by HILTON KRAMER
The life and work of the Austrian painter Egon Schiele form a chapter in the history of modern art which, though brief, is unforgettable in its combination of irrepressible talent, tortured vision, and personal agony.
Schiele was the very embodiment of the artist maudit, and the course traced by his short, electric career in the Vienna of the turn of the century has an almost allegorical quality in its unequal mingling of suffering and accomplishment. That the accomplishment was possible in the face of so much suffering is a testimony to Schiele's profound commitment to his artistic vocation, yet this commitment cannot disguise the fact that the accomplishment itself bears the scars of the artist's suffering at every turn.
For Schiele's oeuvre is one in which we feel the presence of the artist's agony first as a stimulus and finally as a limiting and nearly disabling affliction.
Recent exhibitions of Schiele's paintings and drawings — particularly the double exhibition of "Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele" at the Guggenheim Museum — have afforded some tantalizing glimpses of what, exactly, Schiele achieved. Now our understanding of the artist's total work has been much enhanced by the publication of Egon Schiele, an oeuvre catalogue of the paintings compiled by Galerie St. Etienne in New York and Schiele's most persistent champion.
This is not a book for anyone with a casual interest in the artist's work. A stout volume of over five hundred pages, handsomely printed, with texts in English and German, the book contains a reproduction (mainly black and white) of every known surviving painting by Schiele, complete with details of provenance, plus an additional list of paintings known to have existed but now lost.
There is also a selection of documentary photographs. The texts — by Dr. Kallir, the late Otto Benesch, and Mr. Messer — are too brief, but they are useful as far as they go. The book does not bring us Schiele's total work, of course, for it is not designed to include his large and brilliant production of watercolors and drawings — in some respects, a production even more important than the paintings — but the volume is nonetheless indispensable for a true comprehension of the artist's character and achievement, and thus for a comprehension of the art of Central Europe at a crucial historical juncture.
Less than half a century separates us from Schiele's death in 1918 at the age of twenty-eight, yet the circumstances of his life already read like some fable of a dark and remote age. It was a life entirely enclosed within the claustral and hypocritical atmosphere of the Austro-Hungarian imperium in the last stages of its decadence.
A prosperous and pronvincial public morality existed side-by-side with an extraordinary flowering of intellectual and artistic genius. A narrow and suffocating world contained within it a virtual renaissance of talents whose creative fulfillment was inseparable from the task of laying bare the values that prevailed as a cover for a foolish and bankrupt style of life.
We know this world from the work of Klimt and Kokoschka, from Mahler and Schoenberg and Adolf Loos, and from the writings of Schnitzler — a world whose motives formed the materials of Freud's first researches and whose pretensions are forever apotheosized in the operatic art of Richard Strauss.
Schiele proved to be at once the victim and beneficiary of all the contradictions of this amazing era. His entire development, from a precocious boyhood to an early grave, was dominated by the narrow, life-denying restrictions of this period; the insensitive guardian who opposed the youth's artistic aspirations gave way to the even more ignorant Philistine public that condemned the young artist's vehement creations. And in Schiele's case, it is no idle metaphor to speak of condemnation, for he was once jailed for twenty-four days for having executed "immoral" drawings.
Yet Schiele enjoyed the encouragement of a succession of teachers, artists and sympathetic spirits, and from the time he entered the Vienna Academy of Art at the age of sixteen, he lived the free, if desperately poverty-stricken, life of an artist. Nor can one attribute the suffering that marks his work entirely to outrageous circumstance, for there was clearly an element of neurasthenic compulsion in Schiele's sensibility which circumstance abetted and inflamed, but which it could not of itself have created. Schiele's rebellion was in the end a rebellion against life itself and not only the life of his time.
The visual form which this rebellion took was first the imitation and then the subversion of the style of Schiele's great — and greatly admired — senior contemporary in Vienna, Gustav Klimt. What one sees in Schiele's most powerful work is the highly decorative and ornamental vision of Klimt, who managed to both flatter and ever so gently to expose the pretensions of his bourgeois patrons, invested with a more adamant and uncompromising concern for psychological truth.
The exoticism that in Klimt is always enveloped in a hedonist's dream of pleasure is, in Schiele, turned into an unyielding exposure of anguish and pain. Even Klimt's glorious and luminous color is turned dark, muddy, and grim in Schiele's more lacerating version of the same thematic materials. In a sense, Schiele's entire work was bounded by the attempt to do Klimt over again from his own afflicted nature.
True, in Schiele's final pictures one detects an element of benign feeling that points to a more felicitous accommodation to things as they are. But it was too late. In the last days of the First World War, after enjoying his first public success in the annual exhibition of the Vienna Secession, both Schiele and his wife were overcome by the flu epidemic that swept over Europe, and his death on October 31, 1918, followed by hers only three days later. Fortune ensured that the tortured countenance of his outraged sensibilities would remain his indelible legacy.
January 8, 1967
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