During my first year studying figure drawing, a fellow student brought a book on Egon Schiele to class. It was a revelation. After months of taking Michelangelo, Raphael, and Rubens as role models, here was the work of someone who sang directly and urgently of the body electric. Students are ever introducing one another to hitherto unknown masters, but Schiele has for generations represented a special sort of discovery for young artists. He dealt with self-loathing and sexuality up front—he was the proto-punk. And he could really draw.
Lest we’ve forgotten just how well he could draw, Egon Schiele: Portraits is on display at Neue Galerie until January 19. The show opens with a series of drawings Schiele made as a youngster, while studying at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. Not surprisingly, the traditional curriculum didn’t suit Schiele, and he soon found a sympathetic mentor in Gustav Klimt. There are a lot of qualities the two share, including a dedication to erotica (the third gallery of the current exhibition is devoted to “eros” and “lovers”) and a strong dose of non-conformity. But I think the primary quality the two had in common was a conception of the figure as existing in a creative hothouse, isolated from the real world.
Once Schiele left school he abandoned the illusionism of light and shadow. In none of his independent work is there an identifiable light source with which forms are modeled. Line was all he needed. A master of the unbroken contour, Schiele could suggest the living swells and valleys of a figure so dexterously that any elaboration by means of value would have been, well, academic.
The show is comprised mostly of drawings, though there are a few major canvases interspersed, and these remind us that Schiele’s nonpareil draftsmanship provided the framework for his rapid development as a painter. Two of the large oil portraits are especially intimate: Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Standing (Edith Schiele in Striped Dress) (1915), and Portrait of Johann Harms (1916). (I’m omitting The Family because it’s an allegory, a tragic fantasy rather than a group portrait; Schiele, his wife, and unborn child were all taken by the Spanish Flu before he could finish the canvas).
The painting of Edith Schiele (née Harms) has long attracted comment for the subject’s vacuous appearance, evidence of her puritanical bourgeois background—decades later, Edith’s sister expressed indignation that Schiele had made her look dumb. Maybe, but I wonder if the artist was reluctantly coming to grips with a female image that didn’t rely on sexual energy as a leitmotif. If Schiele was searching for a different context, one that attempted to confront his wife on something other than a libidinous level, he need only have looked to Klimt, who had painted similarly doll-like representations. Yet a comparison between the artists finds that Schiele’s painting is more personal. Edith’s expression, often characterized as vapid, strikes me as mildly amused, and probably a little shell-shocked in the presence of her new husband’s intensity. I’d like to go against the conventional interpretation of the portrait, and venture that the tenderness with which Schiele painted Edith’s face is a welcome change from the anxiety that was his default mode. It’s such a departure that the balance of scholarship on the artist hasn’t gotten it quite right yet. Nearly alone in Schiele’s oeuvre, the palette of Portrait of the Artist’s Wife hints at the potential for happiness.
The painting itself is a gorgeous piece of drawing, as well as a sophisticated color essay, Edith’s dress supplying dozens of chromatic stripes that vibrate against a white backdrop—it’s a color field painting a half century early. The likely reference was a black and white striped dress fashioned from the artist’s studio curtains, so the painted garment was a fabrication in more ways than one.
Portrait of the Artist’s Wife traveled from The Hague for this show; Portrait of Johann Harms journeyed a few blocks from its home at the Guggenheim. Johann Harms was Schiele’s father-in-law, and the two got on well; they must have, for Harms to have consented to such an unconventional and cheerless image. A portrait of aged resignation, Johann Harms is a stark contrast to that of Harms’ daughter. The one is filled with light and tentative promise, the other a densely painted variation of grays, blacks and earth colors enlivened, as always, by a restlessly descriptive line. Harms slumps wearily in a hard wooden chair, as if primed to slide off it and right out of the canvas. One of the twentieth century’s great portraits of old age, it reveals Schiele’s ripening maturity, his ability to observe and record the human condition outside of his own immediate experience.
The difference between the two canvases, in terms of palette, paint handling, and sensitivity to independent personalities, ought to partially satisfy those who bemoan the artist’s premature death. By the age of 28, Schiele had already created a phenomenal and varied life’s work, evolving from enfant terrible to a perceptive observer of the human condition. Now, nearly a hundred years after his death, a student is more likely to first encounter him on an iPad than a printed page, but the jolt of recognition remains the same.