In the space of 9 years he dropped out of Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts, created hundreds of finished works on paper, was thrown in jail for his art, succeeded Klimt as Vienna’s most prolific artist, and died tragically of Spanish flu at the height of his career aged only 28. Egon Schiele’s work has inspired scores of our most important artists and helped shape art history despite his artistic career only lasting a short 9 years. Yet since his death in 1918, the exhibition now showing at the Courtauld Gallery is his first solo show in the UK and the first showing of his work here for 25 years.
Obsessed with drawing from a young age, Schiele could produce in a matter of minutes, studies his fellow students languished over for several hours – much to the annoyance of his tutor Christian Griepenkerl who eventually washed his hands of the artist. Schiele frequently turned up late to classes (or not at all) only to outshine the other students. Griepenkerl allegedly told the young Schiele upon his leaving the Academy of Fine Arts; ‘For God’s sake never tell anyone you studied with me!’
It was common practise for Schiele to draw standing up, his left hand supporting the top of a board propped up against his knee. Preliminary sketches and mistakes were largely unheard of such was the skill of Schiele’s draftsmanship. Working in pencil, charcoal or black chalk he would draw out the figure with speed and fluidity, producing perfect renderings of the sitter with a minimal number of strokes in mere minutes. Yet the confidence of his marks and his knowledge of the figure produced some of the most real and human nude studies of his time. Schiele would then later return to add colour, again often applying colour conservatively with restrictive palettes and an expert eye.
Yet the most memorable and haunting aspect of Schiele’s work was his unflinching depiction and obsession with eroticism, morality, sickness and death. Posing his models and often himself, in overtly erotic positions, Schiele brought out the sickness in his sitters who were often Viennese prostitutes. Schiele made no attempts to mask their backgrounds with classicism as his contemporaries would have; often depicting his sitters in stockings, a reference to prostitution.
Emaciated and skeletal in form, Schiele’s figures could expect no more favourable a treatment of their skin, on which he produced arguably the most eloquent and poetic visual depictions of human morality expressed by any painter before or since. Harsh reds, greens and blacks were favoured, the forms becoming a patchwork of imperfections most notably apparent in his self portrait’s as he was given to taking up a martyr-esque guise.
The exhibition of these drawings on his studio walls in the small countryside village of Neulengbach where he was staying in the summer of 1912, were seen by local children. This led to Schiele serving twenty-four days in prison for offence against public decency after disapproving locals found nothing else they could convict him of.
Schiele returned to the city of Vienna, married and upon Klimt's death became widely accepted as Vienna's most accomplished artist. With a waiting list for commissions and the money to afford a bigger studio and comfortable lifestyle Schiele was at the height of his career when he and his pregnant wife were tragically struck down by Spanish flu.
With Schiele’s work almost completely absent from public collections in the UK, the extensive body of drawings and paintings showing at the Courtauld has been made up from several important global collections with loans from the Leopard museum in Vienna, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, as well as works from other public and private collections. This is a monumentally important exhibition for Schiele’s legacy and a unique chance for us to view an extensive collection of the artist’s work on home soil. With no other plans for further Schiele exhibitions in England, it may sadly be another twenty-five years wait to see these breathtaking studies again. An exhibition sorely not to be missed.
Egon Schiele The Radical Nude is showing at the Courtauld Gallery near Charing Cross until 18th January 2015, standard tickets priced £7.50. For more information go to courtauld.ac.uk/gallery/exhibitions/2014/Schiele/index.shtml.
Maxine Kirsty Sapsford