Arts Dissertation – Egon Schiele
Date added: 17-06-26
Was Egon Schiele ahead of his time or just in touch with it? A master of expressionism or practising pornographer and paedophile? What was the driving force behind his most memorable images; those being his nudes and self portraits? Looking at economic, social, personal influences, was he milking the times and environment for self gain or was he a hormone raging self absorbed youngster finding himself?
Expressionism is described in typically polemic terms in the preface for the 1912 exhibition in Cologne, featuring new artists of this genre. In it, it says: “the exhibition is intended to offer a general view of the newest movement in painting, which has succeeded atmospheric naturalism and the impressionist rendering of motion, and which strives to offer a simplification and intensification in the mode of expression, after new rhythms and new uses of colour and a decorative or monumental configuration – a general view of that movement which has been described as expressionism.”
Schiele certainly fulfilled the loose terminologies expressed above, as a great deal of the subject matter he explored, primarily his nudes and his self-portraits, were concerned with the constant need to redefine and explore different ways of expressing these themes; a simplification and intensification in the mode of expression. At times, Schiele reduces the broad sentiments of Impressionism to a single streak; he cuts out all that is unnecessary, reducing his backgrounds to a simple wash of colour, and thus focuses on his primary interest, that of the human subject.
Schiele was also extremely concerned with the notion of self in his work; he is frequently cited in critical work as a narcissist and, with over 100 self portraits to his name, each of which appear to be concerned with showing himself in various, often contradictory ways, this would appear to be true. But, beyond simple glorification of the self, Schiele seems to be doing something else in his self-portraiture. By picturing himself in such a varied and at times contradictory way, Schiele in turn questions his own authenticity, and attempts to align himself with that great canon of artist in society, as a contemporary Promethean or Christ-like figure.
“Allegory, unmasking, the presentation of a personable image, and close scrutiny of body language as influenced by the psyche, all met most palpably where Schiele's eye looked most searchingly – in his self-portraits, his odyssey through the vast lands of the self. His reflections on and of himself filled a great hall of mirrors where he performed a pantomime of the self unparalleled in twentieth century art.” Indeed, the ambiguity of Schiele as regards himself is a dense and complex subject, which regards both “truth”, and a more subjective appraisal of art in Viennese society during the time in which Schiele was painting.
Schiele was also concerned with breaking down and fundamentally opposing the traditions of Viennese culture and art which, at the time, were largely very conservative in opinion. In his art, Schiele would strike out at the culture that celebrated Biedermeier art and the slavish reproduction of classical works that he was taught at Vienna's Academie der Bildunden Kunste (Vienna's Academy of Fine Art), which he was admitted to on the grounds of his exceptional talent as a draughtsman. Most prominently, he would break these rules, and was thus ahead of his times with his extremely controversial oeuvre, which broke from these schools almost completely, both stylistically and in terms of the subject matter that they conveyed.
But it is extremely difficult, if not impossible when considering any artist to extricate him / her from the times in which he / she was born. An artist is inevitably bound to the world around him / her, and thus, it is important to consider the economic, social and cultural trends that were prevalent at the time. Schiele was part of the expressionist movement – which immediately set itself up against the heralded principals of art in Vienna, by setting up its own artist-led business entities, using the work and the life of Klimt as an example. I will expand upon the layered history that led up to Viennese expressionism, and hope to extrapolate the extent to which Schiele was paving the way for a new generation of artists.
Schiele's art was especially controversial in its subject matter. In his early work especially, unflinching portraits were painted that not only showed Schiele in uncompromising positions, but also subjects such as proletariat children, who were invariably portrayed naked, and painted with a grotesque and sickly eroticism that draws you unerringly into these taboo areas. Whether Schiele was deliberately trying to shock and provoke the modesties of the Viennese public, or whether he was trying to uncover a more universal, spiritual or sexual truth is subject to debate.
