Egon Schiele
In Search of the Perfect Line

November 01, 2018 to March 02, 2019

Egon Schiele died on October 31, 1918, of the Spanish flu. He was twenty-eight years old and only just beginning to enjoy professional success. One hundred years later, museums in Boston, Linz, Liverpool, London, New York, Paris and, of course, Vienna have presented exhibitions celebrating the artist’s remarkable achievements. The Galerie St. Etienne, which mounted Schiele’s first American one-man show in 1941, is likewise marking the occasion with a commemorative exhibition, as well as a digital update of gallery co-director Jane Kallir’s catalogue raisonné, Egon Schiele: The Complete Works.

Egon Schiele ranks among the greatest draughtsmen of all times. Line played a key structural role in his oils and is, naturally, the dominant element in his drawings and watercolors. Whereas drawing was, for most artists at the turn of the twentieth century, subordinate to painting, Schiele’s works on paper stand on their own as complete artistic statements. Drawing almost daily, he used the medium to record his fluctuating responses to the basic problems of human existence: sexual desire, personal identity, the tenuousness of life and the inevitability of death. Over the course of his brief career, Schiele’s drawing style changed frequently—sometimes several times in a single year. He was constantly searching for the perfect line: that split-second of transcendent clarity, when inner emotions and outward appearances become one.

Schiele drew like a racecar driver drives: very quickly. Even as a boy, he clocked himself. At the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied from 1906 to 1909, the students were given forty-five-minute assignments. Schiele, during that time, could complete as many as eight drawings. Bored by the curriculum and disdainful of his conservative professor, Christian Griepenkerl, he frequently cut class. Once, after an absence of about a week, Schiele returned to find the students feverishly engaged in a “competition” project. Sitting down almost at the last minute, he executed from memory a breathtakingly detailed drawing of the Franz-Josefs-Bahnhof. When Schiele’s mother asked Griepenkerl whether her son had talent, the professor replied, “Yes, much too much. He disrupts the entire class.”

At the end of the spring semester in 1909, Schiele’s disagreements with Griepenkerl culminated in a formal letter of protest; he and several like-minded classmates withdrew from the Academy shortly thereafter. Nevertheless, in some respects Schiele and Griepenkerl were not so far apart. In addition to their shared appreciation of speed, the entire Academy program emphasized the primacy of drawing. Indeed, it is sometimes said that Schiele never formally studied painting. So far as work from the years 1906-09 can be linked to class assignments, it appears he followed the prescribed curriculum, which began with copying plaster casts and progressed to life drawing, portraits and nudes. The aim of these exercises was to produce an accurate three-dimensional likeness, using interior modeling to suggest volume, light and shadow. Schiele was fully capable of creating such work, and to the end of his career, his drawings remained rooted in visible reality. However, he was at this early stage far more interested in contour than volume.

Among Schiele’s most important formative influences was Jugendstil design: the illustration style popularized by the Munich periodical Jugend. A more figural offshoot of French Art Nouveau, Jugendstil reduced all pictorial elements to flat, monochrome planes, in the process equalizing the treatment of subject and background. Jugendstil was ubiquitous in fin-de-siècle Austria and Germany, influencing every aspect of graphic design, posters and advertising. Schiele could scarcely avoid it, and one sees the style reflected in his teenage illustrations. His Gymnasium art teacher, Ludwig Karl Strauch (a far more sympathetic mentor than Griepenkerl) encouraged Schiele to break subjects into block forms, stimulating a lasting sensitivity to the interplay of positive and negative space. Line became for Schiele not merely a descriptive tool, but a crucial aesthetic and metaphorical boundary marker.

It was just a short jump from the essentially decorative linearity of Jugendstil design to Schiele’s so-called Expressionist breakthrough of 1910. All that was necessary, really, was to replace the ornamental neutrality with a more emotionally inflected use of line and color. The unnatural, acrid yellows, reds, and greens typical of early 1910 were often applied selectively to key body parts, such as faces and hands. Other sections of a drawing might remain uncolored or be omitted entirely. Somehow Schiele always managed to maintain a perfect equilibrium between the colored and uncolored areas, which in turn were balanced within a tightly structured overriding matrix of negative and positive elements. Even signatures were strategically placed so as to balance the whole.

People often forget that Schiele was only nineteen in early 1910, when he executed his first fully mature artworks. To a large extent, the content of these works—the endless questing—reflects the preoccupations of late adolescence. Why, people sometimes wonder, did Schiele (who was genuinely handsome) depict himself in such an ugly manner? Surely, they think, this must be a sign of mental derangement. But in fact, there are many Schieles visible in the artist’s self-portraits: ugly, yes, at times; but also angry, proud, confrontational or pensive. Sometimes several of these “alter-Egons” appear in a single work. Schiele was play-acting: attempting to create external visual correlatives for internal emotional states. Simultaneously, he was trying on different selves, as teenagers do, to see which ones fit.

