Book Review: Egon Schiele

Mapping the soul of the Bad Boy of the art world, through Egon Schiele’s biography, his work and the times he lived in

Schiele’s Self Portrait | Courtesy of the Leopold Museum

Decay, Doppelgängers and Death

The turn of the last century was a dramatic time, transforming the West in almost every aspect and ultimately bringing about what became the Modern Age. European cities had grown over the 19th century, attracting large numbers of people who forsook rural areas for the jobs and opportunities, further broadening the gap between man and nature – not only in everyday life but, more importantly, in his perception of the World and his place in it.

Technological modernization had spawned new social classes inside bloated Empires, while centuries-old conventions were being challenged by scholars and artists in a feverish yearning for the new.

This time in the history of art is the central theme of Yale historian Peter Gay’s book Modernism: The Lure of Heresy (2007).  From Baudelaire to Beckett he offers an insightful study of how unconventional self-expression had come into full swing by the early 20th century. As novelists, painters and architects grew increasingly aware of each other, they became united with a single goal of transforming art into a reflection of one’s personal views on life, rather than a meticulous reproduction of it.

In Austria, the iconoclastic painters of the Wiener Sezession – Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka – all worked in that direction, often experiencing persecution and poverty but always true to their cause, they are today among the most revered artists the country has to offer.

Egon Schiele in particular has gathered a cult following over the past 20 years. This probably has something to do with his unofficial title of the Bad Boy of the Art World, due to the sexually explicit nature of his work and his early and rather tragic death at the age of 27. As we all know nothing is more romantic than fame and decadence dying young.

It is these themes that are portrayed in Lewis Crofts’ novelized biography of the artist, The Pornographer of Vienna (2007). The novel relates the stages of Schiele’s life from conception until his early death in the flu epidemic of 1917 giving the reader insight into his relationships with his family, his mentor (the hedonistic Gustav Klimt, who mostly appears naked or with an opium pipe), his mistresses and his persecutors.

Crofts attempts to mimic his heroes brush strokes in the rhythm of the words, as the writer conjures up an atmosphere of decay in Vienna streets and forgotten villages. But in the end, it just makes you want to look at one of Schiele’s landscapes. While the novel is thoroughly researched, it fails to explore the complexity of Schiele´s personality and his never-ending search for his true self, thus somehow overlooking the main source of his inspiration. Even when a substantial amount of his work is burnt and the painter himself is thrown in prison, he remains a surface image, just another misunderstood artist who meant well.

Gay’s Modernism: The Lure of Heresy, on the other hand, succeeds and then some. And while it may not mention Schiele, it provides an invaluable context for understanding his work. In a reflective analysis of the self-portraits of several other prominent painters of the time (Van Gogh, Ensor, Munch), it allows the reader to see how the masters sought to “capture their deepest personal responses to the World’’ in their quest for self-understanding. As entertaining as he is enlightening, Gay excels at explaining the era these Modernist artists shaped, the means they employed and the goals these painters, Schiele included, pursued. Thus it is close to an indispensable reference for anyone trying to find his way around the spiritual labyrinth that is art.

Four Trees | Courtesy of the Belvedere

A clearer picture of Schiele the artist is readily at hand in Reinhard Steiner’s Egon Schiele, the book examines the important aspects of the artist’s life that Lewis Crofts, in his turn, overlooks.  This extensive study by a scholar and an admirer of Schiele’s art will be a revelation – a glance into the painter’s extraordinary personality, his main inspirations and the philosophic movements that shaped the era. In addition, Steiner sheds light on Schiele’s understanding of the human condition generally, and of himself – these being by far the most important themes in the artist’s work.

Here Steiner links Schiele’s motifs to other trends in art and the prevailing views of the time, to his place in this bubble of decay and self-expression. When Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical atheism ceased to be a novelty, and the philosophic concern with the soul and its darker projections started becoming a major influence on so many artists, Schiele’s preoccupation with this mysterious world of Doppelgängers was in step with, rather than a departure from the thinking of his contemporaries.

Some hundred self-portraits suggest Schiele’s narcissism and point to his extraordinary fascination with his own self. Yet the awkwardness of the postures and a certain neurotic theatricality challenge these views.

What are these other than an exploration of the soul, a search for a darker, elemental being?

Schiele’s self-portraits seem to have been painted through the prism of a distorted mirror, reflecting the traits the painter does not seem to possess, and certainly doesn’t control, but rather of an alien, decadent self. This is also illustrated in Schiele’s photographs where the painter continues the study of his identity.

The book also includes a number of exerpts from Schiele’s letters and poems, which help to explain his attitudes, concerns and relationships with the key people in his life. By including them, Steiner gives the reader a powerful tool in understanding the reasons behind Schiele’s later shift to a kind of fleeting nostalgia in his landscapes, freed from his usual morbidity.

Here a new motif announces itself: Schiele assumes the role of a traumatized artist trying to put back together the broken pieces of a world shattered by a Great War.


The Pornographer of Vienna
By Lewis Crofts

Modernism: The Lure of Heresy
By Peter Gay

Egon Schiele
By Reinhard Steiner

All available at the MQ bookstore W. König

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