Overall, in this essay, I will discuss how the history of Vienna impacted upon the work of Schiele, looking at the cultural, social and economic impact of Schiele. I will also look at how Schiele uses the self-portrait, especially how he chooses to either promote, or at least define the prevalent role of expressionist artist in his work. Then I will look at how the abundance of these controversial self-portraits, along with innumerable photographs of Schiele posing, in turn makes Schiele's identity in his work more ambiguous. Then I will look at the more pornographic side of Schiele, and question how Schiele, deeply embedded in the cultural and moral codes of the time, reacted entirely against them and established his own, art of “ugliness”.
History Of Viennese Expressionism
Fredrick Raphael, in his preface to Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler, suggests something about the Viennese psyche; he says that: “In 1866, Bismarck's Prussia destroyed Austro-Hungary's bravely incompetent army at Sadowa. The effect of that defeat on the Viennese psyche cannot be exactly assessed. Austria had already suffered preliminary humiliation by the French, under Louis-Napoleon, but Sadowa confirmed that she would never again be a major player in the world's game. Yet conscious acceptance of Austria's vanished supremacy was repressed by the brilliance and brio of its social and artistic life.
Who can be surprised that Adler's 'discovery' of the inferiority complex, and of compensating assertiveness, was made in a society traumatized by dazzling decline? It was as if the city which spawned Arthur Schinitzler and Sigmund Freud feared to awake from its tuneful dreams to prosaic reality.” Indeed, the times in which Egon Schiele was making his mark on the Viennese establishment was a time where the Viennese art community were at their most conservative, or most susceptible to lapsing into these “tuneful dreams”. Schiele's self-imposed mission, it seemed, was to violently shake these people into a state of consciousness.
But that isn't to say that Schiele existed entirely in a vacuum, living entirely by his own rules. Comini stresses that: “The content of Schiele's Expressionism then was a heightened sense of pathos and impending doom, and an acute awareness of the self. Schiele's Expressionist form drew from the great European reservoir of Symbolist evocativeness.” So, from a veritable melange of varying influences, Schiele managed to get his form, which combined that of exceptional draughtsman, with an inescapable desire for portraying the artistry of “ugliness”, something of which Schiele was something of a pioneer.
In 1897, Schiele joined the painting class of Christian Griepenkerl; who was a deeply conservative artist devoted to neoclassicism, or the slavish devotion and replication of classic works of art. This involved long hours copying the works of the Old Masters at Vienna's Academy of Fine Art. Schiele was enrolled for his superior draughtsmanship, but he was eventually alienated from it because he didn't see the relevance or the importance in neoclassicism. Thus, he became something of a troublemaker to the establishment, and was eventually forced out.
This was echoed 100 years hence by the Romantics; an art group who pursued a loose programme intended to reinvest art with emotional impact. The Romantics, however, proved too unpalatable to the Viennese citizenry, who instead preferred the work of Biedermeier artists. Kallir says: “On the whole, Germans proved more receptive to Romanticism than Austrians who shied away from such intense expressions of feeling and took refuge in the mundane cheer of the Biedermeier.” She goes on to say: “Biedermeier […] was geared more to the applied than to the fine arts, though in all its myriad incarnations it promoted the personal comforts of the middle class Burger. Biedermeier painting revolved around idealized renditions of everyday life, scenes of domestic bliss, genre pictures portraying ruddy-cheeked peasants, and picturesque views of the native countryside.”
Being born into this highly stringent, conservative environment must have shaped Schiele's defiance somewhat, as Schiele not only seems to break with what was established in Vienna as profitable art, but he almost seems to occupy exactly the opposite role. Even in works by Klimt, who was deemed controversial at the time, there are still elements of decorative palatability that makes his work visually and aesthetically appealing. Schiele seems to be deliberately working against this formula; which was brave considering that art, at the time, depended on patronage and buyers to actually sustain a profit. Schiele didn't seem concerned in the slightest that his work wouldn't get a buyer. In fact, the market is abandoned almost completely.
