The Galerie St. Etienne's association with Egon Schiele dates back to 1918, when Otto Kallir (the gallery's founder) wrote the artist inquiring about having his portrait done. Kallir's father, a conservative Viennese attorney, refused to advance his son the funds to pay for the portrait, and there that particular dream ended. It may nonetheless be said with little exaggeration that Kallir spent the rest of his life making up for this disappointment. In 1923, five years after Schiele's death, Kallir opened his Neue Galerie in Vienna with the first posthumous retrospective of the artist's work. In 1928, he organized a double Schiele exhibition in conjunction with the Hagenbund, a noted Austrian artists' association. And in 1930, Kallir authored the first catalogue raisonné of the artist's paintings, presciently acting at a time when most of the oeuvre remained with the original owners and before it was dispersed or in some cases destroyed through the vicissitudes of World War II.
Kallir's devotion to Schiele was hardly curbed after the Nazi Anschluss forced him to flee Austria and resettle in New York, although Schiele was completely unknown here when the Galerie St. Etienne opened its doors in 1939. In the ensuing years, Kallir engineered another series of impressive firsts: first American Schiele exhibition (1941, at Galerie St. Etienne); first major acquisition by an American museum (1954, purchase of the Portrait of Paris von Gütersloh by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts); first American museum exhibition (1960, shown in five cities); first New York museum exhibition (1965, at the Guggenheim). Kallir also pursued his commitment to Schiele scholarship, publishing a revised edition of his catalogue raisonné of the paintings in 1966 and a catalogue raisonné of the prints in 1970. Following Kallir's death in 1978, the Galerie St. Etienne continued in his footsteps, producing the first comprehensive Schiele catalogue raisonné (the only one to include the artist's voluminous oeuvre of watercolors and drawings) in 1990 and curating another major museum show in 1994 (seen at the National Gallery of Art, the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the San Diego Museum of Art). Although we are not directly involved with the current presentation of Rudolf Leopold's Schiele collection at the Museum of Modern Art (through January 4, 1998) we felt that, given our history, it was appropriate to mark the occasion with an exhibition of our own.
The present moment also provides a good opportunity to take a look at the myths and realities of Egon Schiele in the light of our own approaching fin de siècle. Over a hundred years have passed since Schiele's birth; we have endured two cataclysmic world wars, a cold war and, in the arena of the fine arts, a procession of increasingly iconoclastic moves, ranging from Cubist distortion to formaldehyde-filled tanks containing real cows. It is hard to imagine, in this context, that any artist could still be considered shocking, much less one who worked at the very dawn of the modern era. And yet amazingly, it seems that Schiele does somehow retain a ready ability to offend. Artists from Picasso to Mapplethorpe created many more sexually explicit works than Schiele ever did, but it is he who is perceived as the paragon of the erotic and the taboo. This view of the artist may, however, tell us more about our own preconceptions and preoccupations than it does about Schiele himself.
Although all art history is to a degree subjective, Schiele has functioned as an especially strong magnet for the psychic projections of succeeding generations of viewers. Unlike artists such as Picasso, who for better or worse is firmly immured in the course of modernist history, Schiele remains a gadfly, a loner. The idiosyncratic nature of his work undermines attempts at a neutral, strictly formalist reading. More to the point, the intensely personal content of the work invites a reciprocal identification on the part of the viewer. It is perhaps not surprising that some admirers become obsessed with Schiele, at the extreme believing they are him. Even the most rational fans are inclined to feel that Schiele speaks to them in a very direct, intimate way. It is from these feelings that Schiele's status as a cult hero emerged and then evolved over the course of this century.
Schiele's first supporters were themselves something of a cult: a small group of male collectors who hid the "dirty" pictures from their wives and then, after Schiele's death, struggled to promote him as a serious artist on the basis of his tamer portraits and landscapes. This process was abetted by the fact that the majority of Schiele's output (including virtually all of his oils) depicts subject matter that could conceivably adorn Jesse Helms' living room. While Schiele's allegorical paintings (which he probably considered his most important artistic statements) never fared well with the public, his reputation as a poignant landscapist and brilliant observer of the human psyche was already well established in Vienna during the 1920s. This bias toward "safe" subjects--which was unquestionably required by the moral and political climate of the times--continued as Otto Kallir endeavored to introduce Schiele to America in the 1940s and '50s.
The conviction that Schiele needed protection from a Philistine public was shared by most of his early champions, and this belief was corroborated by the aura of martyrdom emanating from the artist's 1912 imprisonment on morals charges. In the eyes of a slightly later audience, that first generation of Schiele promoters could be (and in fact was) accused of censoring the artist's oeuvre. Thomas Messer actually admitted to censorship in the catalogue for the 1960 museum tour and was roundly reprimanded by the press. By 1960, a new, more liberal attitude toward sex and expressive freedom was in the offing. Younger viewers remade Schiele in their own image: as a James Dean figure, a hippie before his time. What had once been taboo was now hauled into the light and lauded as the "true" Schiele. Unfortunately, this approach was at heart no more honest or accurate than the one it supplanted. Explicit eroticism characterizes only a minor portion of the Schiele oeuvre, and Schiele himself was no James Dean, but a quintessentially bourgeois, if typically confused adolescent.
