Published  15/05/2006

Egon Schiele: Eros and Passion – book review

Egon Schiele: Eros and Passion – book review

Klaus Albrecht Schroder. Berlin, London, New York: Prestel Verlag, 2006.
ISBN 379132229X

So many of the works of Egon Schiele owe their existence to the numerous taboos constraining artists at that time, particularly in Vienna. These things are long consigned to the past, together with the social restrictions of the time, including concepts of a protected privacy. In the absence of shame, creativity could flourish. In Schiele's work, the safe boundary of aesthetics, which so comforted more conventional artists of the time, was breached for good.

Schiele's work, according to the author, Klaus Albrecht Schroder, constitutes in its subject matter the formation of a brand new aesthetic principle, as was required. He rightly focused on 'the Christian myth of the origin of the world', where Christians are told that 'human beings created culture solely as a symbolic shield against the perceived threat of sexuality; paradisal nudity becomes possible only at the Last Judgement. Only on the last day will man appear before the throne of God in the splendour of innocence, as God created him'. Schroder visits the 'Beauty of Ugliness' as Karl Rosenkranz (an important Viennese figure and follower of Hegel) had claimed in his own book, The Aesthetics of Ugliness. 'Beauty', he wrote, 'like goodness, is absolute; and ugliness, like Evil, is relative.'

As this author points out, 'It is the concepts of beauty and ugliness that mark the boundaries between Jugendstil and Expressionism'. Unlike Klimt, Schiele chose to demolish the concept of beauty that was integral there. In this new study, Schroder particularly examines Schiele's self-portraits in this respect to see if there are any clues to determining the real Schiele: he finds a riven psyche and there is no search for beauty anymore. Schiele's portraits of lower-class children, especially, approximate to our disillusioned, 21st-century gaze to the wilfully pornographic. 'Schiele's children do not play,' says the author, 'they are just exhibited'. One might argue that this is not so different to the subjects and victims of website pornography today. Schiele's own important self-portraits were initiated by no less than the leading architect, Otto Wagner. The artist was to develop a series of portraits of famous Viennese figures; but, in Schiele's hands, this became controversial and, soon after, Schiele turned to making portraits of pregnant or sick women, executed while staying in his mother's home town. He was always drawn, it seems, to depict unhappiness or deprivation in one form or another. This possibly reflects a disrupted childhood, with the death of his father at a young age. But the mood of Schiele's work was also consistent with the apprehensive mood of the times.

Schiele drew considerable publicity, including an early monograph (1911). A one-man show and a critical review in Bildende Kunst followed in the same year. His new liaison with Wally Neuzil, his girlfriend and favourite model, offered a measure of stability to his life. As his career advanced, his works were shown in the spring Secession Exhibition at the Galerie Goltz and later in the 43rd Exhibition of the Vienna Secession. Schroder correctly chooses to emphasise the ground-breaking quality of Schiele's photography (1914).

Finally, the book describes how Schiele died while still only 27 years of age. Did he descend into the abyss prompted by some premonition of doom? This is hard to deduce. But Schroder describes a steady decline in his wider judgement, accompanied by a swing to a more compulsive pornography in his work. The figures, and lesbian or androgynous characters, are reflected in the further affront to decency: here is the vulnerability and susceptibility of his lost generation, by now needlessly at war. Schiele, nonetheless, as death took him, could know that he had become possibly Vienna's greatest painter and graphic artist of his time. Schroder brings a refreshing new perspective to the mysteries of this Eros figure, but seems no closer to resolving them than any previous art historian.

Dr Janet McKenzie

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