In Schiele's early work, art becomes “ugly”; his figures are pallid and atrophied; the composition of the pieces are unconventional and thus attack the sensibilities of the audience. Upon his break from Vienna's Academy, and much akin to Klimt, whom he admired and painted on a number of occasions, Schiele set up his own group, entitled simply, “The New Art Group.” This was similar to Klimt's route, as he set up the Viennese Secession, of which Schiele would play a part, which came from and used the tried and tested formula of the Genossenschaft betdender Kunster Wiens (Vienna Society of Visual Artists), a project financed by Emperor Franz Josef as a means of promoting art in the city. However, this system was not without its drawbacks. “It's progressive potential was […] undermined by a policy of majority rule, which generally granted victory to the conservative faction.
Within this context, the society's role as dealer was particularly disturbing to the younger, more forward-thinking minority, from whom exclusion from major exhibitions could have adverse financial consequences.” Similarly, the capitalist nature of art, coupled with the conservatism of the market made for a very difficult time for the progressive artist, and perhaps was a reason behind why Schiele opposed the artistic community with such fervency and vitriol, and often resorted to shock tactics and self-publicity to get himself heard. Klimt's Secession operated on similar principles to the Vienna society: “…the Secession […] was principally a marketing agent for its members work.”
Thus, again it proved difficult for the younger, more radical artists to break through, despite Klimt's support. Later, funds from patronage dwindled, so it was necessary for artists to seek out new markets. “The withdrawal of official patronage pre-empted the Secessionists to seek new ways of generating the sales and commissions necessary to keep them in business.” Ultimately, this meant that socialist, and personal art became more prominent a theme. The monumental, allegorical themes that Klimt and Schiele tended to attack (although Schiele's work was deeply personal, it was also very monumental and took a number of influences from Klimt and symbolist art), no longer had a substantial market.
Klimt's decorative style, coupled with his established name, could still sell work to his established clients. Schiele, however, had no such luck, and it was only in 1918, the last year of his life, that Schiele managed to break even with his work. Although Schiele did not seem overly concerned with the economic potential of his works; in fact, he even seemed to equate poverty and suffering to the role of an artist in general, and Schiele was probably one of the most uncompromising artists of the twentieth century in terms of pandering to a particular audience; it is nevertheless important to consider economics, social and cultural conditions because, Schiele, by setting himself and his role as an artist in direct opposition to the establishment, also put himself in the long-standing tradition of artist in opposition to mainstream society. Kallir points out that:
“The Secession, the Galerie Muethke, and the Wiener Werkstatte [, the latter two being establishments set up in the wake of the gradual reduction of patronage funds and a need to find and establish new markets for art], in the formative first decade of this century were peculiar products of their times that shared common aspirations and limitations. It was important to all concerned that these entities, although ostensibly committed to marketing art, were artist-run.” So, although economics were a concern in art, they were not necessarily, as dictated previously with the majority run Vienna Society of Visual Artists, primarily about making money and transforming the Viennese art scene into a profitable industry. Economics was an incidental concern, only foisted upon the establishment by chronic necessity: “The artists evinced a tacitly accepted loathing for art-as-business (Schiele could be particularly eloquent on this point) and a determination to place aesthetic considerations above economic ones.” So, as is fairly obvious from the art that he made, Schiele was against the motive of making money from art.
But this reveals an interesting contradiction that plagued expressionist and other, later artists seeking to make a living from art at the same time as challenging the social and economic processes that ultimately fund its creation: “[I]f the primary goal [of these entities] was to serve the artistic community, these organisations could not entirely ignore their secondary purpose: to sell art.” So, Schiele, like many other artists, was cut between a requirement for money (which was especially apparent now that the former staple of patronage monies had all but dried up), and a requirement to express uncompromisingly his artistic expression. Schiele would not settle for the former, and instead pursued the latter with a vigour and an intensity that, at the time, was quite extraordinary.
Schiele and Self-Portraiture.
Of all the artists in the 20th century, or indeed any century, Egon Schiele was probably one of the most self-conscious. But, in Schiele, the self is a very problematic subject. Schoeder suggests: “In his self-portraits, Schiele shows himself as wrathful, with a look of spiritual vacancy, or as if racked by a severe spasm of hysteria; or arrogantly looking down his nose, with head tossed back; or apprehensively or naively peering out of the picture. Which Schiele is the real Schiele?” Schiele seems to instinctively divide himself into differing components, but also, he uses art to singularly pursue his own political views of the role of artist, in many ways using self-portraiture to assert, rather than fragment his own personality.
