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Egon Schiele

The First Expressionist

The Austrian Expressionist painter Egon Schiele remains a somewhat controversial figure in the history of modern art. Inspired by his mentor Gustav Klimt, Schiele used painting to convey a fascination with sexual desire and the female nude, as well as a haunting sense of psychological realism through a heightened emotional atmosphere and subtle forays towards abstraction. His ability to subtly deconstruct reality in order to depict an often grotesque psyche of his subjects was groundbreaking in his own time, and still feels visually compelling today. Yet Schiele was accused of sexual exploitation and pedophilia, eventually convicted on the lesser charges of obscenity. As the reputation of certain male artists gets called into question in the wake of a new feminist uprising, does Schiele’s work deserve to be reevaluated along similar lines? Or in other words, was Schiele simply a gross pervert who hid behind the moniker of avant garde artist, or does his work offer genuine insight to the often dark side of humanity?

It’s difficult to know what to make of Schiele the man, as few people (if anyone) who actually knew him are still living today. He died at the very young age of 28 in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, which also claimed the life of Klimt among millions of others. He was married at the time of his death, though he may have tried to carry out an affair with his muse Wally Neuzil. Whether or not he lived up to an exacting standard of morality, his work provides a stronger counter-argument to charges of exploitation. Unlike Klimt, Schiele did not focus primarily on female subjects in his portraits of human beings. In fact, some of his most provocative images are the self-portraits he created, many of which feature him in the nude. He certainly painted his share of female nudes, as well as some sexually explicit works like The Embrace (1917) and Two Girls Lying Entwined (1915). Yet many of his other works, such as the portraits of his wife, paintings of children and landscapes, offer a distinct and admittedly less malformed view of the world. On the other hand, he could turn the religious subject of the Madonna with child into a hellish nightmare and portray friends like the artist Max Oppenheimer as monstrous ghouls.

Perhaps the actual reevaluation of Schiele’s work should assess him as an artist who appreciated the complexity of the time in which he lived. The specter of the First World War loomed throughout the early part of the 20th century, and Schiele’s own life was cut tragically short in the worst epidemic since the Black Death. Could these looming catastrophes have influenced his outlook towards the world. Maybe his work simply acknowledged the complexity of the human condition as a whole, a state in which innocent children grow into sexually depraved monsters, mothers torment their children while whores offer comfort and solace, and the scariest vision of all gazes back at us from the mirror.


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