10 things to know about Egon Schiele
A quick guide to the short life and profoundly influential career of the enfant terrible of turn-of-the-century Vienna — illustrated with works offered at Christie’s
Egon Schiele was born in 1890 in Tulln, Austria, the third child of the town’s stationmaster; the family lived in an apartment above the train station. He studied art at primary school, where an eagle-eyed teacher noticed his talent for drawing and encouraged him to continue.
In 1904, when Schiele was just 14 years old, his father died of syphilis. The experience was one from which the young artist never completely recovered. ‘I don’t know whether there is anyone else at all who remembers my noble father with such sadness,’ he would write to his brother-in-law a decade later. ‘I don’t know who is able to understand why I visit those places where my father used to be and where I can feel the pain… Why do I paint graves and many similar things? Because this continues to live in me.’
Two years later, when he was just 16, he moved to Vienna to study at the Academy of Fine Arts.
Vienna in the early 1900s was in the grip of an artistic revolution — in 1897 Gustav Klimt had formed the Vienna Secession, a movement that believed an artist’s duty was to free culture from the grips of the establishment. Klimt, whom Schiele greatly admired, became the young artist’s mentor. It was Klimt who introduced the young Schiele to the arts and crafts of the Wiener Werkstätte, and who invited him, in 1909, to exhibit at the Vienna Kunstschau, where he came in contact for the first time with the work of Edvard Munch, Vincent van Gogh and others.
No doubt influenced by Klimt, much of Schiele’s art focused on the eroticised, female form. But over time Schiele would distance himself from his mentor’s ornate, shimmering Art Nouveau-inspired aesthetic. The Expressionist style Schiele developed was stark, raw and deeply emotional, and executed in a sombre palette. Inspired in part by Schiele’s harrowing experience of watching his father’s decline, this shift also reflected his deep interest in human psychology and the powerful influence of Sigmund Freud in turn-of-the-century Vienna.
If Klimt and Schiele grew apart stylistically, they remained close friends: in 1917, Schiele and Klimt co-founded an exhibition venue called the Vienna Kunsthalle, which they hoped would inspire Austrian artists to stay and work in the country.
In 1909 Schiele followed Klimt’s example and left the conservative strictures of the Academy. He formed his own movement, the Neukunstgruppe (New Art Group), bringing together fellow students who wanted to go in a different direction, including Oskar Kokoschka and Max Oppenheimer. The group would go on to mount several shows, including in Prague, in 1910; in Budapest, in 1912; and in Cologne, in 1912.
By the early 1910s, Schiele’s work had become an obsessive exploration of the human body. He never shied away from candidly depicting genitalia — female genitalia as well as his own — or from treating subjects that were taboo for the time, such as masturbation or sex between women.
These pictures, however, go far beyond conventional eroticism. Schiele’s nakedness is starved, desperate, mortal, and stripped of all societal and artistic convention.
Executed in 1910, works such as Stehender Rückenakt (above) emerged during a period of radical stylistic experimentation, as Schiele stepped out from Klimt’s shadow and began to develop his own pictorial language. The artist’s compositions from this period proposed a reconception of the modern nude, casting his models in unexpected poses that celebrate their inherent sexuality.
Schiele considered drawing his primary art form. The overtly erotic drawing shown above represents the more sensual, fleshy, and volumetric nudes that appear in Schiele’s drawings and watercolours from 1914. Discussing similar works on paper from this period in the artist’s catalogue raisonné, Jane Kallir wrote: ‘Schiele’s drawing style suggests an underlying structure of muscle and bone... [his] growing concern with plasticity eventually generates a more organic, fluid line.’
‘Schiele’s drawings disturb partly because they stop at a point that academic convention regards as raw and unfinished,’ stated Christopher Knight in the Los Angeles Times. ‘Quick, contour rendering was essential to academic training, but for an academic artist it was just the start of a laborious process, which eventually culminated in a finished painting. Schiele intuitively recognised, not unlike French Impressionist painters some 40 years before, that the spontaneity of an early sketch, if handled eloquently, could be the armature for an art of pressing liveliness.’
In 1911, seeking solitude, Schiele moved to his mother’s home town of Krumau in Czech Bohemia. This didn’t work out exactly as planned: the neighbours objected to Schiele living ‘in sin’ with his lover, Walburga ‘Wally’ Neuzil (below), and his habit of using local girls as naked models. When villagers spotted a nude model posing outdoors, Schiele was driven out of town.
From there he moved to yet another village, Neulengbach, where, in April 1912, Schiele was arrested on charges of ‘offences against public morality’ and ‘seduction’ of one of his underage models. Although that charge was ultimately dropped, he spent 24 days in prison, condemned for the indecency of his work. It was a public vilification that belied Schiele’s commercial and critical success: throughout his career, museums and collectors from across Europe would continue to buy his work.
In 1915 Schiele married Edith Harms; just four days later, he was conscripted into the Austrian army. In May 1916 he was posted to a PoW camp in a small town three hours west of Vienna. There he mostly did office work, and was allowed to paint the Russian prisoners at the camp.
Later that year he was reassigned to Vienna, where higher-ups allowed him to pursue his art. He was relatively prolific during the war years, producing cityscapes and landscapes, and even contributing work to exhibitions in Amsterdam, Stockholm and Copenhagen.
The year 1918 promised to be one of great success for Schiele: in March his work had pride of place at the Vienna Secession’s 49th annual exhibition. But that autumn saw a deadly outbreak of Spanish flu. The pandemic would eventually decimate both Europe and America, resulting in more victims than were claimed by the First World War.
On 28 October 1918, Schiele’s wife Edith, then six months pregnant, contracted flu and died. Just a few days later, on 31 October, Schiele himself passed away. He was 28 years old.
One hundred years after his death, none of the anxiety surrounding Schiele’s erotically charged images has diminished. Few artists have been so starkly frank in their exploration of sexuality or so dangerously close to straining taboo to breaking point.
Despite his short life, Schiele’s work was crucial to the development of Austrian Expressionism. His aesthetic was a huge influence on contemporaries including Kokoschka; his work also directly influenced artists in generations to come, such as Francis Bacon, Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Tracy Emin, whose work was shown alongside Schiele’s at Vienna’s Leopold Museum in 2015.
In Schiele’s home country, the Leopold Museum is mounting an extensive ‘jubilee exhibition’ dedicated to Schiele, while the Belvedere will spotlight its extensive collection of his work. In Paris, Schiele’s art will be brought to life in an immersive exhibition — set to music — at the Atelier des Lumières.
In England, Tate Liverpool will set Schiele’s work in conversation with Francesca Woodman; later in the year, London’s Royal Academy will host Klimt / Schiele, featuring drawings from Vienna’s Albertina Museum.
In New York, Schiele’s nudes will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum from 3 July to 7 October, while an exhibition at the Neue Galerie, from the end of June to 4 September, looks at his work in conjunction with Klimt’s.