The ambiguity with which Schiele regards himself can be looked at in a number of ways.
1. The Artist-as-Martyr
It could be argued that Schiele was simply posing, or playing the varying roles of artist to gratify his ego. This is interesting because Schiele was definitely working toward a specific identity as artist. In 1912, Schiele was arrested for three days for publishing obscene works where they could be displayed to children. An item of his work was subsequently burned in the courtroom. In prison, he creates a number of interesting works of art, that are especially interesting because their titles read like manifestoes. Titles such as Hindering the Artist is a Crime, It Is Murdering Life in the Bud! (1912), For Art and for My Loved Ones I Will Gladly Endure to the End! (1912), and Art Cannot Be Modern: Art Is Primordially Eternal (1912). Certainly, judging from these titles, Schiele definitely has a number of ideas regarding the artist, his specific role, and what separates a true artist from a charlatan.
Schiele, in his highly polemical, hyperbolic painting titles, equates the artist with suffering and martyrdom, suggesting that he will “endure”, and immediately glorifying the artist as a giver of life and eternal well being to the masses. Schroeder goes on to say: “Behind these works lies the idealization of suffering in the Romantic cull of genius, as updated in the last years of the nineteenth century through the writing of Friedrich Nietzsche and through the posthumous response to Arthur Schopenhauer. […] The turn of the century saw the apogee of the Artist-as-Martyr legend, in which the relationship between suffering and greatness draws so close that the pose of suffering may in itself constitute a claim to the higher grades of artistic initiation.”
So, the implication here is that Schiele was indeed acting a specific role of artist, that he was assuming a specific “pose of suffering” that was in many ways an act of fulfilling his societal role as an artist. Certainly these roles of suffering were explicit in his work. In Self-Portrait Standing (1910), Schiele portrays himself as contorted and thin; his face is twisted into an ugly grimace, and the colours used are mottled, pale and rotten. His arms are deformed and his positioning is unnatural and forced. His eyes are hollow and there is no context to the portrait; the background is a simple cream colouring. To exaggerate his alienation yet further, Schiele highlights his body with a shock of white. This has the effect of drawing the subject even further out of his environmental world, and, along with the forced hand gestures, serves to make us see the subject as an exhibit, rather than as part of a natural world. As Schroeder points out: “On the white expanse of paper, they do not exist: they are exhibited.”
In his principal work, Hermits (1912), he paints himself with Gustav Klimt, whose own break with neoclassicism and ornate style of expressionism was a major influence on Schiele's early work. Klimt is seen as asleep, or else resting on the shoulders of Schiele, who stands in front of him in a large black cloak. Mitsch suggests that in Hermits, “[s]eldom has the human body been visualised so exclusively as a materialization of spiritual forces […].” But the painting is called Hermits, which suggests something about the role of artist that Schiele observed, although the painting certainly displays elements of the spiritual; as Steiner suggests, “he presents the master and himself in a picture where two male figures in monklike garb and with aureoles about their heads are seen on a monumental plinth.” In Hermits, Schiele and Klimt both look glum; Schiele stares defiantly back through the painting.
The vast black cloak serves to homogenize the body of Klimt and Schiele, and thus portrays the role of the artist in general as one of blackness, of a biblical darkness. But, the title is more secular: Steiner goes on to say that: “We see Hermits (as the painting is called) and not saints, and the tone is no longer mystical and remote but one of delicate equilibrium between the two men – the elder, Klimt, deathlike, and the younger, Schiele, looking grim, doubtless because the artist leads a solitary life, condemned by society to suffer.”
