The Life and Nudes of Egon Schiele

Dead glamorous Egon Schiele obsessively sketched the genitalia of skinny sluts while his artistic father Gustav Klimt smothered his blondes in gilt half a century before Bond villains were invented.

The father and son of erotic art are inseparable from Vienna at that moment when fin-de-siècle decadence was reinventing itself as avant-garde innovation. But despite Freud, and Expressionism, and an ugly new ring road, Vienna never lost its bourgeois core. Likewise, Klimt and Schiele both aspired to success, while maintaining their outsider status.

Forerunners to the celebrity artists who dominated New York in the 1980s and London in the 1990s, the Secession movement made them famous in Austria but, like lookalike David Bowie, Schiele had his eye on the world stage. His last words as he lay sweating on his deathbed with Spanish flu were: “The war is over. I must go. But my work will be seen all over the world.” Not the sexiest way to go, but at least, aged 28, he met the deadline for dying young.

Reclining Woman with Green Stockings, Egon Schiele, 1917

One hundred years later he has two shows, at the Royal Academy of Art in London with daddy Klimt (until February 3, 2019); and in Paris he shares the Louis Vuitton Foundation with Jean-Michel Basquiat (until January 14, 2019), who had his own artistic father in Andy Warhol.

At 16, Schiele lost his blood father to syphilis and quickly replaced him with Klimt, whose work he at first emulated, then inspired. Art and jealousy go together like sex and death, but their artistic rivalry contained no bitterness, unlike the toxic relationship that developed between their Viennese contemporary Freud and his psycho-analytic son Jung.

(left) Seated Female Nude, Elbows Resting on Right Knee, Egon Schiele, 1914
(right) Standing Female Nude with Green Garment, Egon Schiele, 1913

Disturbed by young Egon’s obsessive sketching, his sex-addict dad had destroyed his drawings, while kaftan-wearing Klimt found him patrons and introduced him to the lust of his life, Wally Neuzil, whose genitals feature most frequently in his work.

Klimt’s gaze looked outwards, his paintbrush a lens fixated on The Other. But Schiele was obsessed with his Self and how that self was reflected in others. He objectified his models no less than he did his own self-portraits; metaphorically masturbating with his paintbrush; and evading the condemnation of the politically correct police by exposing himself, too.

Nude Self-portrait, Egon Schiele, 1916

While Klimt’s gold nudes could be the sexier granddaughters of Botticelli’s Venus, Schiele’s skinny sluts open their legs; exposing the voyeur’s own desire to see.

Austria’s Mona Lisa, Wally Neuzil was a prostitute before a model, and later — after Schiele married a young bourgeois girl to help his career — Wally died of scarlet fever, completing the metaphor with a disease that matched her dyed-red hair.

But before his models, there was his cold mother, who loathed him and his work. “My mother is a strange woman. She does not love me,” Schiele said. But his sister Gerti loved him. His first model and first love, she and her brother ran away to Trieste, spending the night together in a hotel room when she was 12 and he was 16.

Schiele’s attraction to emaciated prostitutes could have been a distaste for the fat girls favored by old Rubens, a dark desire, or just the flesh that was available on the streets of Vienna at that time — starving child prostitutes happy to pose for a painter in exchange for food, or maybe love.

Freud may have labeled it a quest for his father. Or maybe he was just sex mad. Little boys draw vaginas on their school jotters. Schiele doesn’t grow old so he doesn’t grow up. But in the decade that comprised his life’s work, he combined genius execution with “toilet graffiti” content, imprinting his charcoal whores with ethereal sexuality.

Schiele was arrested for “abducting and seducing” a 13-year-old girl, but those charges were dropped and he was found guilty instead of failing to lock up his nudes. The trial judge burned one of his drawings with a candle, making his phallic point. Filth not fit for the eyes of respectable society, yet arousing emotion and provoking immolation.

Wally in Red Blouse, Egon Schiele, 1913

Wally remained loyal to Egon while he was in prison but this experience perhaps sealed the seeds of his abandonment of her for a bourgeois wife. Death and the Maiden, his tortured painting at the end of their affair, reveals a reluctant parting. Love ends but art never dies. His emotional quest for identity gave his work lasting popular appeal.

The two faces reflected in Schiele’s Front of a Mirror could (almost) be two different people: the decadent artist and the social climber. Schiele favored this deceitful mirror image over the reality of the naked eye. He didn’t want to see what The Other sees. His own vision attracted him. Narcissism starts with the mirror.

Schiele’s emotive nudes, censored by Instagram, still feel strangely modern in the 21st century, even as installation and performance have overtaken drawing and painting. Schiele said, “Art cannot be modern. Art is eternal.” It merely feels modern to the age it survives into.

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