The Arty Bit: Ah Bliss, Egon Schiele

egon-schiele.jpgAs many of you may have noticed, my past few articles have mainly been concerned with the Young British Artist’s movement. However, dear readers, this week I find myself awake at some dark hour between one and two a.m. on the night of the daylight savings time changeover – a time, it appears, that does not truly exist. Instead I have travelled fantastically and inconceivably through time, beginning at one, and somehow instantly arriving at two with no real idea of how I got there, and feeling slightly bemused at the fact that my watch has not joined me in my adventure through time, and remains at around two minutes past one. I therefore feel the need for a rare indulgent pleasure. Sarah Lucas and Tracy Emin begone! There is no place for you here. This is a moment to reflect upon a true master of his craft – nevertheless equally if not more controversial in his day. I could be talking about a vast multitude of artists of course, Van Gogh perhaps, maybe even the great Picasso. But tonight it so happens that I am going to enlighten you lucky souls with a tale both great and tragic, for this is the story of Egon Schiele…

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Schiele was born in Austria in 1890, or more correctly Austria-Hungary as it was known at the time, in a railway station in Tulln – a place that seems to aptly reflect the modern industrial times Austria-Hungary found itself thrown into in the latter half of the 1800s. The early years of his life too represent this harsh age well. Three previous stillbirths overshadowed his own birth and Egon, as the only boy in his family, went on to lose his ten-year-old sister at three, and his father at only fifteen. To make matters worse for the family, in a fit of insanity before his syphilis induced death, Schiele’s father burned all the family’s stocks and savings, leaving them destitute. As if his dramatic death wasn’t enough, Schiele’s father subsequently returned to Egon as “a ghost who presented himself to me in a dream before waking”.schiele1.jpg

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After this traumatic childhood of grief and poverty, one might expect nowadays for Schiele to go out, buy a hoodie, and go out happy-slapping to numb the pain. Alas! the young Egon was destined for greater things. His uncle assumed joint custody and seemed to recognise the boy’s aptitude for drawing – in 1906, at the age of only sixteen, Schiele sat and passed the entrance examination of the Academy of Visual Arts in Vienna first time (interestingly a young Hitler attempted but failed this very same exam). There, he studied under the painter Karl Ludwig Strauch, but was frustrated at the school’s conservatism and upon completion of the course sought out the marvellous Gustav Klimt, a mysterious man who perhaps we shall chance across in later weeks.

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Klimt supported many young artists, but took a particular liking to Schiele and generously supported his talent for the rest of the young genius’ life. Klimt and Schiele frequently exchanged drawings with each other and Klimt even modelled for Egon. At this time many of Schiele’s models were generally poor prostitutes. He preferred women with child-like bodies; many of his paintings portray gaunt, skeletal figures characterising lower class status. At the time Vienna’s number of prostitutes was one of the highest per capita of any European city, yet many of the bourgeoisie refused to believe, or pretended that prostitution was not an issue in this classy city. Schiele however both accepted and exposed the business, putting highly charged paintings of nude, often masturbating girls, on show in galleries. Schiele’s simple drawings suggest a basic acceptance of a girl selling her body to earn her daily food, and also reflect upon the way the lower levels of society at the time dealt with sexuality.

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3251_11.jpgSchiele’s women are painted in an extremely erotic fashion, with a distinct lack of colour apart from red or pink on the lips, nipples and genitals, and darkening around the eyes. Paintings such as The One Contemplated in Dreams, where the model spreads her vagina open, were hugely shocking at the time, and many today still understandably find them upsetting. The Viennese public were outraged and lashed out at Schiele, claiming that his work was depraved and disgusting, whilst he laughed at their own hypocritical sexuality. In a letter he wrote “Dong an awful lot of advertising with my prohibited drawings”, so was clearly aware of the publicity he was receiving through this controversy. However, Schiele had always drawn like this – as a boy he would draw his sister Gertrude nude; therefore this was not merely a stunt to receive attention by Schiele, as grateful as he undoubtedly was for it.

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After much success in Vienna, in 1911 Schiele ran away from the city. “Vienna is full of shadows, the city is black”, he writes in his diary. With a former model and lover, Valerie Neuzil (who was still under the age of consent), he moved to Neulengbach, a country village near Vienna. Schiele’s house became a haven for young people in the village, where they could ‘sleep, recuperate from parental lashings, and lazily loll about’. However, the locals were highly suspicious of Schiele, and in April 1912 the father of a thirteen-year-old girl who had run away from home reported Schiele for kidnapping. Although the charges were dropped, the police discovered Schiele’s lover was undegelber_maennerakt.jpgr-age, and that children had seen his ‘indecent’ drawings, and arrested Egon, charging him with endangering public morality. Schiele watched as the judge burned one of his drawings in court, and sentenced him to twenty four days in prison, where he produced a number of self-portraits.

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In 1914 war broke out between Austria-Hungary and Serbia and in 1915, four days after marrying Edith Harms, Schiele was inducted into military service. In 1916 he was held in a Russian prisoner of war camp, and did not return to Vienna until 1917. Upon his return Schiele wrote to his brother-in-law saying “Since the bloody terror of war befell us, some will probably have become aware that art is more than just a matter of middle-class luxury.” Schiele began working again, with his wife as his primary model.

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Following the death of Klimt and the exile of Kokoschka, Egon Schiele became the most celebrated artist in Vienna. However, on 31st October 1918 Egon Schiele died from the Spanish flu, three days after his six-month pregnant wife. Three days later, the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed, and the end of the war followed quickly.

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Perhaps it is because of his short, tragic and dramatic life that Schiele is remembered, after all his productive life as an artist barely lasted ten years. However, in this time he produced three hundred and thirty four oil paintings and over two thousand five hundred drawings. Schiele also stands out as a brutal contrast to other work of the time. In comparison to the organic shapes of the art nouveau movement of the early 1900s, Schiele’s lines are sharp, angular and aggressive. 04schieledrawing.jpgNevertheless, with a tiny amount of detail Schiele was able to provide the viewer with an incredible amount of information, and this is where his true talent lay. The fascinating and captivating aspect of Egon Schiele’s work is in the contrast between his obtrusive invasion of his models’ privacy and the delicate beauty within his work. The subject itself was sordid and sexual, often with undertones of violence, poverty and pain, and whilst Schiele’s work reflects this, it is also shockingly elegant and beautiful. Hence the viewer finds himself seduced by the work, despite its dark undertones. Schiele’s work is complex and disturbing, and yet can be appreciated at any level, due to the aesthetic qualities and craftsmanship of the images, something that seems to be missing in much of today’s conceptual art.

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Hence, Egon Schiele is a rare pleasure of mine, a gem from an older time when video art, reality tv and drum ‘n’ bass were but distant fears. Apologies to those I have bored this week, I appreciate it has been more of a biography than a discussion, but Schiele is an artist I really do love and would recommend you all to check out. And next week I’ll try to dig up some dirt on a really foul artist, the kind who’d shit in a jar and put it in a gallery, just to keep all you seedy bastards happy. I promise.

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Filed under Art, Hashmark Art, The Arty Bit

2 responses to “The Arty Bit: Ah Bliss, Egon Schiele

  1. Thank you for sharing bits and pieces of the life of Egon Schiele, a true pleasure to absorb and get lost in his art, such expressively bold and beautiful art!
    I am in awe when looking at the way he paints and draws the human figure, he had such zeal.

    anyhow, thank you again,

  2. I do not even understand how I ended up here, but I assumed this publish was once good. I don’t understand who you might be however definitely you are going to a well-known blogger in case you are not already 😉 Cheers!

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