So, Schiele, in a very modernist way, is simultaneously divorcing himself from the establishment of the religious school of Neoclassicism, but is also contemporising it. In similar ways that Freud brought scientific rigour, and secular practice into studies of the human psyche, Schiele was in turn taking religion out of mystical, allegorical artwork, and instead putting himself into it. This artistic position, as forerunner to Klimt, in a sense, emerging from the body of Klimt, but staring out defiantly and uniquely, epitomizes Schiele's position. Steiner suggests that: “At the time that he painted Hermits, Schiele was already seeing himself as a kind of priest of art, more the visionary than the academician, seeing and revealing things that remain concealed from normal people.”
2. The Artist-As-Protean
The ambiguity with which Schiele forges his own identity can also be seen in a different way. The variance between different forms of self-portrait merely represent different sides of the Schiele character. This would certainly fit into the Freudian notion of self – as a stigmatized, fragmentary and anarchic collection of different preconceived notions. For instance; Freud's basic notions of Id, Ego and Super-Ego serve to fragment the self – psychoanalysis in general serves to this effect, and, in a number of Schiele self-portraits, he uses the quite unusual system of the double portrait to encapsulate this fragmentation. Fischer makes the point that “[t]he familiar repertoire of Freudian psychology with its ego and super-ego, conscious and unconscious realms, might equally be applied to these dual self-portraits.”
A great deal of photography of Egon Schiele (of which a great deal exists) utilizes the effect of double exposure, thus, a doubling of the self. In one untitled photograph of Egon Schiele , he is seen firstly staring into the distance, while another image of himself looks back, observing himself intently. Steiner says that: “Schiele countered the sensory fragmentation of the self by means of a multiple self which came little by little to form a visual concept which reconstituted his unity with the world in a visionary way.” Indeed, during the time when expressionism was most active, a serious redefinition was underway, on the secular, theoretical grounds of Nietzsche and Freud, and also due to the cataclysmic human and social catastrophe of the Great War. In Hermann Bahr's 1916 book, simply entitled Expressionism, he says: “Never was there a time so shaken with so much terror, such a fear of death.
Never was the world so deathly silent. Never was man so small. Never had he been so alarmed. Never was joy so far away and liberty so dead.” But he rallies against this bleakness, which is encapsulated in other modernist and expressionist works; works such as Eliot's Wasteland and the paintings of Munsch and the German school of expressionism: “Now necessity cries out. Man cries after his soul, and the whole age becomes a single cry of need. Art, too, cries with it, into the depths of darkness; it cries for help; it cries after the spiritual: that is expressionism.” So, by ploughing the ambiguities of the self, this reading would assume that Schiele was, in many respects, crying “after his soul”, so to speak; searching among the myriad of different identities available to him, a concrete or at least a compatible sense of self that had eluded him, along with an entire generation of artists dispossessed by the Viennese establishment.
The various parts of Schiele's meticulous, and almost surgical self-analysis falls into a number of distinct camps, but also seems to, in a more generalised sense, work against the pattern of self-portrait or nudity established by other artists. Up until that time, generally speaking, the nude was seen in a grandiose sense: the painted nude women, such as those in Degas, were painted as Goddesses, resplendently beautiful, radiant, often placed in scenarios that depicted frolicking jollity or natural equilibrium; and the men, who were much rarer in contemporary art, were generally seen as heroic, muscular and noble.
Schiele breaks entirely with this long-established tradition. Firstly, the school of nude self-portraiture at the time only comprised of a single person; Richard Gerstl, whose painting Self-Portrait, Naked stood on its own at the time as the only painting to be done of the nude artist. Schroeder points out: “Just how uncommon is was to depict oneself naked is revealed by the fact that before 1910 only one precedent existed in the whole of Austrian art.” Thus, Schiele was already putting himself in the position of pioneer of a particularly exhibitionist genre. But, in unsheathing the artist of the attire that would previously assign to him his identity, Schiele places a whole new dynamic in the art: the dynamic of the self itself.
One of Schiele's most important works Seated Male Nude (1910), Schiele portrays himself covering up his own face. Indeed, in most of his self-portraits, especially his early ones, his posture is contorted and manufactured; he is posing and the background again is simply a plain, unembellished white. In Seated Male Nude, Schiele is grossly emaciated, his feet have been cut off, and his nipples and eyes glow red, suggesting that there is a deep demonism within him. He is seen as grotesquely, disturbingly ectomorphic; “the figure looks as though it has been taken down from a gothic crucifix: it is angular, and looks carved: Schiele was seeing himself as Christ without a loin-cloth.
