The embrace is both tender and passionate...the young man enfolds his lovely companion in his arms. She does not resist... she welcomes his touch. Their lips do not meet: angling his head, he instead raises his mouth to her ear, in a kiss, or to whisper seductive, soothing words to her. She has drawn up her hands for warmth, or in modesty; although we know her to be nude, we see little of her body. Her partner's embrace is protective; he drapes himself around her. The English poet John Donne inquired of his beloved: "What needst thou have more covering than a man?" He shields her with his powerfully massive back; his swelling musculature will form an impenetrable and inviolable carapace between the voyeuristic viewer and her vulnerable nakedness. Schiele was seldom so discreet and suggestively erotic as he has been in the subtle nuances of this unforgettable pose.
The gouache Umarmung ("The Embrace") is directly related to its namesake oil painting Umarmung (Liebespaar II), also painted in 1917 (Kallir, no. 304; fig. 1). The present work is the decisive preliminary study among a series of seven drawings that may be associated with this oil painting (Kallir, nos. 2124-2125 and 2127-2131). Schiele declared in this gouache his choice of the novel and unexpected way in which he would present the embracing couple in his painting: they will be seen from a most unusual point of view, with the man's intervening back to the viewer. This arrangement is a variant on the pose Schiele used in Sitzendes Paar (Egon and Edith Schiele), 1915 (Kallir, no. 1788; fig. 2), showing the artist and his new bride Edith, both face-on, with her clinging to him from behind.
There is another gouache executed around the same time as the present work (Kallir, no. 2123; fig. 3), which appears to be frontal view of the squatting male figure--Kallir has identified this work as a self-portrait. It should be noted, furthermore, that Alessandra Comini has included the oil painting Umarmung in her category of "Last Self-Portraits" (Egon Schiele's Portraits, Berkeley, 1974, p.171). Although we can see only the top and side of his head, it is Schiele who is both onlooker and lover in the gouache and oil versions of Umarmung. The painter has refused a proxy model: Schiele the artist is Schiele the lover. The oil and gouache owe their compelling power to the fact that the artist has projected himself and the urgency of his erotic feelings directly into the painting. Comini has written:
"Schiele's portrayal of himself as the lover in The Embrace brings attention to an important fact. He has shown himself nude in a major canvas for the first time since 1911--following a thematic withdrawal of over five years. One of the causes for this cessation of nude-self-portraiture [is] the deep trauma inflicted at Neulengbach [in 1912, when the artist was jailed on morals charges]. The young man who, to clothe his spiritual vulnerability, had borrowed the guises of hermit, monk and saint, had also taken care to cover his physical nudity. The thematic self-portrait statements of the next five years all had as their protagonist a clothed Schiele... Now, almost six years later, it is again expression of his sexual drive that enables Schiele to throw off the last vestiges of allegorical masquerading and return to the theme of his nude body. There are nonetheless still a few reservations... He has turned his back to the beholder--his mirror. Even his face is only partially seen. And yet there can be no doubt as to artist's identification or wish-identification with the male figure in The Embrace. The image of self as lover has been given full expression in this important and bold painting" (ibid., pp. 172-173).
The model for the female figure, on the other hand, is not Schiele's wife Edith; she had by this time grown too plump to pose in the nude. Schiele engaged a professional model for Umarmung and his other late multi-figure compositions, including Die Famille and Mann und Frau II (Liebespaar III), 1918 (Kallir, nos. 326 and 329). Mann und Frau II initially contained a second female figure in the lower part of the canvas, which Schiele painted out before ceasing work on it and leaving it unfinished. Comini has theorized that in his late multi-figure paintings Schiele was aiming to create a cycle in which he took the roles of lover (Umarmung), husband and father (Die Famille), and then lover again, but this time with a second woman, a mistress (Mann und Frau II). He changed his mind about the third composition; as Comini has explained, "It is conceivable that Schiele was affected by the prospect [in 1918] of his and Edith's first child, and that a symbolical affirmation of his masculinity--as husband and lover--was no longer necessary" (ibid., p. 180).
Working from the gouache Umarmung, Schiele made numerous alterations and refinements in the pose of the two lovers while painting the oil version. In the latter, the young woman raises her right hand and extends her left arm to grasp her lover and return his embrace. The man presses his face to her behind her ear, seeking the back of her neck in a vampire-like gesture. Schiele loosened the woman's hair, rendered in black instead of the reddish brown seen in the gouache, so that it flows behind her toward the upper right corner of the canvas, seemingly intertwined with her lover's hair. In the gouache, the pose of the two lovers is contained within the edges of a vertical sheet. The oil painting was done on an elongated horizontal canvas; this wider format allowed Schiele to extend and display the woman's lower body and legs, and to unknot the seated pose of the man, whose left leg was then turned outward away from his body. Schiele associated the color yellow with passion, and employed this tonality in the flesh tones of both lovers in the gouache. He retained pinkish-yellow tints for the woman only in the oil version; eying the tonal contrast of male and female figures in Klimt's paintings, an idea taken from the distant precedent of Egyptian art, Schiele adopted a darker complexion for the man.
