In 1964, Oskar Kokoschka evaluated the first great Schiele Exhibition in London as “pornographic”. In the age of discovery of modern art and the loss of “subject”, Schiele responded that for him there existed no modernity, but only the “eternal”. Schiele’s world shrank into portraits of the body, locally and temporally non-committal. Self-discovery is expressed in an unrelenting revelation of himself as well as of his models. The German art encyclopaedia, compiled by Thieme and Becker, described Schiele as an eroticist because Schiele’s art is an erotic portrayal of the human body. Furthermore, Schiele studied both male and female bodies. His models express an incredible freedom with respect to their own sexuality, self-love, homosexuality or voyeurism, as well as skillfully seducing the viewer.
For Schiele, the clichéd ideas of feminine beauty did not interest him. He knew that the urge to look is interconnected with the mechanisms of disgust and allure. The body contains the power of sex and death within itself. A photograph of Schiele on his deathbed depicts the twenty-eight-year-old looking asleep, his gaunt body completely emaciated, his head resting on his bent arm; the similarity to his drawings is astounding. Because of the danger of infection, his last visitors were able to communicate with the Spanish flu-infected Schiele only by way of a mirror, which was set up on the threshold between his room and the parlour.
During the same year, 1918, Schiele had designed a mausoleum for himself and his wife. Did he know, he who had so often distinguished himself as a person of foresight, of his nearing death? Did his individual fate fuse collectively with the fall of the old system, that of the Habsburg Empire? Schiele’s productive life scarcely extended beyond ten years, yet during this time he produced 334 oil paintings and 2,503 drawings. He painted portraits and still lifes of land and townscapes; however, he became famous for his draftsmanship. While Sigmund Freud exposed the repressed pleasure principles of upper-class Viennese society, which put its women into corsets and bulging gowns and granted them solely a role as future mothers, Schiele bares his models. His nude studies penetrate brutally into the privacy of his models and finally confront the viewer with his or her own sexuality.
PORTRAIT OF THE PAINTER ANTON PESCHKA
The portrait of the Austrian painter Anton Peschka (1885-1940) is the first one Schiele made of his friend. Within a somewhat square format, Schiele set down a linear composition which accentuates the two-dimensional character of the painting. While extremely meticulous, the painting also succeeds in its use of color: the neutral brown and grey tones dominate and seem to incorporate the model into his environment. Moreover, beige tones of the armchair, which compliment the pattern on the wall, are recalled in the hands and face of Peschka, while the assortment of lavender-grey tints which form the background, are repeated (however less saturated) in the suit of the painter. Only the bold silhouette allows the model to stand out from the background of the painting, giving him a volume, a physical substance. These characteristics bring the work of Schiele closer both to that of an engraving and that of his painting master at that time, Gustav Klimt.
This painting was both part of the first public exhibition Schiele took part in in 1909 in Klosterneuburg, and then, the same year, of the International Art Exhibition Vienna (Internationale Kunstschau).
SEATED FEMALE NUDE WITH RAISED RIGHT ARM (GERTRUDE SCHIELE)
Seated Female Nude is part of a series of five nude paintings that Schiele created in 1910. The series is noteworthy because it shows the ever-progressing development of Schiele’s art during that stage of his life. Three of the five paintings are self-portraits while the other two are portraits of his sister Gertrude. Apart from exhibiting Schiele’s technical development, they also reveal the character of Schiele’s aestheticism; deeply sensual but while also pathologically obsessed with sexuality at the same.
MOTHER AND CHILD
This is a work which, superficially, appears to be a loving portrait of parenthood but, just below the surface, is clearly a semi-religious, allegorical work, which tackles many of Schiele’s prevailing concerns about life, death, fecundity and thwarted eroticism. As in much of his painting of this period, the mother figure is both slightly off-centre and distorted but also surrounded by the glow of a purifying white halo. This lends her the gravitas of motherhood and, allegorically, of the Virgin Mary. She twists away from the viewer in a way that suggests both coy modesty and erotic anticipation. Her bare buttocks and her stocking tops rather than her facial features become central to the canvas. The baby, meanwhile, becomes a merely blurred outline, indistinct and clutching tentatively at the protective mother. It is the fronds of the mother’s hair that reach out gently into the rest of the canvas while the child’s fingers turn inwards for protection.
SEATED MALE NUDE (SELF-PORTRAIT)
Schiele was fascinated by his own image and constantly drew both his face and his body. In this relatively early gouache, he uses his dual function as both model and painter to deconstruct his own image, presenting it in its full distorted ugliness but, thereby, compelling the viewer to look straight at him. The colour of the torso is human and alive, yet the legs are muddy and mutilated and his hands are invisible. He is, almost certainly, alluding to the piteousness of the image of Christ on the cross and yet here he has eroticised this figure. The only real colour in the work comes from the highlighting of the navel, eyes and sexual organs which seem particularly ominous above the dark zone below. He is in a vortex of light at the centre of the image where Expressionist ugliness is omnipresent but highly personalised and specifically designed to engender compassion for the painter as subject.
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