Tag Archives: 20th century art

Henri Rousseau – The Dream

12 Aug

I recently watched the film “Love in the Time of Cholera” (2007) and I really liked the title sequence with a jungle-inspired animation, it reminded me of Henri Rousseau’s imaginative paintings.

Henri Rousseau, The Dream, 1910

Henri Rousseau’s life and paintings are equally fascinating. They are fascinating because he wasn’t a typical bohemian artist living in Montmartre and in fact started painting rather late in life when he was in his early forties and worked as a tax collector. He at last decided to fully devote himself to art at the age of forty-nine. Another thing which makes him fascinating as an artist is his subject matter; jungles and strange dream-like exotic places filled his canvases. Can you fathom the scope of his imagination when he conjured up such vivid and almost surreal scenes even in the greyness of Parisian winters. Cafes, boulevards, bridges, the Seine, dances and cocottes and dandies, such subjects were all right for Impressionists and Post-Impressionist, but Rousseau followed his own path.

Painting “The Dream” is perhaps Rousseau’s most famous work and an excellent representative of his style. In the middle of a jungle a nude lady is lying on a read couch, surrounded by many different trees and plants, each overshadowing the other with its intricate green colours and fine shadowing. The details seem realistic, while the composition all together is everything but. It is clear this isn’t a faithful portrayal of a jungle or a forest, but a place of Rousseau’s Parisian reveries, but nonetheless it is striking how he captured the mood of a place he never even visited. But perhaps I am wrong, for I have never visited a jungle myself! Anyhow, the nude long-haired lady is not alone. The place is bursting with life, from all corners some strange creatures are breathing, hearts are beating and wild eyes as yellow as amber are glistening strangely. Two lions are lying in the grass; both with mad stares, one is looking at her, and the other at us. Behind the lions stands a dark-skinned flautist, a motif which some art historians have interpreted as being erotic. Around the lady large blue flowers are protruding their petals, and birds are sitting on tree branches. An orange snake in the grass, you can really imagine its moist cold body moving quickly through the grass, hidden from the moonlight. The moon is white and full, and things are not as they seem.

Henri Rousseau, The Snake Charmer, 1907

Another interesting painting is “The Snake Charmer”. A nude dark-skinned woman is playing a flute and, well, charming the snake as the title suggests, but visually her dark horizontal figure is dividing the space on two different places, the lake on the left and the dark impenetrable jungle forest on the right. Three black snakes arise sinisterly from the grass, awaken to the beautiful mystical sounds of the flute which, I am sure, makes the leaves and flowers sigh with delight too. I am constantly amazed at how detailed Rousseau was with painting grass and trees, and how diligent, painting each one with care. Look at each leaf individually, the shape and dark matte colour makes it appear so unnatural, and when observed all together they appear even more surreal. Again, a full moon is shining low on the horizon, over the lake, but its silvery shine doesn’t reach the darkness of the forest.

Henri Rousseau, Tiger in a Tropical Storm, 1891

Painting “Tiger in a Tropical Storm” is just amazing! Just look at the tiger’s face, full of expression, his mouth in a grin, his eyes wide open. And how vividly Rousseau has portrayed the tropical storm, the pouring rain that could drain you to the bone, the silver thunders, the swaying branches of trees and dancing leaves in many shades of green and yellow. There’s one chapter in Irving Stone’s book about Vincent van Gogh called “Lust for Life”, which is amazing by the way, where Vincent visits Henri Rousseau in his studio in a poor part of Paris. There they find the artist’s room full of jungle scenes on the walls and four boys with their violins waiting for the lecture to begin because Rousseau often gave violin lessons to earn extra money, and plus he loved playing the instrument as well. He is portrayed as someone very humble and detached from the world around him, in a good way, living in his imagination and not very worried about the things around him.

Advertisements

Wladyslaw Ślewiński – Orphan from Poronin

2 Aug

Wladyslaw Ślewiński, Orphan from Poronin, c. 1906

One gaze at Wladyslaw Ślewiński’s painting “Orphan from Poronin” is enough to make it stay etched in the memory forever because the face he painted is unforgettable, even though it didn’t belong to a person extinguished by wealth or importance in society. Gentle face of this poor orphan boy touches one right in the heart. Just look at him; in that worn-out coat which might have fitted him years before and trousers ever so slightly ripped at the knee, and that odd hat. He looks ill at ease seating at that chair, his fright and anxiety captured for eternity on canvas. The drabness of the wall behind him seems to mirror his thoughts. Upright and stiff he appears, so much so that you can imagine drops of sweat sliding down his forehead and a lump in his throat, preventing him to speak or even move.

