Home Magazine The modernity of Egon Schiele

Egon Schiele ranges among the greatest draftsmen of all time. Line played a key structural role in his oils and is, of course, the dominant element in his drawings and watercolors. Whereas drawing was, for most artists at the turn of the twentieth century, subordinate to painting, Schiele’s works on paper stand on their own as a complete artistic statements. 

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Schiele drew like a racer driver drives: very quickly. Even as a boy, he clocked himself. At the Vienna Academy of Fine Art, where he studied from 1906 to 1909, the students were given forty-five-minute assignments. During that time, Schiele could complete as many as eight drawings. Bored by the curriculum and disdainful of his conservative professor Christian Griepenkerl, he frequently cut class. Once, after an absence of about a week, Schiele returned to find the students feverishly engaged in a “competition” project. Sitting down almost at the last minute, he executed from memory a breathtakingly detailed drawing of Franz Joseph-Bahnhof. When Schiele’s mother asked Griepenkerl whether her son had talent, the professor replied, “Yes, much too much. He disrupts the entire class.” Ther's a growing interest about drawings and works on paper in the contemporary art market. If you want to have more information on this area, read our latest interview to the Artistic Director of DRAWING NOW PARIS, Joana P.R. Neves.

What would I do now if I did not have art?

(Egon Schiele, 1912) 


Egon Schiele. Courtesy by Leopold Museum


Among Schiele’s most important formative influences was Jugendstil design. A more figural offshoot of French Art Nouveau, Jugendstil reduced all pictorial elements to flat, monochrome planes, in the process equalizing the treatment of subject and background. It is not surprising that when the artist saw Klimt’s retrospective at the 1908 “Kunstschau”, he was overwhelmed. Klimt took Jugendstil to an entirely new level, endowing the illustration style with spiritual magnitude and magnificence of scale. Karl Kraus, the polemicist and editor of the satirical journal Die Fackel, described turn-of-the-century Vienna as an Experiment Weltuntergang, a laboratory for the end of the world. This very special place where, from Gustav Klimt to Ludwig Wittgenstein and from Sigmund Freud to Adolf Loos, the features of utopian modernity were taking shape, was also and simultaneously the setting for the most violent, and often premonitory and despairing, critique of this new turn. 

Indeed, Schiele was influenced not just by Klimt’s style, but by the elder artist’s sense of vocation. Steeped in the tradition of Symbolist allegory, Klimt aimed to deliver sweeping statements about the human condition. The artist took this mission several steps further, casting himself as a priest of art, a “seer” in both literal and metaphorical sense. Even after Schiele had distance himself from “Klimt imitators”, he remained faithful to figuration, giving his works an ostensibly outdated quality.


Egon Schiele. Courtesy by Leopold Museum


Schiele’s continuous engagement with figuration does not indicate a reactionary attachment to the no-longer contemporary, but rather the logical continuation of his artistic exploration, defined by fragility, displacement, and permutation, expressed in part by the distortions of exaggerated poses and anatomically impossible body positions. In his work, the lines thus becomes a liminal experience between life and death. Free of any hint of incestuous behavior, Schiele set about refining his line in dozens upon dozens of rapidly executed drawings which he then animated with watercolor or gouache. The lightning speed with which Schiele drew was astonishing and has been testified to by sitters over the years. The artist thought in continuous contours and his linear approach, in which color played a powerful but secondary role, was the contrary of the other traditional approach to art, that of the painterly, as seminally articulated by the contemporary Swiss art Historian Henrich Wölfflin. 

The artist’s philosophical musings find their most direct outlet in his allegories, but they lend an existential dimension even to his more seemingly mundane images. Schiele sought to unmask the soul within all subjects, to link the temporal world to eternity. 

*This article is written thanks to the catalougue for Egon Schiele solo show at Foundation Louis Vuitton (October 3, 2018 - January 14, 2019), Gallimard Edition.


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