A few years ago, I visited a gallery that was hosting an exhibition of small drawings and watercolors by Egon Schiele. The works were for sale starting at a paltry $500,000 for a pencil drawing. I talked to the girl at the desk and said I had been a fan since the early 1970s. She said, “Oh, back then you could have got one for $1,000.” Of course, I was only a teenager and back then a thousand was a lot of money, but Schiele was not the artistic rock star he is today and his work was cheap.
Schiele (1890-1918) was a well rounded artist who studied with Gustav Klimt and exhibited with the renowned Secessionism movement. His landscapes are a wonderful amalgam of decoration and expressionism, but it is his figures and portraits that really separate him from the crowd.
The Neue Galerie show is magnificent. It is arranged into sections: friends, commissions, self portraits (along with Rembrandt he may have the most self portraits) and women.
While this show is about portraits, it is impossible to separate the faces from the figures. His amazing brushwork is vital and dynamic, and the colors and washes produce texture that challenges the viewer to explore every inch on the image.
His small works on paper use pencil, gouache and watercolor. The faces are highlighted and the pencil marks trail away. He has an fantastic knack of scribbling a few lines that suggest an entire, flowing dress, or a simple shoulder to create a suit.
In the self portraits, he contorts his body as if playing with shapes. At first glance one would think that he is not trying for attractiveness, but one could also argue that he is presenting himself as an artist would want to be seen. He does the same for his friends. The poses and faces are as much acting the part of the artist as straight representation.
And the hands, oh my goodness, the hands. Always fingers splayed out, overlapping, curled around — knuckles exaggerated and darkly colored. His hands may be the most expressive in the history of painting.
No Schiele exhibition would be complete without the pictures of women. Like the self portraits, the figures are elongated and twisted, ribs sticking out, legs spread, half dressed. One cannot escape the raw sexuality of the images — nor would one want to. Any nude is sensual, but Schiele goes further. Here is a celebration of sex, of woman, of nature.
For those unable to visit the show, an excellent catalogue is available through the museum or online. It is also worth checking out the catalogue for “Egon Schiele’s Women” which was held in London last year.
This blog is more of a gush than an objective piece of writing and I make no apologies. If he was as relatively obscure as he was when I was a teenager I would spend my money on nothing else. As it is, I have to make do with a few prints and some amazing catalogues, and wait for the next show.
The most important thing about Schiele is that he, more than any other artist, inspires me to rush back to the studio and work.