The most interesting part of this portrait is the face because it speaks of so many feelings and gives the painting a psychological depth which separates it from a simple social realism style paintings. Firstly, that strange sickly yellowish coloured skin, hair hidden under the hat, no eyebrows, thin lips tightly together, and a pair of large grey-blue eyes, bordering on tears, which radiate fear, desperation and panic. It lingers in the memory because it touches what is human in all of us. The form of his body, that clear fluid outline of his coat, the shape of his face with a thick black line contouring the jaw, that strange sick yellowish colour of his skin, and the formless way the hands were painted reminds me so much of Edvard Munch which is somewhat strange because Ślewiński’s artistic style was often compared to that of his friend Paul Gauguin. The two met in 1889 and spent some time painting together in Brittany. Wladyslaw Ślewiński (1856-1918) was a Polish painter who was educated in Paris and spent most of his life in France. Still, this painting during his stay in Poland from 1905 to 1910, before returning to Paris again. The awkwardness of the pose also reminds me of Munch’s painting “Puberty” where a girl is sitting on the bed with an equally haunting face and doesn’t seem to know what to do with herself.

Amedeo Modigliani, The Little Peasant, c. 1918

Wladyslaw Ślewiński’s painting irresistibly reminded me of one painting by Modigliani, which might sound strange since Modi is known for his sensuous nudes. Nonetheless, the same year that Ślewiński died, Jewish-Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani who would himself be dead in two years, painted his painting “The Little Peasant”. Stylistically it is instantly recognisable as Modigliani’s work; a sad looking elongated figure in a sombre interior. This little peasant boy has the same sadness, but his gaze possesses none of the eloquence of Ślewiński’s orphan boy. He has a similar hat and his suit is equally worn out, bursting at the buttons, and look how clumsy his hands are. His motionless and mute expressionless statue-like rosy-cheeked face and his distant gaze don’t have the psychological strength as the orphan’s blue eyes have, but it has an incomparable silent and haunting beauty.

Egon Schiele – Edith In a Striped Dress

13 Mar

This is a post from last spring, but many of my new readers probably haven’t read it yet so I decided to share it again because these paintings are dear to my heart.

________________________________________________________________________________

Egon Schiele’s portrait of his wife Edith in a colourful striped dress is something quite unusual and new in his art, and her face, full of naivety, sweetness and innocence seems so out of place amongst his usual female portraits, nudes and half-nudes, with a decaying heroin chic appeal. Where did this change of style come from?

Egon Schiele, Portrait of Edith Schiele, the artist’s wife, 1915

When I first saw this portrait, I loved the stripes on the dress for they seemed so alive, so intricate and colourful, and yet the quality of the colour is murky and earthy, as usual in Schiele’s palette. I was also amused by her face expression, but my interest quickly turned to Schiele’s alluring nudes. What can this portrait show us, apart from the fact that Edith loved wearing striped dresses? Well, it’s a psychological study which shows us Edith’s true personality. Let’s say that her true colours shine through. Look at her – she looks awkward and artless, she is clumsy and doesn’t know what to do with her hands, her eyes are wide open and eyebrows slightly raised, her lips are stretched in a weird, shy smile, as if she’s in the spotlight but wants to get away, she’s pretty but not exceptional, timid but not gloomy. Prior to marrying Schiele, Edith led quite a sheltered life, with her sister Adele and her conservative parents.

In Spring of 1914, Schiele noticed that there were two pretty young girls living just across his flat. Naturally interested, he started thinking of ways to meet them which was hard because the girls lived under the watchful eyes of their mother. They started waving each other through the window, and sometimes Schiele would paint a self-portrait and show it to them through the window. Surely by now, both Edith and Adele had dreamt of meeting that cheeky, arrogant but charming artist across the street. Schiele started sending them little notes, the content of which must have made Edith and Adele blush and giggle, but they never replied to any of them for a year. They met with Wally’s help, and all four went to the theatre or cinema together. Needless to say that the cynical Schiele was interested in both girls, in fact, for some time he couldn’t decide whether he wanted to marry Edith or Adele. Crazy situation, but luckily for him, it turned out that Adele wasn’t really interested so he settled on Edith and they got married, despite the strong disapproval of her parents, on 17 June 1915, which was the anniversary of the marriage of Schiele’s parents.

Scenes from ‘Egon Schiele: Excess and Punishment’ (1981)

I can understand why Edith liked Schiele, women always go for the bad guys; he was an artist, straightforward about what he wanted, he had a bad reputation and was once imprisoned for pornographic art, and, admit it or not, there’s something romantic about criminals. What remains a mystery to me is why Schiele liked her? What could this timid, shy, proper and frightened girl had to offer him? Most importantly, what was it so appealing about Edith that the witty, funny street-wise, experienced Wally didn’t have?

