Egon Schiele: Artist, Iconoclast, Libertine, Pornographer

I recently went on a jag, looking for early nudes of Egon Schiele, the Austrian Expressionist who died at 28 in the great influenza pandemic of 1918, which swept the world and killed a third of its population. His career was necessarily short. Early work shows up in 1905, when he was 15, and he was prolific right up to the end, giving him 13 years of output.

My collection of his work is an offshoot of a project, which has taken years, to get the best digital copies of artwork I can. I started with the Impressionists. I always liked them, and their copyrights were mostly expired. I found all these different sources for images and ways to trade up to better copies. At some point, I realized that I had a better art collection than any French king. High quality images, suffused with light, and not small ones, either. I’d go for something in the 2–6MB range and more than 2000 pixels across if possible. And play them large across my 43” 3840x2160 Dell monitor. I found a screen saver that allows me to play them slowly enough so I can really look at them carefully. Sometimes, it’s hypnotizing.

In collecting digital art, I always tried to take only images I actually liked. There might be a dark and muddy Van Gogh from his early work, nothing like his dazzling final period. And so I’d skip it. But I also ran across images from artists I’d never heard of and sometimes found their work arresting. That’s how I found Schiele. He was technically an Expressionist, following a branch of art that evolved from Impressionism.

Here is one of his earliest efforts, from 1905, quite conventional.

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Melon, 1905

But it’s for his intimate scenes, particularly his nudes, that he is justifiably famous. By 1908, when he was 18, he had begun to paint nudes, both male and female, explicitly and with whatever distortions he felt he needed to capture their essence. Here’s one of the earliest that survives.

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Reclining Female Nude, 1908

He hit his stride in 1910, at 20 years old. Turning out frankly erotic work during a period when he himself was highly exploratory. Here’s one from that year.

Standing Female Nude, 1910

And, also from 1910, here’s one of his better known self-portraits.

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Kneeling Nude with Raised Hands (Self-Portrait), 1910

Once he found his sexuality, Schiele painted a flurry of erotic work, in the process brushing up against the boundaries of conventional Vienna. He sought refuge outside the city. In 1911, at 21, he fled to a Viennese suburb with his young mistress and favorite model, Wally Neuzil. They lived in bliss, and he painted her a lot. All the local delinquents dropped by, and he painted many of them. A sample of that year’s work is here.

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Two Reclining Nudes, 1911

Things were getting carried away by early 1912. Clearly, these people were having far too much fun. Schiele was arrested by local authorities and imprisoned for two months for something that amounted to pornography charges.

In prison, he felt sorry for himself and, of course, did self-portraits as well as one or two striking still lifes. Here’s one.

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Nicht gestraft, sondern gereinigt fühl ich mich 20.4.1912

After that, he toned it down a bit. (But not too much.)

His nudes remained highly erotic, but became stronger, subtler. He was known by the end of his life for his solid draftsmanship.

He began to show women who were sexual without being openly erotic, like this one.

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Liegende Frau in gelbem Kleid, 1914

He really was one of the great pornographers of his day. Photography existed but was still in its infancy and hadn’t yet taken over the depiction of the human form. In terms of evocativeness, Schiele’s work was as good as it got in the early 20th Century. And so he kept a sideline in explicit nudes right up to the end. Like this one from 1918.

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Two Reclining Nudes, 1918

But he also settled down and married a woman from a well-placed bourgeois family. When he painted Edith, it was an entirely different kettle of fish. They both died in the 1918 pandemic. She was pregnant with his child at the time. Total wipe out. He had no survivors. Here’s one of her from their last year together.

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Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Seated, 1918

So, he smoothed out somewhat and became more sensitive as he matured. He treated his models with more respect, often depicting their faces and characters as much as their bodies.

And that’s all great, but I wanted more of the pre-arrest stuff, when he was a rock ’n’ roller, the age the Beatles were when they first made it big. He was full of juice and fearless before his run-in with the law, and ever after he was a bit self-conscious and cautious. But that earlier period is thinly populated with existing work.

It turns out that the Austrian authorities destroyed much of his 1911 output, which they confiscated when they arrested him. A judge even burned one in court as a demonstration of his disapproval. I’m sure no one knew that individual pictures of his would reach prices as high as $22 million a century later.

Schiele fits into a small pantheon of my favorite iconoclastic and independent artists, writers, poets, and musicians. He is spiritual cousin to people like Isaac Babel, Fela Kuti, and Allen Ginsberg.

  • Isaac Babel made no apologies for observing nature as it was, without shame, with an eye for detail and a sense of humor. As a Jew with the Cossacks of the Red Army during the campaign in Poland in the 1920s, he described his experiences with unsparing but wry candor. He also told outrageous tales of Jewish gangsters of Odessa.
  • Fela Kuti, a Nigerian singer, declared his house an independent state, free from the corruption of the Nigerian ruling class, and in particular from Olusegun Obasanjo, the general who took over the country and whose soldiers beat and raped Kuti’s family and threw his mother out a second floor window, killing her. He and his followers carried her coffin to Obasanjo’s Army barracks in protest. His mighty music still inspires people throughout the world.
  • Allen Ginsberg poked right in the eye of America’s Puritanical culture and pompousness in the 1950s with his beat poetry. His poem Howl was seized by authorities in 1956, back when it was still possible to “seize” a literary work. Imagine trying that in today’s digital world.

Like them, Schiele expressed the realities of his senses, what his world showed him, including the intensity of his own carnal craving (and that of his models). Fringe characters, all, but these are my kinda people. Their iconoclasm gives me a belly laugh and takes my cares away, if only for a moment. I appreciate that.

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