Egon Scheile’s journey into the Art world was a dynamic one. After studying under the esteemed Gustav Klimt in the midst of the rise of Viennese Modernism, the ‘Wiener Moderne,’ he dove into a practice all his own. He honed it, explored the human form, and rivaled social convention of the time. From an 11-year-old boy who sketched trains incessantly to a budding expressionist under the early tutelage of artist Ludwig Karl Strauch, he was accepted to the Kunstgewerbeschule (presently the University of Applied Arts) in Vienna, where Gustav Klimt had preceded him. In 1906, only one year later at the age of 16, he moved on to attend the more traditional Akademie der Bildenden Künste (Academy of Fine Arts).
Scheile was not only influenced by Klimt, but by the expressionist work of Oscar Kokoschka, Edvard Munch, and Vincent Van Gogh. Though elements of Art Nouveau can be discerned within his early works, his visual kaleidoscope coalesced with human sexuality and fed into a shocking depiction not only of the human body, but the palette as well. The positioning is somewhat exaggerated verging upon the grotesque. Yet there is movement, emotional intimacy, tension, eroticism, and solemnity doused in vivid color against a pale backdrop. This propels his figures into the foreground with unabashed vigor.
One hundred years after his death at the tender age of 28, we must examine how far beyond the public comfort level he chose to push figurative art. For even now, society has repressed the artist’s expression, particularly regarding the depiction of nudity. He is revered and censored simultaneously. After the advertising campaign was designed by the Vienna Tourist Board several locations, mainly the London Tube and an airport in Germany, found the exposed genitalia too offensive a visual for public viewing. As The Leopold Museum, which houses the most numerous works by Schiele under one roof, and other museums across Austria host a retrospective to commemorate the centenary of his passing, they pose the question regarding his nude artwork: Is it “still too daring today?”
One of his most notable works, a portrait of his mistress and muse, Walburga ‘Wally’ Neuzil, draws one deep into the hypnotic eyes of his subject.
There has been controversy surrounding this work of art as it originally belonged to Jewish art collector by the name of Lea Bondi. It was evidently confiscated from her when she fled Vienna during World War II. Explore the history of this enamored work in the 2012 documentary, “POW: Portrait of Wally.”
This Viennese cultural epoch was an intellectual frontier punctuated by the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud, the urban planning of Otto Wagner, the founding of the Vienna Secession movement by Koloman Moser, the dramatic writings of Arthur Schnitzler, and the musical compositions of Gustav Mahler. During this time Egon Schiele, would become one of the most notable painters of Viennese Expressionism.
For a deeper exploration of Schiele’s controversial life and art, we recommend indulging in the sensuous German film, “Egon Schiele” by Dieter Berner.