“Egon Schiele: Portraits” presented by the Neue Galerie offers a comprehensive study of the Austrian artist’s development. As the first American exhibition to feature only the rebellious painter’s work, the presentation feels like a formal introduction. Schiele was something of an art bad-boy, doing a stint in prison, sleeping with models, and producing pornography. The biographical nature of the exhibit lays out the tensions of Schiele’s life, which led to work that is angular, dark, and authentic.
When Schiele entered the Vienna Academy of Fine arts at the precocious age of seventeen, his predecessor and mentor Gustav Klimt was already an established artist and was questioning the abrasive confinement of the enforced traditional artistic canon. Desiring to find his own way, he founded the Vienna Secession, which welcomed experimental methods and scandalous subject matter. Klimt developed the decorative technique he is so well-known for at this time—his Adele Bloch-Bauer I is on display on the museum’s second floor. Klimt’s search for novelty certainly influenced Schiele.
Schiele’s life was full of confinement: an uncle who was unsupportive of his artistic endeavors, time spent in a prison cell, and a restrictive but dominant set of traditional aesthetic values stood against him. By nature, Schiele was resistant. Each drawing, no matter how small, is embedded with a desire to break boundaries and cross lines.
Schiele obediently sketched charcoal renderings of portraits from ancient sculptures for his schoolwork, as displayed in the first gallery, but was quickly drawn into the growing underbelly of Viennese art. The first space features portraits of members of Schiele’s Neukunstgruppe (“New Art Group”) which paved the way for the jagged, dynamic figures that became his signature. His portrait of Karl Zakovsek is highly-stylized, rendering the man as emaciated, tired, and ragged. Bony blue fingers trail off towards the bottom, and the tilted composition feels unstable, like he may slide right off the page.
The exhibition is obviously focused on portraits; many of social elite, or homeless children. His most compelling work features self-portraits and drawings of young women in provocative poses. His relationship with the human body is frank and direct, the subject of Reclining Woman with Green Stockings stares seductively straight at you. Schiele’s self-portrait as a martyred St. Sebastian is a simply haunting barren charcoal sketch.
Part of the beauty of Schiele’s works lies in their incompleteness. Many of the most emotionally piercing images are simple contour sketches without any color fill. At times Schiele chooses to let an image trail off, drawing the head and neck but deliberately leaving the canvas blank below the shoulders. Schiele rarely depicted background imagery. The negative space forces the viewer to look at the faces, and often into the eyes—sometimes downcast, eyeing sideways in conspiracy, or aimed at the viewer, almost accusingly.
Schiele isn’t interested in comfort, which is part of what makes his work so mesmerizing. His portraits create images of humanity at their most vulnerable. One feels compelled to extend compassion to the poor souls he captures. From wealthy supporters to homeless youth, Schiele manages to capture a certain melancholy that unites us all.
Written by Rowanne Dean