Egon Schiele (1890-1918) is known for his visceral paintings and drawings, many of which feature male and female nudes intertwined and engaged in overtly sexual positions. His alchemy of explicit and grotesque is depicted with a contorted beauty that can hardly be articulated. His use of a grayish, corpse-like palette in order to portray confrontational moments of sexuality, sensuality, and self-awareness makes his depictions of the human body some of the most thought-provoking in the history of Western Modern Art. Schiele twists the anatomy of his figures to reveal an ugliness. In Schiele’s work, the human form is raw, off-putting, and full of fascinating contradictions.
Egon Schiele’s Destabilization of Conventional Sensuality in Art
Although he barely lived 30 years, Egon Schiele became an extremely influential modern artist. At a time when many artists wanted to preserve the beauty of the human form and nature through art, the Austrian artist did not shy away from depicting his figures in intriguing positions. There is controversy as to whether his depictions were empowering for his subjects or self-serving for the artist’s fantasies, but one word seems to ubiquitously appear in the literature describing his work, the word grotesque. Grotesque, which is commonly defined as, “strange and unpleasant, especially in a silly or slightly frightening way, can also mean departing markedly from the natural, the expected, or the typical.”
We often equate this term with the words gross or unsavory, but the word can also refer to something that does not meet certain social or aesthetic expectations. Schiele was the master of altering the human body just enough to destabilize preconceived ideas about what a nude body should look like, particularly for audiences during his time. Yet, upon further inspection, there is no denying the complex beauty in his work that continues to attract and confound experts and art lovers alike.
Early Exposure to the Murky Human Condition
Schiele was born in 1890 to a German father and German-Czech mother in Austria. His father was allegedly suffering from serious mental health problems. He also frequented local brothels. He ultimately died of syphilis when Schiele was 15 years old which some sources attribute to the artist’s early fascination with human sexuality. A year after his father’s death, Schiele entered the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. After three years, he left the school dissatisfied because he thought the curriculum was rigid and conservative.
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Along with several other classmates, he started the Neuekunstgruppe (New Art Group) through which he met a critic called Arthur Roessler. Roessler introduced the artist to prominent members of the Viennese cultural scene. At the time, the intelligentsia of Vienna was obsessed with ideas related to sex and death. This was the Vienna of Sigmund Freud and the artists of the Viennese Secession like Gustav Klimt. Klimt later became Schiele’s mentor and provided him with his first models. Thus Schiele’s artistic practice developed in an environment full of frenetic energy focused on understanding the complex depths of the human psyche.
Visual Elements That Create the Sensual Grotesque
Color and light were powerful tools in Schiele’s arsenal. He used colors sparingly to highlight aspects of the body that were considered taboo by his predecessors and many of his contemporaries. In some works, he uses vibrant colors on the painted hair or sparse clothing of his figures, depicting skin in muted colors, most often beige with touches of light blues and reds. In some works, he uses brighter colors where skin meets bone, to highlight the pointed thinness of the body. This can be seen in works like Female Nude Seen From Behind (1915) where Schiele highlights each joint in the woman’s spine with a brush of deep red.
The use and manipulation of light was another visual tool that lent itself to Schiele’s vision of the human body. On a material level, the paper he used, rough and often deliberately faded, gave his work a pale, aged quality that made it fragile under direct light. The artist was also known for outlining figures, giving them a kind of ethereal aura. Yet, from these illuminated bodies, there is psychological darkness coming from the use of harsh angles and off-putting colors. This is just one of many contradictions of Schiele’s work: the darkness of the human psyche in a tense tug-of-war with the appearance and the use of light.
The Anatomy of a Revolutionary Style
It doesn’t take a trained eye to see the complexities present in Schiele’s art, many of which can be considered reflections of his position within the Viennese artistic and intellectual society. Both sensuality and the grotesque exist in the same body in nearly all of his depictions of the human form. Couples engaging in sensual, tender embraces are depicted with thin, almost emaciated features. Exaggerated facial expressions turn the simplest posture into a complex reading of the subject’s inner world. Women in their youth appear pale and distorted, almost skeletal.
Gender and sexuality are likewise fluid, with many experts identifying androgyny in his depictions of both men and women. With the exception of works like Self-portrait with Peacock Waistcoat Standing (1911), Schiele’s subjects are typically suspended in a void, with no background to indicate depth beyond the edges of the figure itself. In all of these aesthetic elements, there is a blurring and destabilizing of several moral and aesthetic categories.
It should be noted that these elements are not limited to Schiele’s depictions of others. In the majority of his work, he turns the gaze inwards onto himself. His self-portraits are equally disturbing and grotesque, if not more so than his portrayals of others. So, the question remains: why depict the human form, including his own, in such a raw format?
Not only did Schiele contradict the accepted artistic standards of the day, but he forced viewers to accept the coexistence of several of these broad categories. Death and sex, good and evil, light and dark, decay and life, violence and tenderness, love and distrust all go head-to-head in every piece he produced. This tension creates a sublime beauty, nearly too overwhelming and, for some, shameful to accept. Schiele held a mirror to his community and forced them to see bold contradictions intertwined in one writhing mass of human flaws and raw sensuality. The result is invigorating and thought-provoking, even if the work is initially difficult to grasp at face value. This is grotesque sensuality at its finest.
Empowering Erotic Depictions or Self-Serving Explorations of Sexuality?
There is an ongoing conversation amongst those interested in Schiele’s work about the meaning behind Schiele’s depictions of nude figures, particularly female nudes. This discussion goes hand in hand with a discussion of how he depicted these figures. On one hand, there is an argument that these disturbing, yet erotic artworks are empowering for the subjects he depicted. He was one of the only artists of his time to show women in highly erotic positions, thereby reclaiming some space for women to express their sexuality.
On the other hand, there are claims that these depictions were made for the artist’s own sexual fulfillment. These arguments create a gray area when it comes to Schiele’s legacy. While some view him as the champion of overt sexuality and breaking down barriers, others view him as capitalizing on his accessibility to live models to produce erotic artworks that satisfied his own fantasies. One answer could be that he was motivated by both reasons and that makes understanding and studying his work as unsettling as viewing it.
Egon Schiele’s Legacy
The end of Schiele’s life was undeniably tragic. He lost his wife Edith and his unborn child to the Spanish flu in 1918, just three days before he contracted the same fatal disease. Despite the pandemic, Schiele continued to draw and paint until the end of his life. Although he only lived to be 28 years old, the impact he had on Western Art History is timeless. Schiele was one of the most influential artists of Viennese Modernism and he helped lay the foundation for other modern art movements that were yet to come.
More importantly, Schiele changed the way the audience visually understood the concepts of sex, love, beauty, death, and self-awareness. Perhaps, it might be more appropriate not to label Schiele as a Modern artist at all. Maybe we should take a note from Schiele himself who once said: “I don’t think there’s such a thing as modern art. It’s just art and it’s eternal.” Certainly, Schiele’s legacy proves that eternal art can be created if it touches upon certain parts of the human psyche, especially those parts of the mind many have not dared to visit before.