100 years on, new information about Schiele’s sexuality and gender identity reveals a fluid gaze in his erotic nudes
Due in part to the timelessness of sex and sensuality, 20th-century Austrian artist Egon Schiele – famed for his sensual nude portraits and grotesque, contorted bodies – still has a trusty, cult following 100 years after his death. Shows of his works are currently open in Vienna and New York City, and London, marking the centenary of his death, with fans visiting in droves.
It has long been thought that the artist’s catalogue of erotically-charged nudes of women from the male gaze represents raw heterosexuality. But, 100 years on, new information about Schiele’s sexuality and gender identity lifts the lid on his enduring legacy to reveal something far more.
Last year, Jane Kallir, a renowned Schiele scholar and co-director of New York’s Galerie St. Etienne, launched the Kallir Research Institute dedicated almost entirely to the expressionist artist. She now believes that underlying the hetero gaze of the auteur we’ve come to know is, in fact, a story of sexual fluidity and queerness.
“(He was) struggling with his own sexual feelings and gender norms, and I think that is where his work very much speaks to people’s concerns today,” says Kallir. “We are questioning gender norms and so was he.”
The contorting, androgynous limbs and potent, clothesless figures in Schiele’s portraits transcended gender binaries. Schiele was certainly questioning his own gender on an “unconscious or preconscious” level, says Gerald Izenberg, a Schiele essayist and celebrated historian on the concept of self.
The artist defined himself as hyper-masculine and wanted his outward expression to be that of a “male genius and male creator”, says Izenberg. Affirmations of this can be found in Schiele’s portrait of himself with an obscenely large penis.
“You have the feeling he protests too much,” he says. “On one hand (the portrait) says ‘I’m potent, I’m powerful’, on the other hand, the need to do that indicates a good deal of self-doubt or a good deal of self-questioning... Hyper-masculinity always conceals very deep doubts about one’s own gender identity.”
While Schiele identified intensely with the female gender, he worked very hard to counteract it through overt open masculinity and hypersexuality, explains Izenberg. “But it was inescapable.”
“He was unmoored from gender norms, and that is a huge legacy” – Jane Kallir
The similarities between his self-portraits and paintings of women – blank backgrounds, white auras around the body, and the addition of large hands with long fingers like his own in his female nudes – are examples, says Izenberg, of Schiele’s connection to femininity.
“He was unmoored from gender norms, and that is a huge legacy,” says Kallir
As well as questioning his gender, Kallir believes Schiele was sexually fluid. Through her research, Kallir recently found that Schiele’s male nudes from 1910, known as his “Red Men” – which have long been assumed to be self-portraits – were, in fact, depictions of gay men.
“From the positions, the poses, the point of view, the masking of the identity, Schiele’s self-portraits were explorations of self, and his face, his mark, is very much a part of that,” she says, “so these are explorations of male sexuality undertaken by looking at other men’s bodies.”
Many of Schiele’s other portraits from 1910 and 1911, such as “Two Hugging Women” (1911) – a raw watercolour of a female embrace – and “Eros” (1911), can be characterised as depictions of sexual fluidity, says Kallir. Paintings of same-sex couples between 1914 and 1915 allude to this further, such as Schiele’s “Two Women” (1915), which features lesbian lovers with their arms wrapped around each other depicting queer lust.
Although he had a well-documented relationship with his muse Wally Neuzil from 1911 and married the well-to-do Edith Harms in 1916, two years before his early death aged 28, Schiele had a brief relationship with a man in 1910.
"Though a lot of critics refrain from commenting upon the queer nature of his paintings and his nude self-portraits, his paintings cannot, however, be separated from the question of sexuality and voyeurism of same-sex depictions,” one critic said in a post on Gaysi Family, a platform for LGBT South Asians. “The early modern period was the time of questions and change, and for that reason alone, one cannot escape the pending question of Schiele’s paintings and their queer nature.”
Given that homosexuality was strictly forbidden in early-20th century Vienna, Schiele may have intentionally blurred the sexual lines in his portraits to avoid censorship and even arrest. “(Homosexuality) was absolutely not only forbidden but if it were even whispered that you were gay, much less openly out, that was the end of you socially and professionally,” says Kallir.
Schiele already knew about the consequences of his works of art that have been called erotic, and even grotesque, by critics. In Schiele’s time – an era during which there were shifts in art and society – his work was considered pornographic and offensive by both conservative Viennese authorities and the public.
But while his work can be characterised as holding a certain queerness, it cannot be known for sure what Schiele’s sexual orientation was. “We have to caution over interpreting things we can’t know,” says Kallir.
“(He was) struggling with his own sexual feelings and gender norms, and I think that is where his work very much speaks to people’s concerns today” – Jane Kallir
Although we are currently in a time of increased awareness of sexual fluidity and gender identity, 20th-century Vienna was a different world: World War I was in full swing, women’s movements were only just beginning, and, while society was unforgiving of overtly sexual expressions, sex with minors of the lower classes was considered socially acceptable. The age of consent at the time was 14. (Schiele etched several nude portraits of young girls, thought to be adolescent sex workers.)
“Schiele was a product of a very different time and place,” says Kallir. “If you look at first the social context of Schiele’s life and work, you have certain things that we would today consider completely inappropriate.”
In 1912, Schiele and Neuzil gave refuge to a 13-year-old girl who said she wanted to be driven to her grandmother; all three returned a day later but the girl’s father filed charges of kidnapping and statutory rape, and Schiele was arrested. While he was cleared of those charges, he was found guilty of “public immorality” for letting minors hang out in his studio around erotic works of art. After serving 24 days in jail, 21 of which had already been served while awaiting trial, Schiele no longer let minors into his studio.
Despite how much time has passed, many of Schiele’s works still shock today. A series of adverts for Vienna’s Tourist Board showing some of his nudes were covered up by British and German advertising authorities, prompting criticism that attitudes to sexual openness remain the same as they were while Schiele was alive.
While historic restrictions mean it’s impossible to tell what Schiele’s – or anyone’s, for that matter – sexual and gender identities truly were, there is one thing that’s certain, Kallir says: “Fluidity is universal.”
Klimt / Schiele: Drawings from the Albertina Museum, Vienna is open at the Royal Academy of Arts until 3 February 2019