The portrait maker

The portrait maker

Different Strokes

The portrait maker

Schiele’s ‘The Day Dreamer’

More than 90 years after his death, the legacy of the Austrian painter Egon Schiele (1890-1918) lives on to inspire artists around the world. Known for his intense and expressive portrayal of men and women, the son of a station master came to be hailed as a genius even in his lifetime. He led a colourful if controversial life before death snatched him away at a tender age of 28.

Born in Tullin, near Vienna, Schiele lost his father due to syphilis when he was 15, a death which made him lonely; it also had a lasting impact. “I don’t know who is able to understand why I visit those places where my father used to be and where I can feel the pain,” he recalled years later. “I believe in the immortality of all creatures. Why do I paint graves and many similar things? Because they continue to live within me.”

Schiele began studying painting and drawing at Akademie der Bildenden Knste in Vienna in 1906. He came under the tutelage of the famous artist Gustav Klimt the next year. Klimt, who immediately recognised the talent of the teenage artist, not only mentored him but also bought his drawings, arranged models for him and introduced him to wealthy patrons.

Schiele held his first exhibition when he was just 18 and went on establish the New Art Group urging artists to build their own foundation without reference to the past or to tradition. On his part, he developed a unique style of drawing where apparently frail and fragmented lines were well-controlled and connected and his genius of draughtsmanship became evident. Even Klimt readily acknowledged Schieles masterly style.

“The beauty of form and colour that Schiele gave us did not exist before,” wrote Heinrich Benesch, one of the earliest patrons of Schiele and one who actually witnessed the artist’s act of drawing. “His artistry as draughtsman was phenomenal. The assurance of his hand was almost infallible. He would place his pencil on the sheet and draw his lines from the shoulder, as it were. And everything was exactly right. If he happened to get something wrong, which was very rare, he threw the sheet away; he never used an eraser... Most of his drawings were done in outline and only became more three-dimensional when they were coloured. The colouring was always done without the model, from memory.”

By 1909, Shiele (still in his teens) had set up his own studio, and started drawing from very young and willing models. His exploration of human sexuality started early, and throughout his artistic career he never ceased to paint nude and erotic pictures, many of them self-portraits.

Explicit paintings

A prolific painter of portraits, Schiele produced many explicit paintings which shocked, disturbed and offended viewers. While he painted still lifes and landscapes, he became notorious for his extraordinary portraits which literally shook the art world around him and also landed him in trouble.

In his portraits, Schiele created a unique tension by presenting the human body in painful constriction. His compositions were unusual, often sharply cropped and bereft of any modesty or shyness. While the background was frequently left plain and simple, the body itself seemed to come alive under the force of the line and pressure of brisk brushstrokes.

It is easy to recognise a strange feverishness in his work that defies easy explanation. The expression on the faces is also unique particularly with haunting eyes. There is anxiety and deathly discomfort in the body language. The figures are at the same time attractive and repulsive, charming and revolting, well shaped and deformed. They appear to be filled with fear, horror, fright and despair. As a unique portraitist Schiele penetrated the personalities of his sitters. Over time, he came to be known as a discoverer who knew souls, and a revealer of their most hidden secrets.

Schiele often painted himself as painful, fearful or worried self. His numerous self-portraits showed an unusual appearance with a tall, slim, supple figure, long arms and long-fingered bony hands. Schiele who is said to have made more self-portraits than Rembrandt continually sported a sad expression as if he wept inwardly.

“Schiele experiments time and again with the oppressive trialogue of body, space and surface,” writes Ernst Rebel (Self-Portraits/Taschen). “His own body is for him a trial-run for new pictorial architecture. He seeks to use it to examine how to build up figure-like arrangements while breaking down the tensions of emotional life.”

In 1911, Schiele met a young model Wally, who was probably one of the mistresses of Klimt, with whom he tried to leave a claustrophobic Vienna and settle in the small town of Krumau. The couple was driven away by Krumaus inhabitants who objected to the unconventional and unacceptable lifestyle. Their move to another small town, Neulengbach, met with even more dire consequences.

Schiele was arrested in April 1912, and the police seized more than a hundred pornographic drawings in his studio. He was also accused of abducting and seducing a young girl and put in jail. Although the charges were subsequently dropped, Schiele was found guilty of public immorality; one of his drawings was burnt in court by the magistrate. The 24 days he spent in imprisonment had a demoralising effect on Schiele who nevertheless made several self-portraits in the prison cell while awaiting trial and uncertain future.

Schiele had a solo show in 1915, the same year he got engaged to Edith, one of the daughters of a master locksmith. In the process, he dumped his long-term model and lover Wally who went on to become a nurse with the Red Cross and died two years later in a military hospital.

Shiele himself had a brief stint with the army soon after his marriage to Edith in June 1915. His reputation as an artist grew steadily and prices of his paintings escalated. He exhibited well and scored a great success at the Vienna Secession Exhibition in March 1918 where most of his 50 works were sold. The same year he also exhibited in Zurich, Prague and Dresden. He was at the height of creative powers, when his pregnant wife fell sick of Spanish influenza and died on October 28, 1918. Three days later, Shiele too breathed his last due to the same sickness.

Schieles legacy is that of an exceptional artist who led an unusual and almost bizarre life; a rare artist who used drawing as his principal medium and sex as an artistic weapon, he produced portraits which showed enterprise, honesty and courage. Above all, Schiele will be remembered as one who treated the human body remarkably and expressed its sexuality as the ultimate artistic truth.