Egon Schiele (1890–1918)

In his erotic drawings and paintings, Egon Schiele confronted the taboos governing the display of nakedness and sex. Indeed, it has been said of both Schiele and Klimt that they restored genitalia to the genre of the Nude.

Austria-Hungary 1890–1918
Portrait of the painter Hans Massmann 1909
oil and metallic paint on canvas
120.0 x 110.0 cm
Kunsthaus Zug
Stiftung Sammlung Kamm

Egon Schiele was born in the Austrian town of Tulln where his father was station master. One of seven children, Schiele was the only surviving boy among three sisters. His father died of syphilis, insane, when Egon was 14.

Schiele drew obsessively as a child and went on to study in Vienna at the School of Arts and Crafts and the Academy. At the Academy he was discovered by artist Gustav Klimt who invited him to exhibit work in the 1909 Kunstschau (art show) where he saw works by Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh (both of whom became important influences).

Egon Schiele
Austrian 1890-1918
Kneeling female nude, front view 1912
watercolour and pencil
48.3 x 31.5 cm
Wien Museum, Vienna
Estate of Arthur Roessler, 1961
Photo: Peter Kainz

Taboo subjects

Still barely out of adolescence himself, Schiele depicted the body – the female body especially – with the direct, almost mechanical curiosity of an adolescent. He scandalised audiences by depicting taboo subjects such as masturbation and lesbian love in painting and drawing, subjects previously reserved for the clandestine pornographic market.

‘Erotic’ art

Schiele invested his depiction of naked girls and women with an intensity that bordered on the neurotic and narcissistic, but equally was loaded with existential angst. Schiele’s ‘erotic’ drawings and paintings seem to stress a solitary and isolated experience of sex for both males and females. In this sense his art can be seen as one of modern neurosis.

This feeling is emphasised by the awkward gestures and poses of his figures – their splayed hands, their taught bodies – and the nervous, agitated quality of line.

Schiele’s subjects

Schiele painted somewhat claustrophobic townscapes and brooding, evocative landscapes that often seem to portend death. His response to seeing van Gogh’s work resulted in paintings of sunflowers and the direct homage The artist’s room at Neulengbach from 1911.

Self-portrait with peacock waistcoat, standing 1911
gouache, watercolour and crayon
51.5 x 34.5 cm
Private collection

However portraiture, especially self-portraiture, dominated his work. His self-portraits focus on the condition of his inner life rather than his outward appearance. Similarly, his portraits capture the intensity and essence of each sitter’s presence and persona.

‘Scandalous’ lifestyle

Schiele is also known for the scandal surrounding his lifestyle and drawings. His habit of inviting street urchins into his studio to model for him drew the disapproval of the local townsfolk.

In what is known as the Neulengbach Affair, Schiele was arrested, imprisoned and charged with seduction of a minor. The charge was later dropped but police collected about 100 drawings from his studio and he was convicted of displaying erotic drawings to children.

Egon Schiele
Austrian 1890-1918
The artist's room in Neulengbach 1911
oil on wood panel
40.0 x 31.5 cm
Wien Museum, Vienna
Arthur Roessler Bequest 1955

The experience was devastating for Schiele, who protested: ‘The adults – have they forgotten how corrupt they themselves were, how attracted and excited by sex when they were children?’

At least one of the offending drawings was publicly burned in court and Schiele spent 21 days in prison. In 1918, along with his young wife, Schiele died of the Spanish flu; he was only 28 years old.

© 2011 National Gallery of Victoria