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.
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