Each week, we bring you the backstory of work featured in our collection, written by a member of our curatorial team.
Self Portrait with Physalis, 1912, oil on canvas, Leopold Museum
“Art cannot be modern. Art is primordially eternal.” — Egon Schiele
by Haley Temin, Associate Curator
The social phenomenon of sexuality in the public consciousness, specifically in regards to women, can be traced back as far as the 1800s (and possibly well before that). The Victorian era, which is known for its high morals and sensible behavior, set the tone for decades of societal and cultural beliefs regarding the role of women and sexuality. The emphasis on female purity and the role of women as the “homemaker” contributed to the time's repression and corruption, and established what is known today as the golden “double standard”. It wasn’t until the later part of the nineteenth century that the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud developed a dialogue for psychoanalysis; his radical ideas aided in bridging the gap between gender repression and human’s innate sexual desires.
The Embrace, 1917, oil on canvas, Osterreichisches Galerie, Vienna, Austria
A largely misunderstood and tortured artist for much of his life, Austrian Expressionist Egon Schiele, much like the efforts of Sigmund Freud, redrew the dividing line between art and female sexuality. Known for his distorted, often graphic style, Schiele’s erotically charged sketches and drawings of the human figure portrayed a bold defiance of conventional forms of beauty and distinguished him from the rest of the modernist artists of the time. Born and raised in Vienna, Schiele was considered a strange child from an early age—fascinated with the female form, he often displayed inappropriate, sometimes incestuous behavior toward his younger sister, Gertrude; enchanted by her form, she was his first muse. It was from here that he began his obsession, exploring the inner psyche and emotional state of the figure he was drawing and challenging the traditional way people viewed the female body. He illustrated an unprecedented level of emotional and sexual directness in his portraits through the distortion and mangled rendering of the body and flesh, redefining people’s notions of beauty. His depiction of the distorted human form can also directly correlate to the artist’s own view of the fragility of life and the terrifying realities of physical existence.
Crouching Nude Girl, 1914, drawing, Leopold Museum
Schiele was an artist ahead of his time, embracing the role of women and showing that sex is beautiful and that the body can be poetic. Unfortunately, while Egon’s works aimed to embrace a joyous and unique perspective on the human psyche and the erotic and emotional intensity he captured through his female forms, it was during a time where sexuality (and women in general) was still very much denounced. Many people disapproved of the artist’s lifestyle (as he developed a keen ability to connect with his subjects, his studio becoming the gathering place for delinquent youth of the town), but it was the same emotional bond and sensitivity toward his female models that was responsibile for his powerful lines and muted palette. In April of 1912, Schiele was arrested for, apparently, seducing a young girl below the age of consent. Upon his arrest, police discovered and seized over a hundred of Schiele’s drawings and sketches, considering them “pornographic”. Although the charges were dropped, the arrest and three days spent in jail took a large toll on the artist, rendering some depressing self-portraits of his discomforts and difficulties while in his cell.
Egon Schiele was an astoundingly prolific artist in a time that simply wasn’t ready for such bold and daring subject matter. His promiscuous lifestyle, followed by notoriety and scandal made him a very radical figure for his time. Sadly, he passed away at the mere age of twenty eight from influenza but his works remain unparalleled, producing some of the finest examples of drawing to come out of the 20th century. He put women at the center of his art, pushing society to reevaluate what they believed to be obscene, erotic, and pornographic in many ways. His passionate love for women and the female form is illuminated through his works as he not only lusts after them, but genuinely adored each subject he depicted. Despite his short-lived career, the passion and desire behind Egon Schiele’s tragic, yet seductive works, continue to gain the success and recognition they deserve in today’s more accepting culture.
Kneeling Girl, Resting on Both Elbows, 1917, drawing, Leopold Museum