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PRECOCIOUS, fiercely ambitious and armed with a remarkable talent for drawing, Egon Schiele (1890-1918) achieved early critical success, lived fast and died young.
Son of the station master of the Austrian town of Tulln, Schiele was accepted two years early by Vienna’s most prestigious art academy, aged just 16. He participated in his first group exhibition two years later and had an enthusiastic following by 1909.
He threw himself into the Viennese avant-garde, where he was encouraged by its leader Gustav Klimt (1862-1918). Founder of the Secessionist movement in 1897, Klimt had dared to contest the academy’s sacred academic rules and stifling patronage and now had an important reputation.
Some of their drawings are currently on show at the Royal Academy in London in an exhibition which reveals how Schiele soon outstripped Klimt. Further rejecting classical idealisation, he pioneered Austrian Expressionism by conveying feelings about his subjects through distortions of scale, line, composition and colour.
His subjects were traditional — the male and female nude, portraiture and nature — but he conveyed radical new meanings by focusing on sexual attraction, desire, repulsion and gratification, as well as self-obsession and angst.
He replaced traditional, idealised nudes personifying mythological or philosophical subjects, with drawings of naked people. Brutally honest about lust and refusing to conceal their genitals discretely beneath drapery or foliage, he depicted them explicitly, complete with pubic hair.
Mostly unfashionably skinny, the figures lock their gaze directly into ours. Doubtful, quizzical, fearful or exuding tension or self-loathing, they expose hitherto unmentionable human truths.
Schiele’s numerous self-portraits often merged the themes of adolescent anxiety and self-discovery with that of angst. Self-portraiture was not unusual because it saved artists from paying the models who were vital for artists like him who worked primarily from life.
Like Rembrandt, Schiele tried all sorts of facial expressions to convey specific emotions. But unlike previous artists, he often drew himself naked or partly clothed and sometimes sexually aroused.
His taut, nervous, but superbly accurate line implied movement in the restless skeletal frames of his undernourished subjects. He further expressed states of mind by enlarging or emphasising the body’s most sensitive sensory organs — the eyes, ears, mouth, hands and genitals.
He heightened the sense of unease by often posing his models in angular poses and placing the figures in dynamic zig-zag or asymmetrical compositions, with the figures sometimes pushed uncomfortably to one side or crammed into a corner.
Schiele’s early mature drawings convey sincerity and a genuine sense of inquiry and compassion. Black-haired Nude Girl (1910) depicts a young and pretty naked model whose black hair and eyes match her black stockings.
She faces us but looks away with hurt defiance. Hip jutting out provocatively, she offers her body but not her soul. The pale grey wash which defines her body is shattered by the bright vermillion of her painted lips, nipples and the single slick of the same paint beneath her pubic hair. A first period, a sexual injury or a broken hymen ? The drawing is intensely troubling and moving.
Some condemned Schiele as a pornographer or paedophile and still do a century later. Yet Viennese society’s inherent sexism and classism was far less uncontested than now. The age of consent was 14 and the majority of “working girls” — many of whom doubled as artists’ models — were young and working class.
The bourgeoisie, which purported to be shocked by Schiele’s work, were avid buyers of young sex and of pornography and, at a time when mentioning sex in mixed company was forbidden, Schiele’s drawings burst open social hypocrisy.
Similarly, by depicting himself in vulnerable states of doubt, anger, terror and anxiety, he broke the male stereotype of the tight-lipped master of self-control.
But Schiele became a victim of his need for success. He epitomised the concept of the artist as proud male genius unbound by social norms or responsibilities. This “outsider” status stemmed from 19th-century capitalist patronage which forced artists to compete for attention in a crowded art market by prioritising “originality.”
Schiele tackled taboo subjects in unfamiliar styles and sneered at the bourgeois public which condemned but also supported him. But, as outrageousness overtook his sense of inquiry, his later work became increasingly brittle, insincere and lacking in compassion.
In 1918, he died aged 28 of the influenza pandemic. His fame soon waned until the 1960s, when his and Klimt’s works enthused the hippy generation. Later, David Bowie and Iggy Pop modelled themselves on his contorted skeletal poses.
It is unfair to exhibit Klimt’s drawings alongside Schiele’s. Klimt’s careful pencil drawings on ageing paper are almost too faint to see. Unlike Schiele’s, they were preparatory drawings for commissions and not intended for sale or display.
The few poster and journal designs by Klimt show him to be a consummate designer. Comparisons of their paintings would have given both artists a chance to shine but, even so, the Royal Academy’s exhibition is a chance to see these rarely exhibited works.
Runs until February 3, box office: royalacademy.org.uk.
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