Egon Schiele – Sunflowers, 1909

3 Mar

Amidst those golden
Flowers of melancholy
The spirit is ruled
By silent darkness.

Egon Schiele, Sunflowers, 1909, oil on canvas, 150×30 cm (59×11 3/4)

The elongated format of this painting is very unusual and thrilling, but it isn’t the only thing which makes this painting fascinating. Vincent van Gogh is responsible for immortalising the motif of the sunflower in his wonderful paintings full of ecstatic yellow colour and rough brushstrokes, but Egon Schiele painted quite a few “portraits”of this flower as well. In Schiele’s paintings, the sunflower isn’t just a bright yellow flower, in fact it looks almost completely the opposite. Both Schiele’s nudes and sunflowers are skinny, fragile, melancholy, broken creatures. Despite the extremely vertical format of the painting, there still doesn’t seem to be enough room for the sunflower to grow. The space around the sunflower, although devoid of any background or ornamentation, appears restrictive, almost claustrophobic. There is no room to grow, no room to rise his head up towards the sun. It is hard to believe that such a thin, frail stem can hold such a large head of the flower, dark like the night and heavy with dreams. Trapped on that canvas with no fellow flowers for company, the sunflower is all alone, isolated and lonely. Schiele’s paintings of flowers are always psychological portraits. The mood, the form, the drab autumnal colours are pure poetry and speak more than words can. Despite the visual eloquence of Schiele’s painting, I would still like to share Georg Trakl’s poem “The Sunflowers”:

You golden sunflowers,
Feelingly bowed to die,
You humble sisters
In such silence
Ends Helian’s year
Of mountainous cool.
And the kisses
Make pale his drunken brow
Amidst those golden
Flowers of melancholy
The spirit is ruled
By silent darkness.

This is one of Schiele’s early works, painted at the age of nineteen maybe even eighteen, when he was still experimenting and finding his style. The vertical format is the only thing that connects him with Klimt and thus with Secession and Japonisme as well. The way Schiele uses colour and line is already unique and striking. Bellow is an example of Japanese art of the same vertical format because the format was taken from Japanese art. Interestingly, in Shunso’s artwork the leaves and branches of the tree give the impression that the space is stretching out, outside the bounds of the artwork. In Schiele’s painting the space seems to be closing in on the sunflower.

Hishida Shunso, Black Cat, a Meiji Silk Painting, 1910, colours on silk, 150×51 cm

5 Responses to “Egon Schiele – Sunflowers, 1909”

  1. sbmumford 3rd Mar 2021 at 3:15 pm #

    Wonderful post. I was just talking about Schiele and Japanese prints with my students, by coincidence. His use of line, shape and pattern connect him my mind to the lovely Edo period prints that became so prized in France in the late 19th century.
    Do you know Utamaro’s ‘The Hussy’, part of his ‘Through the moralizing eyes of parents’ series? So beguiling and sexy! The eroticism seems to connect to Schiele too.

    The only downside to Schiele’s work was his evident fondness for children, that was apparently not so pure.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Byron's Muse 3rd Mar 2021 at 6:41 pm #

      Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed the post! No, I don’t know about that Utamaro’s artwork, but I will go check it out right now because I am intrigued. I still think Schiele only painted children and nothing more.


      • sbmumford 3rd Mar 2021 at 9:22 pm #

        I certainly have not read any definitive proof that Schiele was sexually interested in children, although I do think that a few of his drawings strongly suggest it, and he was apparently hounded out of at least one town by residents who thought he was exploiting children.
        He was arrested for seducing a 13 year old – but it must be said for context that the age of consent in Austria at the time was 14! Two of his studios were known as places where delinquent children hung out.

        So I don’t know… I can only say that even if the charges and rumors were true, and some of the drawings do appear to merge sexual desire with prepubescence; even so, it doesn’t detract from the fact of his great artistic talent.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Upside-down Land 3rd Mar 2021 at 3:57 pm #

    You have brought new painters to my attention, and new paintings by those, like Shiele, I know, and always accompanying these are your delightful and insightful text. Many thanks, Byron’s Muse.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Byron's Muse 3rd Mar 2021 at 6:38 pm #

      Thank you so much, I really appreciate your kind words!


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