Art cannot be modern, art is eternal.
Egon Schiele’s oeuvre is unique to such an extent that it simply defies categorisation. Since he was initially heavily influenced by Gustav Klimt and the Jugendstil, he is also given space in this article, even though he later exhibited an art style that is closer to Expressionism than Jugendstil.
In modern industrial times, with the noise of racing steam engines, factories and the human masses working in them, Egon Schiele was born in the railway station hall of Tulln, a small, lower Austrian town on the Danube, on 12 June 1890. After his older sisters Melanie and Elvira, he was the third child of the railway director Adolf Eugen Schiele and his wife Marie (née Soukoup). The shadows of three male stillbirths were a precursor for the only boy, who in his third year of life would lose his ten-year-old sister Elvira. The high infant mortality rate was the lot of former times, a fate that Schiele’s later work and his pictures of women would characterise.
In 1900, he attended the grammar school in Krems. But he was a poor pupil who constantly took refuge in his drawings, which his enraged father would burn. In 1902, Schiele’s father sent his son to the regional grammar and upper secondary school in Klosterneuburg. The young Schiele had a difficult childhood marked by his father’s ill health. He suffered from syphilis, which, according to family chronicles, he is said to have contracted while on his honeymoon as a result of a visit to a bordello in Triest. His wife fled from the bedroom during the wedding night and the marriage was only consummated on the fourth day, on which he infected her also. Despair characterised Schiele’s father, who retired early and sat at home dressed in his service uniform in a state of mental confusion. In the summer of 1904, stricken by increasing paralysis, he tried to throw himself out of a window. He finally died after a long period of suffering on New Year’s Day in 1905. The father, who during a fit of insanity burned all his railroad stocks, left his wife and children destitute. An uncle, Leopold Czihaczek, chief inspector of the imperial and royal railway, assumed joint custody of 15-year-old Egon, for whom he planned the traditional family role of railroad workers.
During this time, young Schiele wore second-hand clothing handed down from his uncle and stiff white collars made from paper. It seems that Schiele had been very close to his father, for he, too, possessed a certain talent for drawing, collected butterflies and minerals, and was drawn to the natural world. Years later, Schiele wrote to his sister:
[…] I have, in fact, experienced a beautiful spiritual occurrence today, I was awake, yet spellbound by a ghost who presented himself to me in a dream before waking, so long as he spoke with me, I was rigid and speechless.
Unable to accept the death of his father, Schiele let him rise again in visions. He reported that his father had been with him and spoken to him at length. In contrast, distance and misunderstanding characterised his relationship with his mother who, living in dire financial straits, expected her son to support her; instead, the eldest sister would work for the railroad. However, Schiele, who had been pampered by women in his childhood, claimed to be “an eternal child”. By a stroke of fate, painter Karl Ludwig Strauch (1875-1959) instructed the gifted youth in draughtsmanship; the artist Max Kahrer of Klosterneuburg looked after the boy as well. In 1906, at the age of only sixteen, Schiele passed the entrance examination for the general art class at the Academy of Visual Arts in Vienna on his first attempt. Even his strict uncle, in whose household Schiele now took his midday meals, sent a telegram to Schiele’s mother: “Passed”.
His sister, four years his junior, was a compliant subject for him. The nude study of the fiery redhead with the small belly, fleshy bosom and tousled pubic hair is his younger sister Gertrude (1894-1981). In another watercolour, Gerti reclines backwards, still fully clothed with black stockings and shoes, and lifts the black hem of her dress from under which the red orifice of her body appears. Schiele draws no bed, no chair, only the provocative gesture of his sister’s body offering itself (Reclining Girl in a Dark Blue Dress, c. 143).
At the same time as Sigmund Freud was postulating that self-discovery occurs by means of erotic experiences, and “the urge to look” emerges as a spontaneous sexual expression within the child, young Egon recorded confrontations with the opposite sex on paper. He incorporated erotic games of discovery and an unabashed interest in the genitalia of his model into his nude studies; the forbidden gaze, searching for the opened female vagina beneath the rustling of the skirt hem and white lace. Gerti, with her freckled skin, green eyes, and red hair, is the prototype of all the later women and models of Schiele.
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