Since the 1960s, our attitude toward sex has been clouded by the scourge of AIDS, and as a result the ebullient honesty of Schiele's work is now seen to have a darker side. Other than this, the popular take on Schiele's vision has not fundamentally changed in the last three decades--if anything, the emphasis on the erotic has grown stronger. We live in an age of bizarre contradictions: on the one hand, right-wing moralizing is ascendant; on the other, incest victims broadcast their woes on national television. It is a time of prurient yet prudish voyeurism, and Schiele regrettably once again seems to fit right in. While grudgingly conceding that his oeuvre is broader, today's critics frequently contend that Schiele's sexual imagery is his most important contribution. Such willful disregard of an artist's true nature far exceeds the art historian's legitimate license for subjective reinterpretation.
Schiele's work does indeed have a voyeuristic aspect, but if this were its sole significance, his achievement would not have endured. Indeed, Schiele's nudes survive because they are infused with the artist's profound insight into the human condition, which animates the full range of his subjects. Moreover, it is this humanistic element that accounts for the nudes' continuing ability to shock. The Western artistic tradition of the female nude hinges on an essential dehumanization. Through such devices as symmetry, harmony and single-point perspective, the model is transformed (in the famous words of Kenneth Clark) from "naked" (i.e., fully sexed and hence potentially pornographic) to "nude" (an aestheticized object suitable for domestic contemplation). Starting early in life class, artists are encouraged to regard the female nude with the professional detachment of gynecologists, repressing or denying the emotions aroused by the naked and often highly sexual body before them. Schiele, however, was almost always keenly conscious that he was looking at a live, unclothed human being.
Schiele was also acutely aware of the looking process as such, alluding to it overtly in his series of Self-Seers paintings and obliquely in numerous pictorial references to seeing and blindness. Even more unusual, Schiele gave equal emphasis to the "seer" (himself) and the "seen" (his subjects). Particularly in his watercolors and drawings of 1910 to 1915, he recorded with brutal accuracy both his own reactions (which were frequently horrified or fearful) and those of his models (often tense or embarrassed and only occasionally seductive). In this, Schiele allowed the female nude more autonomy of spirit than almost any male artist in the Western canon.
The edginess of Schiele's nudes derives in part from the artist's humanistic orientation, but equally from his unorthodox aesthetic solutions. Schiele willfully violated all the European conventions pertinent to the nude. His poses were deliberately asymmetrical, with body parts lopped at disconcerting locations and angles. His contours were ragged, his lines jagged and fevered. Drapery was manipulated to segregate and segment isolated body parts, creating a cumulative effect more unnerving than would be total nudity. Color served a purely expressive function; it did not mimic nature and only in the artist's late works did it hew to the volumes of the three-dimensional body. Schiele's habit of signing as verticals drawings of recumbent figures (which derived from the elevated vantage point from which he worked) remains disturbing even to some of the artist's most ardent contemporary fans, who still prefer to take their women lying down.
Unorthodox pictorial solutions are hardly foreign to modern art: again, one might call forth the example of Picasso. However, Picasso's daring formal devices, though outrageous in their time, ultimately succeeded in re-objectifying the nude. His modernist idiom was in the end as aestheticizing and emotionally distant as had been the classical approach to the nude. Schiele, for his part, reverted in the last two years of his life to a more traditional realist approach that also yielded beautiful but relatively dispassionate nudes. It may well be that the combination of emotional intensity and aesthetic experimentation that characterizes Schiele's art from 1910 through 1914 or '15 is the exclusive purview of a very young man, one who was still coming to terms with his own gender and its implications in the larger world. Whatever its underlying motivation, no artist has ever duplicated Schiele's achievement of these seminal years.
At its very heart, Schiele's work is an examination of what it means to be human in the fullest sense. About looking and seeing, about inner isolation and the attempt to connect with others, and about the search for an ultimate meaning. Schiele told us as much in his allegories, with their ponderous titles and sometimes equally awkward compositions. Nevertheless, we are generally happier with the works that chart an ongoing process of exploration, and particularly with the light and lambent watercolors and drawings. While Schiele's nudes are extraordinary, so are his landscapes and portraits; in fact, Schiele could make even an assemblage of old crockery vibrate with intimations of decay and immortality (see checklist no. __). It is a sign of Schiele's greatness that he remains so alive to each succeeding generation of viewers, but we should not let our immediate concerns blind us to the full substance of his work. Schiele has his own reality--of time, place and artistic intent--and our appreciation will be deepened if we attempt to see him on his terms, rather than merely bending him to ours.