Turn-of-the-century Vienna, the backdrop for the formation of the artistic personality of Egon Schiele, was, according to the writer Robert Musil, a "city of dreams." It was also a city of great paradoxes. As the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire it embodied on the surface all the glamour, excitement, hedonism, and charm of a modern metropolis. But the harsh realities of life, the disastrous social situation, the ubiquitous housing shortages for the working class as well as for the middle-class, widespread corruption, and the strained economic situation represented the other side of the myth of the "happy" Vienna. In this context Vienna was the locus of many diverse and often contradictory social and intellectual tendencies. On the one hand, the bourgeois establishment, ruled by the aged emperor Franz Josef, outwardly held to entrenched traditional values, while inwardly reveling in its hypocritical mentality and corrupt morality, with emphasis on the material world, opulence, and sensuality. On the other hand, this corrosive climate allowed for an exceptional flourishing of the arts, architecture, literature, and philosophical and scientific thought.
Extraordinary personalities converged at this time, resulting in the effervescence of Austrian modernism. Sigmund Freud developed his psychoanalytic theories; Ludwig Wittgenstein began to formulate his philosophical ideas; avant-garde composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, Anton von Webern, and Alban Berg offered innovations in music, while Gustav Mahler's compositions enjoyed renewed interest; writers such as Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannstahl, Karl Kraus, Robert Musil, and Stefan Zweig created new plays, poems, and prose; Otto Wagner, Adolf Loos, and Josef Hoffmann proposed novel architectural concepts; the decorative designers of the Wiener WerkstStte, and the Secessionist style, best exemplified in the art of Gustav Klimt, evolved as a reaction against traditionalism and the reigning academic art. Against this background developed the extraordinary, personal, and emotionally charged art of Egon Schiele, whose virtuosity of drawing and exceptional richness and breadth of creativity resulted in a radical new pictorial form and the powerful style of Expressionism.
The preceding text is excerpted from the text by Magdalena Dabrowski, Senior Curator, Department of Drawings, for the catalogue accompanying the exhibition.
Portrait of Egon Schiele. 1914. Photograph by A. Josef Trcka