The Oxford historians' discovery of Vienna

A Schiele Exhibition at the Albertina, Vienna (22 February – 18 June 2017)

The rediscovery of the Austrian artist Egon Schiele (1890-1918) is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the 1960s, it was still possible for the Burlington Magazine, one of the most highly respected art history journals, to describe Schiele’s paintings as “daubs on public lavatories.” Few nowadays would think of referring to Schiele’s works in such disparaging terms. The Leopold Museum in Vienna, opened in 2001, largely thrives on its excellent collection of Schiele. The current show at the Albertina, another important museum in Vienna, includes mostly, but not only, Schiele works from the Albertina’s own quite impressive collection. The exhibition is one of the major cultural events going on at the moment in the Austrian capital.

Fig.1: Poster in the entrance hall of the Albertina, showing Schiele's Self-Portrait with a Peacock Waistcoat (1911)

Even a quick glance reveals that the purpose has been to show a comprehensive overview of Schiele’s artistic evolution. The very first painting is a self-portrait that Schiele painted at the age of sixteen, when he was accepted as a student at the Arts Academy in Vienna. Nearby is a nude from the same period – a beautiful woman, gracefully reclining on a sofa. Both genres – the self-portrait and the nude – would become Schiele’s hallmarks. What a difference, though, in the style of depiction! From 1909 onwards, the viewer is taken into a world of contorted figures, grimacing faces, twisted, sickly-looking bodies. The year is revealing and Schiele scholars have pointed out that it was in 1909 that Schiele came into his own and developed an approach to his subject-matter that is highly idiosyncratic and recognizable.

What happened in 1909? Among other things, there was an exhibition in Vienna, at which the French artist Rodin exhibited 120 of his drawings. Very likely Schiele saw the Rodin pieces. Rodin’s approach to drawing was that of a sculptor. He draws nudes by looking at them as figures in the round – from the front, from the back, from the top, from oblique angles. Schiele’s women are drawn, similarly, from the most unexpected perspectives and in the most unconventional postures. Some of Rodin’s subjects are present with Schiele as well – women making love and women,as well as the artist himself in the case of Schiele, shown in the act of sexual self-gratification.

Another source of this particular subject-matter and its explicit treatment lies with Japanese erotic art, known as shunga, which was an acknowledged influence on Klimt, Schiele, and many of the Viennese avant-garde. In this sense, it would be useful to see the current exhibition in the context provided by the exhibition on shunga, that was running at the MAC in Vienna until recently (see exhibition review at: http://indeptharttours.com/art-news/an-exhibition-of-japanese-erotic-art-at-the-mak-in-vienna-12-10-2016-29-01-2017-vile-pictures-in-the-best-style/).

Among the several self-portraits of Schiele, the present show has pushed into the foreground the one known as Self-Portrait with Peacock Waistcoat (1911) (Fig.1). This was the image that was chosen for the exhibition poster. It is representative of Schiele’s oeuvre in several ways. There is a focus on the face and hands, partly achieved through the colour scheme. The hand in a V-gesture is a well-known and recurrent motif in Schiele’s works. The first room of the present exhibition shows an enlarged photograph of the artist, in which he is posing with one of his hands in exactly the same gesture. The critical literature on Schiele has pointed to one of the sources of this gesture, namely the photographic albums of the mentally insane, which were very popular at the time and which attracted attention to the bodily symptoms of hysteria and other diseases. Aestheticizing madness and disease was, indeed, a common trend in fin-de-siècle art.

Fig. 2: Christ from the Chora Monastery, Constantinople; mosaic, early 14th century

It is interesting that the current exhibition does not pay attention to this much studied aspect of Schiele’s art. Instead, we are invited to view Schiele’s self-portrait alongside an image of Christ from the Chora Monastery in Constantinople (Fig.2) from a volume of Byzantine art, exhibited in the space in front of the self-portrait. As is common in Byzantine iconography, Christ is holding the Gospel Book – and his hand is positioned in the same V-shape that we see in the Schiele painting. This volume was available in the library of the Arts Academy in Vienna at the time that Schiele was studying there and, the argument goes, it is very possible that Schiele saw it and borrowed the hand gesture from there. The interpretation is both intriguing and unusual.

The show runs in several more rooms – portraits and self-portraits of grimacing, unhappy-looking and contorted figures, nudes represented in the oddest and often most unattractive poses. Schiele’s world is not a happy one, it is profoundly disturbing. The works are, at the same time, one of the strongest visualizations of the vulnerable and unstable human condition that there is. The very last image, a photograph of the twenty-year old Schiele on his deathbed, showing a handsome young man in a state of complete repose and tranquility, comes almost as a shock.

Select bibliography:
- Comini, A., (ed.), Egon Schiele: Portraits, (Munich and London, 2014)
- Resnik, Salomon, “The Hands of Schiele”, International Forum of Psychoanalysis, vol.9, number 1-2, 2000, pp.113-123
- Werkner, P., (ed.), Egon Schiele: Art, Sexuality, and Viennese Modernism, (Palo Alto, Cal., 1994)

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