Tag Archives: biographies

Cornell/Simon Wilson Schiele book

I think that the Taschen Verlag 25th anniversary book on the Expressionist Austrian (sometimes Viennese) painter Egon Schiele (1890-1918) provides sumptuous reproductions of Schiele paintings and drawings. The smaller (both in page size (8 1.2” x 11”) and in number of pages (80)) volume from Cornell University Press, first published in 1980, provides a better textual introduction, written by Simon Wilson. The Cornell book is also organized topically (by the subject matter of the art) but begins with a solid biographical overview.

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Schiele’s father was pensioned off by the Austro-Hungarian Imperial Rail Company (for mental instability) in 1902 and died in 1905. Egon Schiele was accepted as a student in the Vienna Art Academy in 1906 and was soon influenced by the renegade Secession art, particularly that of Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), who immediately recognized Schiele’s talent (on being asked to trade drawings, the older and established if avant-garde painter remarked that Schiele was a better draftsman than he was).

Though Schiele’s style diverged from that of Klimt and other Secession artists, the flattening of figures and unconcern about backdrops persisted, and Schiele remained a dutiful quasi-son, who became head of the Secession when Klimt died in 1918, soon followed by Schiele’s 6-month pregnant wife Edith, and three years later (still in advance of the Armistice ending WWI) by his own death, casualties of the devastating Spanish influenza pandemic in which at least a third of the world’s population died (including an estimated twenty million in Europe).

Wilson attempts to distinguish self-portraits expressive of metaphysical Angst (anguish) from self-portraits expressive of sexual Angst. I guess that the paintings (watercolor, gouache, oil) in which Schiele showed caricatures of himself holding his engorged penis or in the throes of orgasm or covering his genitalia to fashion a pseudo-vagina between his hands are “sexual Angst,” but the exaggeration of body hair (and pubic hair, which was always rendered with great care in his female nudes, too) and provocative semi-dress seem to me also to have a sexual charge. Moreover the top of the 1911 “Composition with Three Male Figures” (p. 26/below) strikes me as flirtatious rather than angst-ridden (I’d readily grant that the other two look saddened).

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Neither author provides an explanation of the very recurrent separation between two pairs of fingers (I find spreading fingers easy, as is holding the inner two together or the outer two, but find it impossible to hold two pairs except by arranging them on a flat surface first… so I consider the pose of hands unnatural). Photographs in the Taschen volume show that the artist had long fingers, but do not document the arrangement of them he so often painted.

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In his portraits of others as well as in his self-portraits, Schiele rendered large, prominent hands with long fingers, right up to his not quite finished final large portrait of Albert von Gütertlow, seated and holding up his hands as if they are alien to him. (Being in the collection of the Minneapolis Art Institute, this is the painting by Schiele that first intrigues me, before I got to Vienna, where most of his work still is, particularly in the [Rudolph] Leopold Museum.)

Wilson explains that the young Secessionist painter was introduced to the earlier Expressionist work of Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh in 1909 by art critic Arthur Roessler, who admired worked by Schiele displayed at the Vienna Kunstchau. Without breaking with Klimt or mimicking the techniques of Munch or van Gogh, Schiele shifted to more Expressionist work soon thereafter. Schiele also obtained a sexual outlet other than his hands, living in Kumau with his 17-year-old muse/model Wally Neuzil (whom he would later dump and marry Edith Harms in 1915; she had earlier posed for Klimt).

In the last year or so of his short life, Schiele seems to have moved into a third, less angst-ridden stage and even provided some backdrops for his portraits, including the Albert von Gütertlow. Had he lived even to the Anschluss (when he would have been all of 48), who knows what a trove of masterworks he might have produced! (According to Wilson, Schiele’s work was mostly neglected until the 1960s.)

Back to the book, though biographical sources on Schiele seem slim (he was too busy painting? He did write poetry, however…), Wilson provides a good introduction to the life, traumas, and context of Schiele’s art. His text is more informative, less technical than Reinhard Steiner’s in the Taschen Schiele book.

The superiority of the latter is that the plates are all in color. Fortunately, so is the reproduction of the portrait of Albert von Gütertlow that was my introduction to Schiele’s art. But others in which color is prominent are reproduced in black and white. This is particularly regrettable for “Red Nude” (p. 37): not only is a color in the title, but the text discusses what is red in it (Schiele was not Franz Marc, the whole body was not rendered in red!). The portrait of Friedrika Beer (p. 73) is another especially unfortunate instance. Some (the 1915 portrait of a demure Edith, the 1915, poster of Schiele as St. Sebastian, the great 1918 “Family” with the nude artist behind a woman (not Edith) behind a clothed toddler) are reproduced in color in the Taschen book.

I am glad that I have both books (though it took years of owning them to read their texts and compare their contents!). For textual introduction the Wilson/Cornell one is significantly superior, for reproductions of the art the Steiner/Taschen one is. Neither is expensive (nor is either thick…) The Cornell book is also organized topically (by the subject matter of the art) but begins with a solid biographical overview.

2014,2017, Ste0hen O. Murray

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