Kneeling Male Nude (Self-Portrait). 1910.
Watercolor, gouache, and black crayon on paper.
24 3/4 x 17 5/8".
The Artist and His Work

Egon Schiele (1890-1918) invested his art with an emotional intensity that, coupled with his radical formal innovations, characterized the Austrian contribution to Expressionism. During his short but highly prolific career which ended with his premature death, Schiele created more than three thousand works on paper and approximately three hundred paintings. Contemporary accounts of his personality, as well as his own letters, reveal a young man driven by an egotistical faith in the immortality of his talent, who nevertheless lamented his struggle for public recognition and the attendant financial rewards. Numerous self-portraits portray an uninhibited exhibitionist, but in reality Schiele was said to be shy and sensitive. His preoccupation with sexuality and existential explorations of the human condition convey him both as a product of his time and an artist who achieved aesthetic maturation when he was barely post-adolescent. The very aspects of Schiele's art that precluded its popularity during much of his lifetime--ugly distortion in place of accepted notions of beauty, unveiled eroticism, and personal angst--are those for which it is considered most compelling today.

Because the majority of his oeuvre remains in Austrian collections, this exhibition of more than 150 oil paintings, gouaches, watercolors, and drawings in ink, crayon, and pencil on paper, amassed by Dr. Rudolf Leopold in Vienna, presents an unsurpassed opportunity for an American audience to contemplate the rich scope of Schiele's production. Marking the first time that these works will be shown together in the United States, it traces the extraordinarily inventive, stylistically idiosyncratic, and profoundly human nature of Schiele's art.
Hermits. 1912. Oil on canvas. 71 1/4 x 71 1/4".
Schiele began drawing as a child and in 1906, at the age of sixteen, enrolled at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. Through 1909, he was strongly influenced by Gustav Klimt and the reigning Secessionist style, with its emphasis on flowing line and ornamentation. Klimt became a kind of father-figure for Schiele, whose own father had died when Schiele was fourteen. The two artists met in 1907, and thereafter the older, successful Klimt introduced Schiele to his own models and patrons, found him work with the seminal design collaborative the Wiener Werkstätte, and included him in the 1909 Internationale Kunstschau, an important exhibition of foreign and Austrian artists.

Toward the end of 1909, Schiele became disillusioned with academic traditionalism and, with fellow dropouts from the Academy, formed the Neukünstler (New Artists) Group. The following year, financially cut off by his family and plagued by feelings of alienation and a degree of narcissistic self-pity, Schiele embarked on a series of self-portraits using a new, Expressionist vocabulary of exaggerated gestures, startling color combinations, and jagged contour lines.

Lovers. 1914-15. Gouache, watercolor, and
pencil on paper. 18 5/8 x 12".
Through 1913, Schiele explored his highly individualistic idiom in a multitude of drawings of female models, either nude or semi-nude, which endure as his best-known pictures. Schiele constructed oddly foreshortened poses by positioning himself above or below his subjects, and by eliminating their limbs to reinforce a sense of disconcertion. The women are confrontational in their sexuality, openly exposing themselves beneath raised skirts or sometimes with a surrounding white gouache halo setting off their nakedness.

Schiele's canvases, less well known than his erotic drawings, were often imbued with private symbolism. A pivotal allegorical canvas, the double portrait, Hermits 1912, is commonly thought to symbolize Schiele's breaking away from Klimt. Both artists are shown wearing long black caftans (indicative of Klimt's real habit of dress, also appropriated by Schiele), with the older man, blinded and leaning against and partially concealed behind the younger. In keeping with other self-images as a martyr, Schiele imagines himself and his mentor as existing on the fringes of society, only now he has become the dominant successor, gazing boldly outward.

In 1915, Schiele married Edith Harms, a young woman from a bourgeois family, and was drafted into the military and assigned to various posts outside Vienna. Sensitive portraits of his new wife show Schiele adapting a more naturalistic pictorial language which was also employed in the growing number of portrait commissions he received in the following years.

Kneeling Girl Propped on Her Elbows. 1917.
Gouache and black crayon on paper. 11 3/8 x 17 1/2".
In 1917, Schiele was reassigned to Vienna, which allowed him greater time to focus on his art and once again work on large paintings. Whereas the emphasis on contour line to suggest volume stays essentially the same in his works on paper, Schiele's canvases become far more painterly. However, since many of the paintings from 1918 are unfinished, the evolution of Schiele's style is left open to question.

Just as he had begun to achieve a previously elusive commercial success--most importantly in a large exhibition of his work at the 1918 Viennese Secession--Schiele contracted the Spanish flu. His last work is a moving portrait drawing of his wife, who died in the same epidemic the day after the drawing was made; she was six months pregnant. Schiele died three days later at the age of twenty-eight.

This presentation of works from every facet of Schiele's creative development fosters a fuller understanding of the singularity of the artist's achievement. His tortured aesthetic is so aligned with his investigations into the malaise of human existence in modern times that Schiele's art maintains a timeless relevance for contemporary artists and viewers alike.

This text was excerpted from the exhibition brochure text by Mary Chan, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings.

Menu Vienna intro

©1997 The Museum of Modern Art, New York