Coming to terms with budding sexual urges is another key developmental task of late adolescence. And here, too, Schiele’s varying approaches may be seen as experimental. In early 1910, he created a series of watercolors depicting grotesquely distorted, brightly colored male nudes. Because these so-called “red men” relate to three contemporaneous self-portrait oils, they are often assumed to be self-representations. However, the evident viewpoint (from behind or above) in the studies makes it highly improbable that the artist himself could have posed. The subjects’ almost invariably concealed identities, furthermore, belie Schiele’s customary artistic treatment of his own persona.

The fact that two of the artist’s closest friends at the time, Max Oppenheimer and Erwin van Osen, were, respectively, gay and bisexual, gives the “red men” a possible homoerotic subtext. It is likely that one or both of these friends modeled for the male nudes. Much to the dismay of Schiele’s mentor, Arthur Roessler, Osen exerted a strong influence on the artist in the summer of 1910, when they were together in Krumau. Needless to say, open homosexuality was deeply taboo in fin-de-siècle Austria, which could be the reason Schiele hid his models’ faces.

Schiele’s most reliable female model in the first half of 1910 was his sister Gerti: a compliant and totally unthreatening subject. However, toward the end of the year, he developed relationships (sexual as well as professional) with two other young women. They were clearly friends with one another, and may have been sex workers—at the time, there was little distinction between modeling and prostitution. As Schiele embarked on his first serious heterosexual adventures, his nudes betrayed marked feelings of ambivalence: a volatile mix of voyeuristic excitement and undisguised terror not seen in the art of older men.

Schiele’s nudes and semi-nudes defy every convention that historically defined a genre created to titillate male subjects while neutralizing the female object. Tradition held that female nudes be depicted in passive, frequently recumbent poses; that all imperfections be smoothed away; and often that the pubic area be discreetly masked. There was no masking in Schiele’s nudes, nor were his women—marred by unnatural color, broken lines and missing limbs—especially beautiful. Instead of submitting passively, his nudes were often boldly confrontational. Yet it is impossible to know whether these images record the women’s reactions to Schiele, or his reaction to them. It is not clear who is subject and who is object. The foregoing stratagems, singly and cumulatively, serve to undermine the authority of the male gaze and to affirm the autonomous power of female sexuality.

Schiele’s nudes effectively breach the implied fourth wall that separates illusory artistic space from real space. Rather than receding comfortably into the distance, the figures appear to jump out at the viewer. Often the artist heightened the sense of spatial dislocation by failing to include supporting props or signing drawings of recumbent figures vertically. The equalizing of negative and positive forms—a legacy of his Jugendstil grounding—creates a tension between the figure and the edge of the picture plane that calls into question the ability of the latter to contain the former. Schiele creates a liminal zone—neither wholly abstract nor conventionally representational, both of this world and beyond it—that allows him to explore alternative emotional and spiritual realities.

Schiele’s spiritual concerns are most directly expressed in his allegorical paintings, but they are also evident in his landscapes. The artist believed that natural subjects were equivalent to human ones. “Above all I observe the physical movements of mountains, water, trees and flowers,” he wrote. “Everywhere one is reminded of similar movements in human bodies, of similar manifestations of joy and suffering in plants.” Here, as in the more overt allegories, Schiele was highly cognizant of life’s fragility: a sunflower withering in autumnal light, the inexorable decay of human-built structures. This is why he was repeatedly drawn back to Krumau, his mother’s birthplace. He referred to the ancient town as “the dead city.” Still, in drawing and painting these crumbling walls, Schiele attested to the persistence of human civilization. People die; art survives.

Schiele’s basic existential concerns did not change significantly over the course of his brief career, but his attitude shifted as he grew into adulthood. Most obviously, his treatment—personal and artistic—of women evolved. In mid-1911, he began a relationship with Walburga (Wally) Neuzil, the first of his lover/models to be identifiable by name as well as face. Like all his best models, Wally was a skilled collaborator, and Schiele routinely acknowledged the equality of their partnership in his work. The artist’s new appreciation and understanding of the female psyche is evident not just in his more formal portraits of Wally, but in other contemporaneous portraits of women.

People today often express dismay that the artist did not marry Wally. By the standards of their time, however, she would have been considered too far beneath him in social class to make a suitable wife. The closeness of their relationship was, in itself, exceptional. Schiele, quintessentially bourgeois despite his rebel posturing, instead chose as his bride the genteel Edith Harms (like himself, the child of a railroad employee). Their letters make it clear that, at least initially, the two were madly in love, but Edith had difficulty adjusting to her husband’s bohemian lifestyle. A palpable sadness often pervades her portraits.

