Egon Schiele at the Neue Galerie
By LYNN MALISZEWSKI, DEC. 2014
In his short life of 28 years, Egon Schiele attacked the figure with the ferocity and intuition of a bull running at a red cape. Schiele was headstrong from the beginning—adolescent rebellion and an uncontrollable desire to doodle landed him at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna at sixteen-years-old, an honor that legitimized his instincts. From the jump-off the figure was prominently featured in his output. Morality and mortality, two subjects Schiele considered from an early age after losing his father at fifteen-years-old, factored into the stormy renderings of his sitters. The Neue Galerie is offering 125 portraits in Egon Schiele: Portraits, on view through January 19, 2015. The gathering of work, which includes a number of classics from private collections, spans the entirety of Schiele's artistic career and provides insight into the minutiae of his technique.
The entire third floor is dedicated to Schiele, with four rooms splitting up his output by theme. In the first of these rooms, "Family and Academy," a wall is dedicated to portraits he produced at university. Several traditional ancient busts illustrate his textbook technical skill. Still, consistent aspects of his emerging genius appear: the employment of loose lines to describe clothing and build; stylized generalizations that identify the body's brass tacks, such as knuckles, eyeballs and hair; and sitters floating freely in space on the page.
The "Lovers," at the far end of a slim hallway playing host to a timeline of the artist's life, are Schiele's greatest hits. His renderings of teenage girls, created in and around Vienna as he fled persecution for the recruitment of said girls, landed him in jail for 24 days in Neulengbach, Austria, in 1912. A majority of the works on display in this section serve as experiments in composition. Their bodies contort like a strand of hair lit on fire. His ladies squat, inspect their own nipples, and reveal their fleshy genitalia with an empowered ease. Their eyes are often closed or squinting, letting the body be spotlit by the portrait. Vibrant warm tones describe the body in "Seated Nude with Violet Stockings" (1910), enclosed by a single outline that describes her crouched legs, the curve of her shoulders, and her head, with minimal other details. In "Wally in a Red Blouse with Knees Raised" (1913) jagged lines describe the tool of a skirt that gathers at Wally's abdomen. Jagged lines of her hips and armpits emerge from beneath the clothing that may or may not have been sheer in actuality. Sketches appear beneath layers of watercolor or ink throughout the exhibition, holding the framework to the same standard as the exterior of his sitter. Despite their physical awkwardness, the sexuality and confident participation of the females in "Lovers" provides a rarely disclosed calm. The unfettered delinquents are kindred spirits, unforgivingly molding to each scene as it comes.
Opposite the "Lovers" wall are "Self-Portraits and Allegorical Self-Portraits." Schiele is critical but not self-loathing. He identifies himself as a demon-like floating head with crimson and black undertones ("Self-portrait (head)," 1910) and Saint Sebastian, a Christian martyr ("Portrait as Saint Sebastian," 1914). He even turns himself inside-out in "Self-portrait" (1911), a carnal and fleshy standing portrait, and drowns himself in fat brushstrokes of pink, red, and beige. His electrocuted line, vibrating with calculated dashes perpendicular to the form's outline, is most prominent in this section. The self-portraits shiver with nervous energy, down to the dainty sprigs of hair that emerge from his armpits and belly-button. In this case, as well as the forthcoming "Sitters and Patrons" section, a chronological progression would have been beneficial. Self-portraiture was not only a timestamp and fantastical opportunity for Schiele, but dictated a meandering process that often manifested later in other series. The regularity of self-portraiture, per the introductory text of the exhibition, shows "the artist is not distinct or above society; on the contrary, he is subject to it."
Several large oil on canvas paintings flank the two aforementioned sections in the furthest room of the exhibition. They are a direct correlation to Schiele's proximity to the Vienna Secession, an art movement in Austria presided over by Schiele's mentor and friend Gustav Klimt. Three images depict Eros, a popular concept among Viennese collectors at the turn of the 20th century. "Conversion" (1912), for example, is a heavy triple portrait with two female figures engulfed by a male figure, grey as limestone statues on a tarnished building facade. Limbs merge and flatten, a pinwheel of lines that looks more like wrinkles in time than details of the body. While beautiful in their own right, these oil paintings lack the quiet riot of the rest of the exhibition. Schiele mutates the seemingly set Greek narrative of "intimate love" in hopes of making it more emotionally realistic.
The section on "Sitters and Patrons" focuses on Schiele's extensive commissioned work, and portraits done during his enlistment in World War I. This section suffers the most from the traditional salon-style hanging method used throughout the exhibition. The knee-height or extremely lofty hanging of certain images denies an absorption of Schiele's subtleties. His patrons' portraits often have several incarnations and speak to the internal conflict of the upper crust. Publisher Eduard Kosmack regularly appears on the verge of a melt-down, his beady pupils and abrasive stare in direct contrast to stiff hands, often wrung with worry. Several portraits of Dr. Hugo Koller on display are caught somewhere between contemplative and sullen. Schiele denies Koller the luxury of eyes in an otherwise detailed portrait from 1918, likening him to the statues from his academic training. Women in this section rot in their pearls, bored, beckoning to the viewer seductively. Several ladies are physically in the process of disappearing—full bodies are rendered in pale watercolor washes and no outline, faint lines of colored crayon, or are missing limbs all together. The "pathos and unrest" of "souls under stress," a characteristic proposed by curator Alessandra Comini in the exhibition's introductory text, is inescapable in this arena of privilege.
To pin Schiele as pure doom and gloom on the grounds of his stormy color palate would be irresponsible - he had his own projected obsessions. Comini, a prestigious scholar of Schiele, does offer some lesser-known odd-ball works that make this apparent. Young boys, such as "Portrait of a Young Boy" (1910) or the several renderings of his painting pupil Erich Lederer, maintain a hopeful innocence with dilated, dewy pupils and boyish charm. His regular use of green as skin-tone, or back-handed humor when it comes to squinting figures (schielen means "to squint" in German) demand deeper consideration.
Toward the end of his life, Comini claims Schiele's works became more compassionate. Comini's projection manifests in several late oil portraits from 1918 in the exhibition, most notably "The Family." Schiele renders his own portrait for the male character, perched above a female figure with a toddler between her legs on the ground. The naked triad is healthy, bulky, with color infused into the outline of the bodies and their muscles. They float in amorphous, ominous space. Glaring at the viewer with urgency, the family is ready to escape the darkness of the cave with no clothes on their back. The color, in this case, empowers the individuals in the portrait, endowing them with a rags-to-riches dedication and hope. In Schiele's portraiture, suffering is the grand equalizer that colors experience - he's rendering skeletons in the closet, including his own. WM