Egon Schiele’s short but prolific life (1890–1918) is neatly parenthesized between the waning glory of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the momentous final days of World War I. His work captures the gap between appearance and reality in both the public and personal realms that was so prevalent in Viennese society—as in all of Europe—in the early days of the twentieth century. The explorations into human sexuality of Sigmund Freud, Richard Krafft-Ebing, and Otto Weininger, Gustav Mahler’s experimental music, Adolf Loos’s and Josef Hoffmann’s new, unadorned architectural forms, and Gustav Klimt’s erotic paintings pressed against the acceptable boundaries. But the Viennese embraced these changes, and it was into this milieu that Schiele came of age.
One of the first evidences of the shift within the art world came in March 1898, when the first exhibition of the Austrian Association of Visual Artists (Vereinigung bildender Künstler Österreichs), also known as the Secession, opened to the public. The artists represented included architects and designers whose goal was to show modernist work in an attempt to educate the viewing public. Much of this work was not particularly radical, but rather beautifully conceived in the Jugendstil, or Art Nouveau, style. But by 1904 a splinter group, headed by Klimt, broke away from the Secession. It was this group and in particular its leader who would have a notable effect on the young Schiele’s early artistic career.
Viewing Schiele’s art, it is easy to imagine the prurient interest that his more graphic work must have fostered. Even a hundred years later these works can seem shocking, and yet they are amazingly sympathetic, even tender glimpses into the physical side of the human psyche, reflecting his own sexual ambivalence and search for answers. There is also a palpable sense of unease, most clearly seen in Schiele's many self-portraits, in which he exposes his own vulnerability as he wrestles with his personal demons through his art. This is one of the reasons that the work remains so timeless and engaging. His courage in expressing very personal revelations is transfixing, and his ability to dramatize the mortality of things seems both uncanny and prescient.
In early 1918 his friend and mentor Gustav Klimt succumbed to the influenza epidemic. Both Schiele and his wife, Edith, who was now expecting their first child, took extra care against contamination. But it wasn’t enough. Unbelievably, the flu epidemic claimed more victims during its swift scourge than the entire war. On October 28, Edith and her unborn child died, and three days later, Schiele followed, at the age of twenty-eight.
We are deeply grateful to the anonymous collector who has brought these brilliant works together and has been kind enough to lend them to the Johnson Museum.
Nancy E. Green
Senior Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs