It would not be possible for me to write a blog about contemporary drawing without including Egon Schiele. So this month I am focusing entirely about him and his drawings. Born in Tulln, Austria, in 1890, during his brief yet prolific career, the Austrian painter Egon Schiele created more than 2000 drawings and watercolours and more than 300 oil paintings. Expressionistic and intense, with many works of eroticism, Schiele’s work was and still is, often misunderstood as pornographic. The novelist John Updike wrote “ If the litmus test of pornography is that it excite the viewer, then Schiele is no pornographer. His nudes, gaunt and splotchy on the whole, make us tense and sad, even though many deserve to be called beautiful.” It is the unpleasantness of Schiele’s work that some people find so unnerving.
So firstly, some brief explanations about his subject matter. Although many of his paintings and drawings are explicit, Schiele’s concerns were with his own sexual identity that reflects in many of his nudes with their blunt treatment of sexual subject matter. His numerous self portraits show a probing of his inner feelings and a multitude of selves. Sometimes he resembles a corpse, with shrunken eyes and torso, or grimaces and gesticulates wildly and then again, beautiful, preening and elegant.
Gertie, Schiele’s sister Gertrude, was one of Schiele’s principal models. It seems unlikely that there was an incestual relationship between Schiele and his sister and more likely that he asked her to pose because she was available and did not have to be paid.
Pregnant women, babies and children – After Schiele had left the Academy, he found that Vienna was teeming with slum children who could be persuaded to pose for a few coins or bits of candy. The child models ranged from age seven to thirteen, equally male and female, most of them kept their clothes on and there is very little sexual content. Clearly, the children felt comfortable with him and the artist simply depicted what he saw. During the first months of 1910, his main source for naked females, other than his sister Gertie, was the gynecologist, Erwin Von Graff who apparently gave the artist access to his pregnant patients in exchange for an oil portrait.
Toward the end of 1910, Schiele established a relationship with a pair of female models, often referred to as the “black haired girls”. One of the models may have been 15 or 16 years old and it is evident from his drawings that the artist had sex with her. Today, this would be unacceptable but the age of consent in Austria at that time was just 14.
Imprisonment – All sources agree that the trouble started with a fourteen year old daughter of a retired naval officer, who decided to run away from home and sought refuge at Schiele’s studio in Neulengbach. By the time she had returned home to her family several days later, her father had gone to the police. The police raided Schiele’s studio and came away with a bounty of erotica and on April 13 1912, Schiele was imprisoned at Neulangbach’s municipal jail for kidnapping, rape and offences against public morality. He was tried in early May where the first two charges were dropped but convicted of the third and sentenced to the time already served. The creation or possession of erotica was not in itself illegal, Schiele was convicted because children had seen a single drawing of a nude hanging openly in his studio.
The drawings – what makes Schiele’s drawings so powerful is not the subject alone. The figures are isolated, devoid of the ornamental backgrounds that he initially assimilated from Klimt’s paintings at the same time. After dropping the decorative surround and no longer imitating Klimt’s style, he begun his own interpretations, where Klimt had evoked fertility, Schiele begins to suggest decay, the presence of death in life. In 1908, there was an exhibition of Rodin’s drawings in Vienna and there is clear evidence in Schiele’s drawings that this must have had some influence on him but instead of Rodin’s erratic lines, Schiele favoured sinuous, unbroken contours.
He began to adopt unconventional viewpoints, leaving figures to float awkwardly in mid air. He rested the board on his right knee and held it at the top with his right hand, his right foot on a low stool so his drawing hand was unsupported and drew his lines from his shoulder, as it were. He never used an eraser and only drew from nature. Most of his drawings were done in outline and only became more three dimensional when they were coloured. The colouring was done from memory, without the presence of the model. It is probable that his use of exaggerated gesture had come from the impact of silent film, pantomine and modern dance. The Viennese were starting to understand that the human body could not be observed simply from its external layer, that the body is revealed not by external appearance but by its hidden infrastructure. I could go on, there is so much more to Schiele than meets the eye and there are many books and articles about him but I felt it important to get across how his images are often misunderstood as perverse and how his drawing is an honest, reflecting account of a young artists investigation into his own life.
The books I have used to write this post are Egon Schiele’s Women by Jane Kallir and Egon Schiel Drawings and Watercolours also by Jane Kallir.