Today’s Artist Birthday: Egon Schiele
Egon Schiele (12 June 1890 – 31 October 1918) was an Austrian painter. A protégé of Gustav Klimt, Schiele was a major figurative painter of the early 20th century. His work is noted for its intensity and its raw sexuality, and the many self-portraits the artist produced, including naked self-portraits. The twisted body shapes and the expressive line that characterize his paintings and drawings, mark the artist as an early exponent of Expressionism.
He was born in 1890 in Tulln, Lower Austria. His father, Adolf Schiele, the station master of the Tulln station in the Austrian State Railways, and his mother Marie . As a child, he was fascinated by trains, and would spend many hours drawing them, to the point where his father felt obliged to destroy his sketchbooks. When he was 11 years old, Schiele moved to the nearby city of Krems (and later to Klosterneuburg) to attend secondary school.
To those around him, Schiele was regarded as a strange child. Shy and reserved, he did poorly at school except in athletics and drawing, and was usually in classes made up of younger pupils. He is reported to have had been somewhat obsessed with his younger sister, though no evidence of anything inappropriate ever surfaced. His father, suspicious of Egon’s behavior, was once forced to break down the door of a locked room that Egon and Gerti were in to see what they were doing, only to discover that they were developing a film.
When Schiele was 15 years old, his father died from syphilis, and he became a ward of his maternal uncle, Leopold Czihaczek, also a railway official. Although he wanted Schiele to follow in his footsteps, and was distressed at his lack of interest in academia, he recognised Schiele’s talent for drawing and unenthusiastically allowed him a tutor; the artist Ludwig Karl Strauch.
In 1906 he applied at the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Arts and Crafts) in Vienna, where Gustav Klimt had once studied. Within his first year there, he was sent, at the insistence of several faculty members, to the more traditional Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Vienna in 1906. His main teacher at the academy was Christian Griepenkerl, a painter whose strict doctrine and ultra-conservative style frustrated and dissatisfied Schiele and his fellow students so much that he left three years later.
In 1907, Schiele sought out Gustav Klimt, who generously mentored younger artists. Klimt took a particular interest in the young man, buying his drawings, offering to exchange them for some of his own, arranging models for him and introducing him to potential patrons. He also introduced Schiele to the Wiener Werkstätte, the arts and crafts workshop connected with the Secession.
In 1908 Schiele had his first exhibition, in Klosterneuburg. Schiele left the Academy in 1909, after completing his third year, and founded the Neukunstgruppe (“New Art Group”) with other dissatisfied students.
Klimt invited Schiele to exhibit some of his work at the 1909 Vienna Kunstschau, where he encountered the work of Edvard Munch, Jan Toorop, and Vincent van Gogh among others. Once free of the constraints of the Academy’s conventions, Schiele began to explore not only the human form, but also human sexuality. At the time, many found the explicitness of his works disturbing.
His work was already daring, but it went a bold step further with the inclusion of Klimt’s decorative eroticism and with what some may like to call figurative distortions, that included elongations, deformities, and sexual openness. His self-portraits helped re-establish the energy of both genres with their unique level of emotional and sexual honesty and use of figural distortion in place of conventional ideals of beauty. His Kneeling Nude with Raised Hands (1910) was one of the significant nude art pieces made during the 20th century.
His radical and developed approach towards the naked human form challenged both scholars and progressives alike. This unconventional piece and style went against strict academia and elevated a sexual uproar with its contorted lines and heavy display of figurative expression. He is considered as having mastered the craft of contouring sexually charged beings to express emotional revolutions.
In 1911, he met the seventeen-year-old Walburga (Wally) Neuzil, who lived with him in Vienna and served as a model for some of his most striking paintings. Very little is known of her, except that she had been a prostitute, had previously modeled for Gustav Klimt and may have also been one of his mistresses.
The artist and the model wanted to escape what they perceived as the claustrophobic Viennese milieu, and went to the small town of Český Krumlov (Krumau) in southern Bohemia. However, it wasn’t long before he and his lover were driven out of the town by the residents, who strongly disapproved of their lifestyle, including his alleged employment of the town’s teenage girls as models.
Together they moved to Neulengbach, 35 km west of Vienna, seeking inspirational surroundings and an inexpensive studio in which to work. As it was in the capital, his studio became a gathering place for Neulengbach’s delinquent children. His way of life aroused much animosity among the town’s inhabitants, and in April 1912 he was arrested for seducing a young girl below the age of consent.
When they came to his studio to place him under arrest, the police seized more than a hundred drawings which they considered pornographic. He was imprisoned while awaiting his trial. When his case was brought before a judge, the charges of seduction and abduction were dropped, but the artist was found guilty of exhibiting erotic drawings in a place accessible to children. In court, the judge burned one of the offending drawings over a candle flame. The twenty-one days he had already spent in custody were taken into account, and he was sentenced to a further three days’ imprisonment. While in prison, Schiele created a series of 12 paintings depicting the difficulties and discomfort of being locked in a jail cell.
In 1914, the up-and-coming artist met Edith Harms, who lived with her sister and parents across the street from his studio. They were a middle-class, Protestant family and Edith’s father was a master locksmith.
In 1915, Schiele chose to marry the more socially acceptable Edith, but had apparently expected to maintain a relationship with Wally. However, when he explained the situation to his longtime mistress, she left him immediately and never saw him again. This abandonment led him to paint Death and the Maiden, where Wally’s portrait is based on a previous pairing, but his own is newly struck. (In February 1915, Schiele wrote a note to a friend, stating: “I intend to get married, advantageously. Not to Wally.”)
Despite some opposition from the Harms family, Schiele and Edith were married on 17 June 1915, the anniversary of the wedding of Schiele’s parents.
Despite avoiding conscription for almost a year, World War I now began to shape Schiele’s life and work. Three days after his wedding, he was ordered to report for active service in the army where he was initially stationed in Prague. Edith came with him and stayed in a hotel in the city, while Egon lived in an exhibition hall with his fellow conscripts. They were allowed by his commanding officer to see each other occasionally. Despite his military service, he was still exhibiting in Berlin. During the same year, he also had successful shows in Zürich, Prague, and Dresden. His first duties consisted of guarding and escorting Russian prisoners. Because of his weak heart and his excellent handwriting, he was eventually given a job as a clerk in a POW camp near the town of Mühling.
There he was allowed to draw and paint imprisoned Russian officers, and his commander, Karl Moser (who assumed that Schiele was a painter and decorator when he first met him), even gave him a disused store room to use as a studio. Since he was also in charge of the food stores in the camp, he and Edith could enjoy food beyond rations.
By 1917, he was back in Vienna, able to focus on his artistic career. His output was prolific, and his work reflected the maturity of an artist in full command of his talents. He was invited to participate in the Secession‘s 49th exhibition, held in Vienna in 1918. Schiele had fifty works accepted for this exhibition, and they were displayed in the main hall. He also designed a poster for the exhibition, which some thought reminiscent of the Last Supper, with a portrait of himself in the place of Christ. The show was a triumphant success, and as a result, prices for Schiele’s drawings increased and he received many portrait commissions.
In the autumn of 1918, the Spanish flu pandemic that claimed more than 20,000,000 lives in Europe reached Vienna. Edith, who was six months pregnant, succumbed to the disease on 28 October, and Schiele died only three days after his wife.
He was 28 years old. During the three days between their deaths, Schiele drew sketches of Edith.