Egon would not be able to duplicate with Edith the professional partnership he had enjoyed with Wally. Less out of prudery than embarrassment, Edith was reluctant to pose naked; she feared, understandably, being recognized by the couple’s family, friends and acquaintances. Even in blouse and bloomers, she appears uncomfortable, and on several occasions, she made her husband obscure or disguise her facial features. Partly as a result of these circumstances, Schiele’s 1917-18 nudes and semi-nudes, are, on the whole, more impersonal than his earlier iterations of the subject. Working with a changing retinue of paid models, he was less interested in exploring sexual response than in trying out poses for contemporaneous paintings. Nevertheless, the late nudes continue to demonstrate an untoward degree of autonomy. These are some of the first modern women in art: the first to command their own sexuality.

Stylistic changes accompanied Schiele’s personal maturation. The exaggerated, angular silhouettes of 1910 gave way, over the course of 1911, to more sinuous, ethereal lines and softer colors. Blankets, garments and drapery morphed into ambiguous shapes that attempted to mediate between figure and background void. Throughout, Schiele’s orientation remained essentially twodimensional; little attempt was made at interior modeling. Rather, he emphasized the plasticity of the paint on its own terms, manipulating the flow of pigment with his brush and achieving wet-on-wet effects that would have defied a slower artist. The tension between the figure and the edges of the picture plane was echoed by animated colors that pushed against but were contained within surrounding pencil lines. Schiele’s palette corresponded to his own universe of tonal associations, rather than slavishly mimicking the visible world.

Despite his sensitivity to line and color as expressive elements in their own right, Schiele never entirely renounced realistic representation. Recognizable subject matter was irreplaceable if one wanted to comment on the human condition. The artist took great liberties with regard to accuracy, but he had a profound instinctual understanding of anatomy. He managed to get away with degrees of distortion that would, in a lesser artist, be ascribed to ineptitude. Sometimes, it is clear, the anatomical errors in his drawings were due to speed of execution. Like a racecar driver, he occasionally veered off course. Schiele never erased. If he made a mistake, he ultimately managed to incorporate the errant lines into an organic whole that worked emotionally and aesthetically even when it did not entirely make sense anatomically.

From 1913 on, Schiele was inexorably pulled in the direction of greater representational verisimilitude. His lines grew bolder, and he switched from watercolor to more opaque gouache. Solid, relatively abstract blocks of drapery were offset against sparsely colored flesh, which despite the persistent use of unnatural color, acquired a greater sense of three-dimensional substance. The trend continued in Schiele’s 1914 drawings and watercolors. Erratic crosshatching, though superficially abstract, added bulk to the figures. Principal contours were often edged with dense, narrow bands of color, which was then brushed inward in thinner veils. Darker in the shadows, lighter on protruding surfaces, these translucent veils alluded to the subject’s internal musculoskeletal structure. Little bursts of opaque pigment, in bright colors like green and red, were superimposed over the more translucent tones, either to reinforce the underlying modeling or to highlight inflection points like elbows or knuckles.

During the final two years of his life, Schiele reverted to an almost classical realism. Not without reason, a former Academy classmate accused him of succumbing to Griepenkerl’s doctrine. In tandem with the dimensional refinement of his coloring style, Schiele’s lines had by 1917 grown smoother and rounder, capable of suggesting volume without any further embellishment. Negative and positive space were still perfectly balanced, but the contrast between the two was exaggerated by increased figural verisimilitude. A residual tension undermines the soothing classicism of the artist’s late works. Real beings presented for observation in a manufactured space, his subjects are impaled somewhere between the viewer’s world and the contemplative realm of art.

Schiele’s premature death leaves hanging the tantalizing question: what would have happened next? His oeuvre, comprising roughly 3,000 works on paper and over 300 paintings, may be interpreted as a visual coming-of-age story. Marked by the indelible stamp of youth, his work follows the path toward maturity and records faithfully the growing wisdom of adulthood. Like many adolescents, the artist sought answers to the most basic mysteries of human existence: what does it mean to live, to love, to suffer and to die? Whether or not he ever found the answers, it is the process of asking, the search itself, that gives meaning and poignancy to his art. In many respects, Schiele reached the height of his powers in 1917-18. The solipsism of adolescence had been replaced by a more empathic humanism, which in turn was facilitated by greater stylistic realism. The artist’s hand had never been surer, more capable of grasping, in a single breathtaking sweep, the complete contour of a figure. In the best of his last works, Schiele had finally found the perfect line.

We would like to convey our gratitude to the many anonymous lenders whose generosity made the current exhibition possible. The above essay is adapted from Jane Kallir’s contribution to the catalogue for the exhibition Egon Schiele at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris (October 3, 2018, through January 14, 2019). Kallir also wrote catalogue essays for the exhibitions Egon Schiele: Pathways to a Collection at the Lower Belvedere, Vienna (October 19, 2018, through February 17, 2019), and Klimt/Schiele: Drawings from the Albertina Museum, Vienna at the Royal Academy of Arts, London (November 4, 2018, through February 3, 2019). Copies of these catalogues may be ordered from the respective institutions. As of November 5, the newly updated Schiele catalogue raisonné can be accessed free of charge at www.egonschieleonline.org.