The red highlights of his eyes, nipples, navel and genitals make the body look as if it were glowing from within.” But, also, the red “glowing from within” also exposes another central tenet of Schiele's work – namely, that it gives the appearance that he is hollow inside.
Schiele preserved his more allegorical, symbolic works for the medium of oil; paintings such as Hermits discussed earlier, and thus, this hollowness cannot be overlooked as having greater metaphorical meaning, and would suggest the reasons behind why Schiele's self-portraiture varied to such a large degree; namely, that the inner self which Schiele was desperate to uncover, was absent, or simply defined as a mad, glowing redness. “[S]pastic and hunch-backed, or with a rachitic deformation of the ribcage: this was the artist as an image of abject misery – a cripple […] the dirty colouring, with its shrill accents, makes the flesh tones ugly and aberrant. In Seated Male Nude, a self-portrait, the artist mutates into an insect. The absence of feet […] [is] an amputation. This is a mangled soul in a mangled body. We see through the body into the soul.” Indeed, the mangled soul is non-existent, the inside is hollow and empty.
So, insomuch as this is similarly affected by social and cultural developments at the time, Schiele is moreover offering a more detailed and theoretically astute reading of the self and warring and dissolute factions. Schroeder says that: “If all of these self-dramatizations reveal the true nucleus of the painter's psyche, then he must have been a fragmented personality, unlikely to escape the diagnostic attentions of the genius Sigmund Freud.
The question is just how much of his psyche is conveyed by his self-portraits, either those with grimaces or those that express a frozen resignation? What and whom does Egon Schiele really see in his studio mirror? […] It makes all the difference in the world whether he is observing his own body as an act of direct, emotional self-knowledge or whether in his imagination he is slipping into someone else's role and experiencing his own self as that of another person.” So, that Schiele depicts himself as a variety of different people doesn't necessarily mean that he is living up to a certain artistic function; in a sense, glamorizing the role of the artist as a suffering person.
Art As Pornography
Schiele has been regarded by many critics as a pornographer. Looking at his paintings, which often draw attention to the genitals, to eroticized regions of the human body, as well as the contorted and mechanistic quality to the nude portraits, which appear twisted and exploited. Schiele was eventually put in prison for his indecency, although this was due to his eccentric practice of showing his work to the friends of the children who were painted, often nude. Schroder suggests that “[i]n Schiele's early pictures of children the objective embarrassment of the models' lowly social origins is reinforced by the embarrassment of their obscene nakedness.” This would suggest that the portraits themselves are designed to be as exploitative and as pornographic as possible.
The children portrayed are certainly seen in an especially lurid light; and their embarrassment is portrayed by their forced poses, the absence of environment, etc. However, it is often difficult, at the time and later, to extrapolate eroticism from pornography, and in Schiele, this is particularly difficult. Schiele himself denied accusations of pornography, and certainly, the nudes have greater substance and meaning in terms of formulating an Expressionist identity of the self. Mitsch suggests that Schiele “expresses [in his eroticism] human bondage and is to be understood as a burden that is painful to bear. Aimed, from the beginning, at outspokenness and truthfulness, it assumes almost inevitably a daring form.” So, here difficulty with regarding Schiele's output is highlighted.
The work is about expressing human bondage, but it is also exaggerated and mutilated and “outspoken”. So Schiele acts as both pornographer and eroticist, and also strikes out more clearly at exposing the truth behind the body. Schiele himself commented on accusations that his work is pornographic made by his Uncle, by replying in a letter, saying that “the erotic work of art is scared too.” The painting Reclining Girl In A Blue Dress (1910), establishes this difficulty. In it, a girl is portrayed, leaning back and revealing her genitals. Her genitals are high-lighted in white, and draw the eye to the girl's genitals using both composition and colour.
