On June 12, 1890, Marie Schiele, wife of the stationmaster in the small Austrian town of Tulln, gave birth to her first and only son to survive infancy, Egon. Forty-five days later, in a field outside the French village of Auvers, Vincent van Gogh brought an end to his life, an art-historical coincidence that was not later lost on Egon Schiele, spiritual heir to the Dutch father of Expressionism. As 1990, the much heralded centenary of Van Gogh's death, draws to a close, one cannot help contrasting the oversubscribed commemorative spectacles in his native land with the far more subdued Schiele celebrations mounted by the various Austrian museums (most of them with the assistance or collaboration of the Galerie St. Etienne). One could conjure up all sorts of socio-historical explanations for this contrast, but perhaps the heart of the matter lies in the fact that Schiele has always been, and remains, most comfortable outside the mainstream. This is, indeed, part of his mystique.
Although Van Gogh was an outcast during his lifetime, he has gradually become ensconced as a pillar of the modernist tradition, whereas Schiele's reputation has remained fluid and comparatively ethereal. As each generation casts or remakes him in its own mold, he somehow refuses to fade into history. With his proto-punk haircut, Schiele has been, successively, a latter-day James Dean, a forebear of the hippie youth cult, and, today, a spooky harbinger of sexual controversy and persecution in the mode of Robert Mapplethorpe. While Schiele's unflagging contemporaneity has its advantages, there are also drawbacks in the resulting tendency for the artist to become lost in a progression of self-generating myths. We forget that Schiele is not really of the moment: he is a product of the 1890s, not the 1990s; he is distinctly Austrian, not American; and fin-de-siécle Vienna, despite what some may claim, is really not an accurate model for our own fin de siécle.
Schiele, born to a family of comfortably middle-class civil servants, made an unlikely rebel, and indeed this role was never one he consciously sought. But somehow over the course of his childhood, things went awry. In 1904, his father died of a progressive nervous disorder commonly believed to be of syphilitic origins, and thereafter Schiele abandoned any pretense of pursuing a conventional profession. Against the protests of his uncle and guardian, Leopold Czihaczek, he left highschool at the age of sixteen and applied for admission to the prestigious Vienna Academy of Fine Arts.
Schiele, though shy and softspoken, was possessed of a sureness of vision and a sense of self worth that rankled the authoritarian elders--most specifically Czihaczek and his professor Christian Griepenkerl--who saw themselves as proper masters of the boy's fate. Griepenkerl's steadfast adherence to the academic dictates of the waning century proved an irritant not just to Schiele, but to many of his classmates, who, inspired by the example of Gustav Klimt and the Secessionists, decided to leave the Academy in the spring of 1909. Despite the fact that Schiele was already exhibiting professionally, Czihaczek was disinclined to see this turn of events as a positive career move. His ward's frequent demands for money, coupled with his unflinching independence of will, precipitated a final break between the two.
Schiele was in Krumau--the Bohemian town that was his mother's birthplace and the artist's favorite landscape motif--when, in the summer of 1910, Czihaczek formally renounced his guardianship, thereby casting the twenty-year-old upon his own meager financial resources. Vienna at this time lacked an extensive network of commercial galleries, and so the economic options open to Schiele were limited. He turned to the Wiener Werkstätte crafts collective for occasional handouts, but found his most sustained source of support from private patrons. Unfortunately, however, this group of local collectors did not prove either large enough or rich enough to provide him with an adequate income over the long term. The artist therefore sought access to the more robust German gallery scene through the offices of the Munich dealer Hans Goltz. Again the results were less than encouraging: neither the German avant-garde nor the public took to Schiele's work, and he never, during his lifetime, acquired a sizeable following abroad.
In addition to being plagued by recurring financial crises, Schiele (convinced that the sancity of his artistic mission made him inviolable) was constantly running afoul of society's behavioral expectations. While clandestine affairs were perfectly permissible, he openly paraded his lover, Wally Neuzil, through the streets of Krumau (where he moved in the spring of 1911). The matter was brought to a head when a nosy neighbor observed one of the artist's nude models posing in his garden. Evicted from his quarters, Schiele left Krumau for Neulengbach, another small town where his unconventional lifestyle was no more likely to find acceptance.
Schiele's inevitable downfall was triggered by his habit of employing school children as models. When one such girl decided to run away from home and sought refuge with the artist, her parents brought a charge of kidnapping against him. The ensuing investigation led to further accusations of statutory rape and public immorality. It was on the latter count that Schiele, imprisoned for a total of twenty-four days, was convicted, the assumption being that his child models had been exposed to "indecent" works in his studio.
An assessment of Schiele's relative guilt or innocence in the so-called "prison incident" raises issues about the distinction between art and pornography that seem surprisingly relevant today. For Schiele, in his day, the incident was a powerful demonstration of the bonds society imposes on artistic freedom. In choosing, hereafter, to bow at least overtly to those forces, Schiele did not so much sell out as reclaim the bourgeois standards that had always been his birthright. Wally, who had stood loyally by during the prison ordeal, was jettisoned some three years later and replaced by Edith Harms, a nice middle-class girl.
Edith and Egon's marriage, in June 1915, was hastened by the artist's induction into the army, and the simultaneous commencement of married and military life brought a strange interlude to his artistic career. Schiele's creative output dwindled to an all time low in 1916, when he was assigned office duty at a prisoner of war camp in Mühling, but quickly rebounded in 1917, after he got himself reassigned to Vienna. Here his minimal military obligations permited plenty of time for artistic activity, and for the first time he achieved solid and lasting professional success. His work was acquired by the Austrian National Gallery, reproduced in portfolio form, and his roster of portrait commissions mushroomed. Crowning these achievements was a sell-out exhibition at the Vienna Secession in March 1918.
Following Klimt's untimely death in early 1918 and Oskar Kokoschka's self-imposed exile in Germany, Schiele was poised to take over the artistic leadership of his generation. His death, from influenza, in October 1918 cut his career off at its virtual beginning, leaving us with a body of work that celebrates the process of search and discovery, rather than becoming mired in the stasis of completion and certainty. Perhaps more so than any other artists', Schiele's oeuvre captures the quintessential adolescent quest for spiritual and sexual identity. And perhaps this is why his work remains forever fresh, forever new.