Suburbs and small towns of Middle Europe held a particular charm for Egon Schiele who often yearned to escape the ‘dark and dreadful’ city of Vienna, and venture to provinces and nature around the Czech town of Krumau.
Schiele’s paintings of Krumau from early 1910s offer a decaying vision of this peaceful town situated in the South Bohemia. Unlike the Impressionists who simply couldn’t resist capturing the moment and the play of sunlight on bridges or cathedrals, Schiele captured his inner turmoil while simultaneously portraying the colourful facades and narrow streets of Krumau. From the pictures I’ve seen, Krumau seems like an interesting town and its beauty reveals itself in many aspects; from the mischievous river Vltava and the illustrious Medieval castle overlooking the town, to cobble streets and classic Central European architecture. However, on Schiele’s paintings, the town holds a different appeal. Look at the painting ‘Edge of Town’; crowded houses and intermingled roofs, radiant colours and simplified brushstrokes – like a kaleidoscop of colours and shapes. Schiele himself was never a disciple of accuracy in portrayal of landscapes. And thank God for that, because the very sight of ‘normal’ veduta makes my skin crawl! In Schiele’s paintings there’s intensity, emotions and chaos.
Town of Krumau first caught Schiele’s attention in May 1910 when he, a month shy from his twentieth birthday, visited the place with two comrades and fellow painters; Anton Peschka and Ervin Osen. The town must have seemed like an interesting place for him because it was the birthplace of his mother, and he must have heard about the beautiful nature that surrounds it. On the whole, he settled there, in a ‘little house with a garden on the Moldau (Vltava) River’*, in May 1911, along with Wally Neuzil, his lover and model.
When painting suburbs and small town scenes, Schiele placed his focus not on details and photographic precision, but rather on the mood of the place. To understand why he liked small towns and suburbs you need to know his opinion of big towns and cities. It wasn’t just Schiele, but his whole generation, the artists and the poets, who deliberately continued in their work the fin de siecle vision of cities as places of decay and loss of humanity. For them, modern life and its reflection – the cities, along with the horrors of the First World War, were seen as the products of ‘materialistic tendencies of our civilisation’.
We could say that Schiele liked small towns because they were stark contrasts to his everyday life in Vienna – a city he experienced as ‘dark and full of shadows’.
He said: “I want to be alone. I want to go to the Bohemian Forest. May, June, July, August, September, October. I must see new things and investigate them. I want to taste dark water and see crackling trees and wild winds. I want to gaze with astonishment at moldy garden fences, I want to experience them all, to hear young birch plantations and trembling leaves, to see light and sun, enjoy wet, green-blue valleys in the evening, sense goldfish glinting, see white clouds building up in the sky, to speak to flowers. I want to look intently at grasses and pink people, old venerable churches, to know what little cathedrals say, to run without stopping along curving meadowy slopes across vast plains, kiss the earth and smell soft warm marshland flowers. And then I shall shape things so beautifully: fields of colour…”
Paintings such as ‘House with Shingles’ and ‘House with Drying Laundry’ best evoke Schiele’s love for simplicity and peacefulness of provincial life. In them, he portrayed pell-mell built houses with drab facades, small windows, some broken some not, old roof that’s probably leaking, old chimneys, and then the colourful clothes on the washing line. I just love seeing clothes on washing line! These scenes evoke so many questions: who lived in those houses, how did they live and where are they now? Again we see the typical Egon Schiele colour palette; earthy colours of wood, sand and mud, grays and dark greens. Schiele’s houses are heavy and brown, like they grew from the earth itself, or like they descend into it.
This poem by Russian poet Alexander Blok reminds me of Schiele’s apocalyptic vision of cities:
“The night. The street. Street-lamp. Drugstore.
A meaningless dull light about.
You may live twenty-five years more;
All will still be there. No way out.
You die. You start again and all
Will be repeated as before:
The cold rippling of a canal.
The night. The street. Street-lamp. Drugstore.”
(Alexander Blok, written on 10 October 1912, translated by Vladimir Markov and Merrill Sparks*)
Egon Schiele was born on 12th June 1890, which means I recently celebrated his birthday by fully engulfing myself into his art. Rereading about artists is the best thing ever because there’s always a new aspect of their art that I love. Schiele first lured me with his nudes, then I was crazy about his sunflowers, and now, well, you see that I’m enchanted with his Krumau scenes.