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Egon Schiele’s superstar status

[10 Jul 2018]

For better or for worse, Egon Schiele enjoys an almost rock-star reputation in the art world. Scandalous subjects…models from the Vienna slums… a Bohemian lifestyle frowned upon by bourgeois morality… time spent in jail… and an early death. A hundred years later, Egon Schiele is still a controversial artist.

This year the death of Egon SCHIELE (1890-1918) will be commemorated by several events in different locations. In Vienna, the Leopold Museum is presenting a centenary exhibition until 11 November 2018. Inaugurated in 2001 and uniting the private collection once owned by Rudolf and Elisabeth Leopold, the museum houses the world’s largest collection of Egon Schiele works. The exhibition is based on the museum’s stock as well as a number of high quality loans. From 3 October 2018 to 14 January 2019, the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris is proposing to juxtapose the enfant terrible of the 1910s with a more recent art world rebel, Jean-Michel Basquiat, in two simultaneous exhibitions. The Schiele selection will include about eighty drawings, gouaches and paintings, with quality loans like the Národní gallery’s Pregnant Woman and Death (1911) from Prague and the Morgan Library’s Portrait of the artist’s wife seated holding her right leg (1917). In short… with Egon Schiele enjoying superstar status in 2018, we take this opportunity to refresh our memories regarding this singular artist.

From rift to scandal…

Remarkably mature for his age and already marked by the successive death of his father and his older sister, Egon Schiele entered the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts in 1906 (the same Academy that rejected a certain Adolf Hitler two years later). Feeling constricted in the framework of what he considered an overly classical curriculum, he broke with his teachers and founded the “Group for New Art” with his friends Anton Peschka, Hans Böhler and Franz Wiegele. He also formed a close relationship with the Vienna Secession and its leader, Gustav Klimt. Despite the thirty-year age gap between them, both shared a desire to free themselves from existing codes and to ‘renew’ art. Schiele borrowed much from Klimt… abandoning backgrounds… even covering them in gold. But he showed greater interested in the torments of the soul and expressing the inevitability of death… in a Vienna much influenced by Freud’s early work on psychoanalysis. Some of Schiele’s top auction results have rewarded works from this period, such as his superb Porträt des Malers Anton Peschka (1909) which fetched $11.3 million at Sotheby’s London in 2001. The portrait is large, almost square, and the hands of the subject (who later became his brother-in-law) are painted in the style that became so characteristic of his later work.

That same year (1909) marked a turning point in his career: Schiele participated in a public exhibition in Klosterneuburg and presented his works at the International Exhibition of Fine Arts in Vienna (Internationale Kunstschau) where he established his first contacts with collectors and art world personalities who remained faithful friends until he died. These included Otto Wagner and Josef Hoffmann, the all-powerful director of the Vienna Art Workshops. Thereafter, the pace of Schiele’s artistic development accelerated and he began to distance himself from his master. He starting dating Wally Neuzil, Klimt’s former model, and used her as a model for lots of works.

In the early 1910s after his first exhibitions, his often erotic drawings began to bring him success in spite of (or possibly because of) the scandalised reactions of the Viennese bourgeoisie. In 1912 he was accused of corrupting young girls and ended up in prison for breaching public morality. Upon his release, the influence of his artistic ‘mentor’ intensified. Determined to defy the establishment, he painted The Cardinal and Nun (Caress), a sort of ‘variation’ on Klimt’s The Kiss. The painting concentrates all of his apprenticeship, as well as his frustrations and anxieties, placing the transgressive subject at the center of a composition where a powerful death-wish confronts an equally vigorous vitality. In March 1918, the 49th Secession exhibition showed a large volume of Schiele’s work, much of which was sold, with lots of new orders placed. Egon Schiele was at the peak of his career when he and his wife contracted the so-called ‘Spanish flu’ that swept through Europe after WWI. He died three days after the death of his wife Edith and the child she was carrying.

Landscapes… and bodies

It is not surprising that Schiele’s paintings and drawings of houses and landscapes fetch the highest bids. They are mature works that are particularly rare on the market. Schiele’s landscapes do not reflect geographical reality, but they reveal the emotional state of their creator. There are ‘visions’ and ‘reminiscences’… happy or melancholic atmospheres painted from memory. The small houses of colored mosaics are genuine interior landscapes…‘personal vibrations’. And while the public is fairly familiar with his tormented bodies, this essential dimension of his work is much less well known despite its higher higher financial value. The highest price ever paid for a work by the artist was for Houses with laundry Suburb II. In 2011, the painting rocketed to $40 million at Sotheby’s in London, almost doubling the artist’s previous auction record. Wealthy buyers are quite happy to pay extra millions when it comes to undeniably museum-quality works. Provenance is another major value factor. In this case, the $40 million rewarded a painting from the famous Rudolf Leopold collection (founder of the Leopold Museum in Vienna) previously owned by Heinrich Böhler (a rich industrialist and patron of the artist)… an impeccable and prestigious provenance. The painting is also one of the artist’s most accomplished works; but not all his works from this period attract such intense demand. Last year, a canvas of similar dimensions and subject matter to Houses with Laundry was presented at Christie’s in London (Einzelne Häuser, 27 June 2017) but failed to sell despite alow estimate of $25 million that looked distinctly modest compared with his $40 million record.

However, Schiele soon abandoned landscapes in favour of an intense focus on Man and his torments. His first subject was himself… followed by the insane… and women: his models were his mistresses, but also children and prostitutes. Schiele drew quickly and a produced lot of works. His drawings represent more than 50% of his works offered in public sales and his drawings of gnarled bodies are difficult to acquire for under $300,000 as his drawing style is considered highly characteristic of his work. For Schiele, drawing was valuable for its immediacy, its spontaneity and even its incompleteness; coloring was probably secondary and only used to strengthen the expression he wanted to give his subject. His style evolved progressively, giving the curved parts of the body angular forms highlighted by fine and precise lines. His famous self-portraits depict him as literally and figuratively ‘skinned alive’. The masterpiece Seated Male Nude (self-portrait) – that the Leopold Museum will no doubt feature at the Centennial Exhibition – is a almost a manifesto of his style. The skin is a deathly putrid colour. Schiele dwells on the nerves and torsion lines of the body more than curves or muscles. Crazy hair… a feverish look… a tortured body, the artist accepts and returns a distressing image of himself.

Despite its recent ‘rediscovery’, Schiele’s work – classified as ‘degenerate’ by the Nazi regime – is unlikely to lose its shock value any time soon. The poster campaign marking the centenary of his death throughout Europe this year has been censored by a number of municipalities, including those of London, Cologne and Hamburg. The Vienna Tourist Board has therefore decided to send out new posters with the genitals masked by a touch of humour: Sorry, 100 years old and still too bold!

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