The brush-strokes are strikingly crude, almost sketchy. Fischer says that “[i]t is impossible to defend this picture against the charge of pornography. Even so, Schiele's radicalism of form places him beyond too simplistic a categorisation.” He goes on to say: “He was not merely out to satisfy a shallow voyeuristic impulse. Pubescent lust and delight in discovery, the naïve symbolism of distinguishing sexual features, and boyish stratagems for looking up girl's skirts are combined in the twenty-year-old artist's way of viewing the world with the invention of ingenious new forms, which took the Schiele of 1910 a step forward, out of the world of teachers and uncles and into the radical world view of the Expressionist avant-garde.
In the years ahead, Schiele pursued this distinctive combination obsessively.” So, according to Fischer, even though his work was pornographic, the forms in which this pornography took and the means by which Schiele painted these pornographic images, allowed us to question the nature of the images and thus elevate them to something beyond pornography. Schiele was certainly obsessed with portraying the self: his images, despite being, at times, shamelessly provocative and deliberately controversial to the conservative Viennese public (the pre-conceived role of an artist to challenge the perception of the ordinary people would stress this, and was a certain depiction of the artist that Schiele would live by), would also put stress on the techniques and the principles applied to the painting in order to elevate it beyond mere titillation or voyeurism.
In his nudes, Schiele was definitely looking to get closer to his, and societies view of the human condition in the confusing wake of secularism, the transmogrification of belief toward the self (in Freud and Nietzsche, for instance), and the self's role in society. Naturally his view is not a particularly optimistic one, and he is frequently out to establish the pain in the heart of the self – his cut-off, mutilated and distorted figures serve to expose the more desultory aspects of the self, and thus his images appear less as pornographic, and more as pieces that actually challenge and oppose the traditionally pornographic, by immediately and shockingly exposing those parts of the human nude previously coveted, and exposing them for all to see.
The critic Reinhard Steiner has greater reservations about the classification of Schiele's work as pornographic. He suggests that “[i]t may well be true that Schiele was out to exorcise sexual devils, and was living out in his imagination 'impulses that could not always be satisfied in reality'. […] However, this does not seem fully adequate as an explanation […]. [G]iven the frequently unsightly, tortured look of […] nakedness, it would be a mistake to overstress the erotic component.” The unpleasantness of Schiele's paintings, although they tend to highlight certain areas of human obsession, specifically with the focus on genitalia and the exaggerated features of models, tend to go against the grain of voyeuristic pornography, and instead stigmatize and attack the viewers conceptions of desire, by painting the bodies in such a negative way. Although the politics of exploitation were present, in a sense, Schiele inverts these processes, and subsequently provides pornography with its binary opposite.
The Art Of Ugliness
Schiele was ahead of his time in a number of ways, by revolutionizing the subject matter he painted, by contemporizing the age-old study of the human nude, and, moreover, by painting pictures that wouldn't necessarily have themselves a natural market in provincial Vienna. Schiele's portraits are “ugly”, and they are striking in their ugliness. The composition of the pieces are skewed, and the subjects are drawn as emaciated and rotting. The eye is simultaneously drawn to, and away from his harsh, realist canvas, as though one is witnessing a human car crash, or an exhibition of atrocity which cannot be ignored.
However, I argue that the most important aspect of Schiele's work, and the part of Schiele that cannot be ignored, is how he paved the way for future expressionist painters by conveying, and subsequently revolutionizing the art of “ugliness”. Mitsch suggests that “Schiele's art […] unites a strong realism with alienation effects resulting from his recognition of the autonomy of stylistic means.” It is the “alienation effect” that is important in Schiele's work. His genius is in the fact that he used his prolific artistic and technical talent to broach a subject that would ultimately challenge the viewer into questioning and interrogating the concept of self. Schiele, by ditching the traditional aesthetic codes, by abandoning the romantic and the classicist modes of drawing the nude, and by unflinchingly portraying the nude as a thwarted, twisted and confused subject, in turn opened the floodgates for other, similarly inclined painters, determined to show the darker aspects of the human psyche in art.
