Why Egon Schiele is one of art’s greatest provocateurs

From art school drop out to seminal psychosexual provocateur, here’s everything you need to know about the 20th-century Austrian Expressionist who inspired Francis Bacon and David Bowie

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Egon Schiele. The Complete Paintings 1909 – 1918
“Self-portrait with Lowered Head”, 1912Courtesy of Taschen, © Leopold Museum, Vienna

It’s been ninety-nine-years since his death and 20th-century artist Egon Schiele is still as radical and prolific as he ever was. Now regarded as a leading figure in Austrian Expressionism, during the course of his short life (1890-1918), the artist caused uproar with his unflinching and extraordinary style. His work is known for its anguished eroticism, explicit sexuality and nudity, and exaggerated and distorted bodies depicted through angular, contorted sketches and heavy lines. Eschewing conventional ideals of Western beauty for a raw, crude figural representation, the bare, sexual directness of his work was embodied by an essential graphic use of colour, line and contour.

Egon Schiele. The Complete Paintings 1909–1918 – written by the renowned art historian Tobias G. Natter and published by Taschen – is a 608-page survey of 367 of Schiele's paintings, drawings, watercolors and over 600 illustrations from his most innovative and provocative decade, which ended due to his tragic death from Spanish flu at 28-years-old. Just as famous for his work as he is for his intriguing and licentious life, Taschen has included biographic details, essays from art historians, and archival excerpts from Schiele’s own writing. To mark the release of the book, we have created a six-point guide to some of the revelatory elements of the publication and indeed Schiele’s own rebellious history.

HE WAS A CHILD PRODIGY, AN ART SCHOOL DROP OUT, AND TAUGHT BY INFAMOUS AUSTRIAN ARTISTS SUCH AS GUSTAV KLIMT

Schiele was regarded as a strange child by his family and peers. From a very young age, he became consumed with drawing, spending so many hours obsessively drawing that his father destroyed his sketchbooks. After the death of his father, Schiele applied to the School of Arts and Crafts in Vienna at 16-years-old, but due to his incredible skill, he was sent to the traditional Academy of Fine Arts within his first year. During his education, in 1907, he sought out the mentorship of Gustav Klimt, who has been cited as the primary influence on Schiele’s development as a young artist. Although Klimt’s practice is known for its Art Nouveau palette and patterns, he was still invested in an unsettling emotional intensity and an insatiable eroticism. Schiele ended up dropping out of the Academy in 1909, frustrated by their conservative style and strict traditional doctrine, and as a result he founded the ‘New Art Group’ with other radical and dissatisfied students.

HIS SELF-PORTRAITS AND PORTRAITS WERE SEARING EXPLORATIONS OF THE EVOLUTION OF THE HUMAN PSYCHE AND SEXUALITY

German art historian and curator Manfred Schneckenburger has commented on a ‘painted psychoanalysis’ running throughout Schiele’s oeuvre. Schiele was working during the emergence of Freudian psychoanalysis (Freud also lived in Vienna in this period) and his portraits and self-portraits similarly sought to provide an insight into the human condition and the multiplex workings of the mind. His self-portraits are some of his most inward-looking and objectively tortured works, not merely representing the self, but also seeking it. Schiele often wrote that he had a compulsion and inner need to create these self-portraits; which in turn became “intimate monologic revelation of the personality”. During WWI, Schiele worked as a clerk in a POW camp near the town of Mühling, where he was allowed to draw and paint imprisoned Russian officers. A significant chapter of the TASCHEN publication is dedicated to Schiele’s work during this period, in which his image of man was submerged with his own longstanding fears of alienation, bodily harm, and psychic dissolution.

HIS DRAWINGS OF GENITALIA WERE THE MOST CANDID RENDERINGS OF THE VAGINA IN WESTERN ART HISTORY

Schiele’s portraits primarily presented his female sitters in the nude, and from revealing and explicit angles. He was a keen collector of Asian art – as was Klimt – and was said to have owned one of the best collections of Japanese erotica in Vienna. Parallels can be drawn between Schiele’s explicit depiction of female genitalia and the tradition of Japanese woodblock prints, such as Shunga. For example, the black and red genitalia that appear in his pictures of 1911, whose colours contrast with the pale skin of his female models, are a prominent motif of Japanese art. However, Schiele’s refusal to cast these women as passive resisted the problematic of the male gaze within so many other depictions of the female nude in Western art. The sitters star back at the spectator, their body language worldly, expressive, and defiant.

HE WASN’T AFRAID TO DEPICT TABOO SUBJECTS, SUCH AS LESBIAN SEX AND MASTURBATION

Throughout his career, Schiele preferred to pay prostitutes to model for him in unconventional poses, as opposed to using conventional female models. Street kids, young girls, reclining pregnant women, lesbian lovers, and newborn babies also appear throughout his work. A self-portrait from 1911 even depicts Schiele masturbating with a large, erect penis. However, most of his self-portraits focused on a fear of castration due to his anxieties regarding his father’s death from syphilis.

HIS PROVOCATIVE POLITICS WERE ALSO EXPLORED THROUGH POETRY AND WRITING

Schiele’s entire practice was centered on bringing intensive emotional content into a balanced formal structure, in order for the human individual to understand the world around them. Archival documents show Schiele trying his hand at poetry from 1903 onwards, writing love poems throughout the summer of 1906 at sixteen, in which he disintegrated sentence structures and created new words. He also gave highly charged poetic titles to his pictures. The intensity of Schiele’s literary pursuits mirror his Expressionist art practice - conveying experiences and observations not only with painterly but also with linguistic means, and a dedication towards developing a radical, distinctive form of alternative communication.

HE HAS INSPIRED COUNTLESS ARTISTS SINCE, SUCH AS FRANCIS BACON, DAVID BOWIE AND TRACEY EMIN

Schiele’s conflation and confrontation of sexuality, desire, and the human experience in its uncensored grotesque glory has influenced multiple artists. A notable example is Francis Bacon, who was similarly engaged with the relationship between the human body and psychological anguish. Other artists include Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat. David Bowie became acquainted with Schiele’s work when living in Berlin the 1970s. His LP covers from the period are evidently inspired by Schiele’s positioning of limbs and figures - one significant comparison has been made between Schiele’s Self-Portrait as Saint Sebastian (1914) and Bowie’s 1979 Lodger cover. In turn, Tracey Emin became introduced to Schiele through that very LP cover. In 2015, the Leopold Museum in Vienna staged an exhibition juxtaposing Emin and Schiele’s work, due to between both artists’ status as an ‘enfant terrible’, and their engagement with complex personal issues and self-portrayal.

Egon Schiele. The Complete Paintings 1909–1918 is available courtesy of Taschen from today

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