spring of 1912, his penchant for inviting young models into a studio full of sexually graphic works finally caught up with him and lead to some serious charges. He was hauled in front of the authorities, accused of seducing the runaway daughter of a naval officer who had been seen, alongside a number of other children, hanging out in his studio. The main charge against him was dropped, but because children had been able to see nude studies on his walls, he was sentenced for negligent custody of erotic material, and spent 24 days in jail.
Although most of Schiele’s work appears to embrace feminine characteristics, a majority of it hints at the darker side of sexual freedom. This is because in 1904, Schiele’s own father died from syphilis. Witnessing the progression of his father’s illness had a profound effect on the artist, and according Schiele’s brother-in-law—the women portrayed in his work are a reflection of something that never left him. A common theme in his earlier work has his subjects appearing buckled under, with bodies inflamed, translucent—all skin and bones, tired and lifeless. Even today, a century after his death, the candour with which Schiele presented these women is sometimes unsettling.
After several years involved in a tumultuous relationship with one of his models, Schiele’s style began to shift and soften slightly. In 1915, he married a pretty young woman named Edith Harm, who was instrumental in his commercial rise. She was not too keen on modeling for him, but in the end, she finally gave into to his requests. Suddenly, sensitive portraits of his new bride began show his more natural and soft side, and this reinvention of persona, which was employed in a growing number of portrait commissions, was widely received with critics throughout Vienna.
Schiele was excited about his reversal of fortune. With money pouring in from private commissions, he finally felt a sense of recognition. Unfortunately, his sweet success as a commercial artist did not last long. After being drafted, and while serving in the military, both he and his wife contracted the Spanish Flu and perished within days of each other.
When looking at his work, there is no doubt that if he had survived, Schiele would have gone on to make more incredible works of art. He had a knack for reinventing himself, as evidenced in his last pieces of work. Who knows what other boundaries he might have breached had he lived to the ripe old age that most lotharios of the art world reach. Who knows?
Learn more about Egon Schiele here.