The reaction to Schiele's work after his untimely death in 1918 is interesting, and proves that his early work still had the ability to shock long afterwards. His later, more sober work gained much acclaim very quickly, but it took many years, and a sexual revolution, for Schiele's early works, his more controversial nudes and self-portraits to enter mainstream art. Mitsch goes on to say: “While his late work soon attracted sympathetic attention and also led to the first purchases by the State, the early works received a wider appreciation only gradually.
Their expressionist pathos and uncompromising forms required greater sophistication on the part of the onlooker. A revolution in aesthetics had led to the discovery of the beauty in so-called 'ugliness'.” So Schiele was before his time in portraying this ugliness in such an unflinching manner. Even though the general movement was geared towards introspection and a study and reappraisal of the human form, Schiele proved to be culturally ahead of his time with his early work, which divided audiences then and will probably continue to do so.
Mitsch continues: “Rodin once said that only that which has its character, that which is able to give expression to a great inner truth, is beautiful in art; this seems no longer a paradox. 'Ugliness' was deliberately sought after as something novel, as a basic regeneration with an inherent potential for new developments. This process, often to be observed in times of crisis and radical change, entailed of necessity also such a modification in the former scale of values that Ludwig Hevesi could coin a lapidary formula for the realm of aesthetics: 'beautiful means ugly, and ugly, beautiful.'” Schiele questioned and interrogated the body of the human being, in how it was portrayed in art, and why it was portrayed as such.
Egon Schiele was both ahead of his times and with them. By aggressively and successfully fighting against an established set of aesthetic norms and preconceptions as to the role and the function of art in contemporary society, Egon Schiele paved the way for a new generation of artists obsessed more by the politics of “ugliness”, rather than simply providing a work of art that would look pleasing. By appropriating the theories of Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, and the politics of the Expressionist school of art, Schiele radicalised how art would be seen in the twentieth century.
Although Schiele was ostensibly tied to a number of specific traditions, was still adapting his finely honed techniques, he used painting in an altogether different way. Schiele successfully managed to expose and develop his world view in a way that was specific to him, and would be emulated by others. His artistic polemic, directed at the art establishment, which he saw as a perversion of traditional artistic principles, was striking insofar as it sought to expose and radicalise the notion of the body in the twentieth century, during a time of massive social and cultural change.
The growing spirit of secularism, coupled with the economic necessity to portray a self that it less weighted by the models of traditional art (a break in the funding of art through patronage facilitated this move) facilitated Schiele's move toward portraying a specific mode of artist that he would cling onto. Schiele's notion of the artist was as a martyr – a Christ-like figure wandering in pained solitude, in isolation from the specificities and the mundane whims of everyday existence.
He painted and fabricated this notion of the artist-as-martyr, as portrayed by Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, and, in a deeply self-conscious way, formulated his own artistic niche that would be understood later as a man struggling to cope with the social upheaval and the cultural, existential changes apparent at the time. Thus, his work was uncompromising and stark – his human models, which included himself, would be portrayed as contorted and distorted, their sexualities withered and horrific – in doing so, Schiele reassembled the way in which the self was analysed in contemporary art.
Schiele's early Expressionism was unencumbered by notions of capturing an objective reality. Like Expressionism itself, and referring again to the description offered in the 1912 catalogue for the exhibition in Cologne: “[Expressionism is] simplification and intensification in the mode of expression, after new rhythms and new uses of colour.”
The major triumph of Egon Schiele is in redesigning and contemporizing art in the light of massive criticism – by forbearing any conceivable notion of making profit from art, via his constant artistic dialogue with himself and his role as an artist in Viennese society, by portraying and courageously exploring the darker sides of eroticism, Schiele successfully managed to bring Viennese Expressionism to the foreground of a movement chiefly linked to making ancient modes of expression new. Thus, Schiele is equally in touch with the politics of the self at the time of his painting, and also establishes and pioneers a profound and fresh view of sexual and human desire in art and taboo that remain with us to this day.
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Werkner, P. ed., Egon Schiele: Art, Sexuality and Viennese Modernism, University of Washington Press, Washington, 1994