Coming in the penultimate year of Schiele's all-too-brief, meteoric career, the subject and treatment of the Umarmung theme connects various pictorial ideas that emerged in the course of his work, while also drawing on the paintings of important Viennese contemporaries. It was from the all-pervasive influence of Klimt that Schiele was first compelled to free himself in order to arrive at a distinctively personal style. Klimt's famous Der Küss, 1907-1908 (Weidinger, no. 189; fig. 4) depicted the emblematic Liebespaar of the reigning Jugendstil manner. During the year 1910, Schiele--then only 20 years old--produced his astonishing radical figure compositions and self-portraits, in which he divested his work entirely of the decoration and ornament, as well as a tendency toward sweetness of expression, he had once admired in the work of his mentor Klimt. Kallir has written: "Having dispensed with Klimt's decorative framework, the younger artist had to find a replacement--in essence, to create a new aesthetic world for his allegorical figures to inhabit. Neither the blank voids nor the various geometric patterns really seemed to do the trick. The unified painterly treatment of figure and background in Embrace is by comparison more successful, and it presages a new phase in Schiele's development" (Egon Schiele, exh. cat, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1994, p. 160).
Kallir has moreover noted that "The womblike blanket that envelops the protagonists of Embrace serves both a symbolic function--isolating and protecting the central characters--and a structural one--mediating between the realistically modeled figures and a more abstract ground" (ibid.). The introduction of the white blanket into the oil version of Umarmung has earlier precedents in Schiele's work. He had used a similar pictorial device to set off figures from ground in Mann und Frau I (Liebespaar I), 1914 (Kallir, no. 275) and Tod und Mädchen (Death and Maiden), 1915 (Kallir, no. 289; fig. 5). Oskar Kokoschka's well-known Der Tempest, 1914 (Wingler, no. 96; fig. 6), his double portrait of himself with Alma Mahler as weary lovers reclining in a storm-tossed boat, may have suggested the idea, which Schiele recast in crystalline, hard-edged forms.
When Schiele painted the gouache Umarmung and subsequently completed the oil painting, he had only about year left to him before his death in October 1918. Drafted in 1915 into the Austrian army, he was assigned to supply units, which kept him away from the front lines and enabled him to find time to paint. In the fall of 1917 he was transferred, as he had hoped, to the Imperial War Museum in Vienna. With even more time available for studio work, he undertook his late series of figure paintings. His large contribution to the Vienna Secession in 1918, which practically amounted to a retrospective, proved to be the great triumph of his career. Klimt had died earlier that year, and now Schiele was widely considered to be his successor as Vienna's leading progressive artist. Schiele was only 28 years old.
In its concentration of expression and form, the oil version of Umarmung is perhaps the most roundly satisfying, and certainly the most erotically charged and compelling, of Schiele's final multi-figure compositions--others remained in varying states of tentative completion and communicate more ambiguous meanings. Whether the volatile and restless Schiele genuinely experienced it in his own life, of if it were just a dream he held on to, he expressed in Umarmung a belief that were was a state of body and mind, and a safe haven as a place for it, in which a man and a woman could revel in the bliss of their physical and emotional love for each other. The harshness of fate, in the shape of the great flu pandemic of 1918, would eventually find and claim both Schiele and Edith, which lends all the more meaning to such a moment as depicted in Umarmung, when the world and its troubles were held at bay, and love is all there is. This was as much as two lovers could ask for.
Egon Schiele, circa 1918.
Barcode: 2660 3247
(fig. 1) Egon Schiele, Umarmung (Liebespaar II), 1917. Österreichische Galerie, on extended loan to the Museum moderner Kunst, Vienna.
Barcode: 2660 3230
(fig. 2) Egon Schiele, Sitzendes Paar (Egon and Edith Schiele), 1915. Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna.
Barcode: 2660 3223
(fig. 3) Egon Schiele, Kauernder männlicher Akt (Selbstbildnis), 1917. Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna.
Barcode: 2660 3216
(fig. 4) Gustav Klimt, Der Küss, 1907-1908. Österreichische Galerie, Vienna.
Barcode: 2660 3087
(fig. 5) Egon Schiele, Tod und Mädchen (Death and Maiden), 1915. Österreichische Galerie, Vienna.
Barcode: 2660 3094
(fig. 6) Oskar Kokoschka, Der Tempest, 1914. Kunstmuseum, Basel. Barcode: 2660 3209