To this writer there is hardly anything more moving in art; there are few artists whose work is more passionate and embracing of life’s dramatic emotions than that of Egon Schiele (1890 – 1918). He is one of the most impressive and highly influential geniuses, the kind who inspires us to live up to our own fullest creative potential. Someone, who in the course of his relatively short life achieved the extraordinary, creating a body of work speaks to the generations that follow.
There simply cannot be a bad Schiele exhibition. Certainly, one can discuss the success of any project in context to its curatorial ambitions or be disappointed by the selection of works in regards to a larger thesis. But in the case of the current Egon Schiele exhibition at the Neue Galerie, organized by its director Renée Price and featuring works from the collections of Ronald S. Lauder and the late Serge Sabarsky (both co-founders of the museum), nothing is more accurately descriptive than this: a rare luxury that is not to be missed.
In contrast to the Museum of Modern Art’s Egon Schiele: Masterpieces from the Leopold Collection, Vienna exhibition (1997–98), which included many of Schiele’s canvases focused on more universally symbolic themes, such as the circle of life and death, the current display essentially revolves around the artist’s drawings, most of which are self-portraits and intimate depictions of those who crossed his path. Because of its strong biographical perspective, this exhibition succeeds in revealing an unusually personal and humanistic side of the artist. From his family members to fellow art students in Vienna, nude models, colleagues, members of the Viennese bourgeoisie, his mistress Valerie Neuzil (Wally), and later, the sisters Adele and Edith Harms (he married the latter in 1915), Schiele’s subjects vibrate with a strong sense of longing and energy that is as much their own as it is a reflection of the artist’s. In fact, every drawn individual seems to hold a key to a deeper understanding of the artist, and hence manifests as self-portrait in disguise.
Within this context, a wide range of emotions can be traced. “Dreaming Woman” (1911) shows Schiele’s sister Gerti in profile, her eyes closed, her expression one of peaceful tranquility. Revealing Klimt’s early influence, her gown is elaborately patterned, almost functioning as a covering blanket to shield her from the cold or the examining gaze of the viewer. There is something soothing about this woman’s aura, and it becomes clear that in her, Schiele saw one of his most important confidants. While the portrait of Gerti is characterized by an almost tender handling of form, the overtly erotic drawings of Wally or primarily anonymous working-class models (some of whom were prostitutes) contain a sense of desperate aggression that vehemently clings to life as if all could be lost in a heartbeat.
“Wally in Red Blouse with Raised Knees” (1913) portrays the artist’s early muse in a red shirt, lying on her back. Covered in knee-high stockings, her legs are lifted up, leaving her underskirt to expose her flesh. She looks at us with large eyes, self-assured and at ease with her sexuality, a non-existent trait in the young society women of the early twentieth century. Much has been written about Schiele’s “pornographic” depictions of women as well as children, but I would argue that his intrigue was rather natural. I think that it is the carefree pleasure in relation to one’s own body as expressed in “Wally in Red Blouse with Raised Knees,” which in his time, Schiele exclusively found in professional prostitutes, his partner, and children, that was the attraction. In that sense, he was one of the first to advocate the liberation of the flesh and sexual confidence. Further, his self-portraits, such as “Self-Portrait with Red Eye,” (1910) which shows the artist in a slightly twisted pose, each line piercing the skeletal structure that lies beneath the fragile protection of the skin, describe a person who was examining his own physical limits and the pleasure of his body.
One of Schiele’s most touching paintings can be found on the Neue Galerie’s second floor. “Man and Woman I (Lovers)” (1914) stages the artist and Wally lying next to each other naked and sexually spent. Each angular bone and chiseled curve accentuates the inescapable drama of the scene, which describes the vulnerable moment when Schiele informed his lover that he would marry another woman. Whereas Schiele is looking straight at the viewer with a rebellious and confrontational clarity that is anything but apologetic, Wally’s pose embodies sheer emotional torment. Propped on her knees with her head hidden between her arms, her hand is cramped into a claw, yet holding on to nothing. Next to her lover she could not be more alone—a victim facing the shadows of the hardships to come. It is one of the most fascinating works of Schiele’s oeuvre as it is both heartbreakingly sensitive and cruel. Though obviously aware of the pain and devastation his decision has caused, Schiele chose to “exploit” this moment for his art. This is not a reminiscence of the past, but rather an immediate analysis of current affairs, conceived as a composition that was carefully planned in front of Schiele’s studio mirror (including Wally). Incredibly ambitious and incapable of breathing any fragment of life without processing it in his work, Schiele nature and his inexhaustible talent comes alives in “Man and Woman I (Lovers).”