We sense here the conflicting emotions that Edith must have caused in Schiele: a quiet pleasure in her innocence, a satisfaction with her selfless loyalty mixed with frustration at her lack of of sexual energy. Schiele makes her seem passive and whilst he found vulnerability attractive he must also have longed for those quite different qualities which Wally possessed in abundance: the kind of temperament and aggressive eroticism which made Schiele himself feel vulnerable.“*

Edith was portrayed well in the film Egon Schiele: Excess and Punishment (1981). If I remember well, in one scene she’s sitting in Schiele’s lap and he shows her some of his erotic drawings, and she throws a quick shy glance, giggling and blushing, and you can see that she’s at unease with the nude models in his studio, stretching in different poses. She wanted to pose for him so he wouldn’t look at other women, but she just couldn’t satisfy his artistic demands. Again, that’s something that Wally did more than well.

Where did this wish to settle down, this wish for security come from? It seems like he wanted to indulge in a bourgeois life all of a sudden. Also, his decision to marry Edith and not Wally shows the double standards typical for men of his time; Wally was an artist’s model, a position practically equal to that of a prostitute, and as much as he loved her aggressive eroticism, he still wanted his wife to be modest and chaste. In the portrait of Edith in a striped dress from the same year, again her shyness shines through. Look at her eyes, frightened like that of a delicate fawn in the forest glade, and her sloping shoulders, almost crouching under the weight of the artist’s gaze, her hands in her lap; she looks like a child forced to sit still against its wish. Schiele always painted his middle-class wife modestly dressed, with a stiff collar and long sleeves, whereas looking at the pictures of Wally we know only of her petticoats, lingerie and stockings, not of her hats and dresses. Without a doubt, Edith loved Schiele, but she couldn’t understand his art.

Egon Schiele, Portrait of Edith Schiele with striped dress, 1915

Their marriage didn’t last long for they both died in that sad autumn of 1918. First World War had just ended, Spanish flu had taken many lives, amongst its victims were Edith who died six months pregnant on 28th October, and Schiele who died a few days later, on 31st October.

Everything that is sad, and occurs in autumn, gets imbued with an even greater sadness, but Autumn was Schiele’s favourite season, he wrote ‘I know there is much misery in our existence and because I find Autumn much more beautiful than every other season…. It fills the heart with grief and reminds us that we are but pilgrims on this earth…’ He also wrote in his short lyrical autobiography: ‘I often wept through half-closed eyes when Autumn came. When Spring arrived I dreamed of the universal music of life and then exulted in the glorious Summer and laughed when I painted the white Winter.’ The fresh, new, dreamy Spring of his art is forever tied with the image of cheerful Wally in her stockings, forever smiling from the canvas, and so the Autumn of his art is tied with Edith’s timid half smile and her striped dress. Rapture and gloom, life and death, Eros and Thanatos; all intertwined in Schiele’s paintings.

___________________________

*Egon Schiele, Frank Whitford

George Bellows – The Lone Tenement

22 Jan

The first thing I love about this painting is the title: The Lone Tenement. Doesn’t it sound so evocative of someone lonely, solitary, sad and abandoned? I say “someone” because both the title and the painting awake strong feelings in my heart; I almost want to hug the lonesome tenement and make its loneliness go away. I like to imagine that this is exactly what George Bellows did in his own way; by painting the tenement he preserved a memory of it for all times.

George Bellows, The Lone Tenement, December 1909

George Bellows’s painting shows a lonely building which stands as a relic surviving from an old neighbourhood block. The sight of the tall isolated building reminds me of a misunderstood, melancholy human figure from one of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings. In a cold December twilight, the lonely building stands on the outskirts of New York City as the sad witness of the urban expansion and progress and the last relic of the old. Thickly, richly applied paint and those dazzling orange and lavender shades somewhat oppose the sombre subject. If there is an expression ‘Living in the moment’, than I’m calling this painting ‘Painting in the moment’ because this building stood there lonely and vulnerable in December 1909 when Bellows painted this, but perhaps if he’d waited a month longer it wouldn’t have been there at all. And a month earlier, two more buildings would have been there too. In this painting, Bellows turned an ugly sight that most people wouldn’t even notice into something beautiful, lyrical and able to awake strong emotions.

George Bellows (1882-1925) was an American painter connected with the group of painters called The Ashcan School who concentrated on portraying the everyday reality of the city that never sleeps: New York City. In his last years, Bellows focused on domestic scenes and portraits of his wife and two daughters, but early in his career he painted urban New York and some very well known boxing scenes. Bellows was the City’s greatest portraitist in the beginning of the twentieth century; he portrayed the disappearance of the old and intimate New York and scenes that interested him were the demolitions of old neighbourhoods, building of new bridges and train stations, construction sites, and places where the urban meets the wild nature surrounding the City. Each of his paintings has a distinct mood and if you concentrate you can almost hear the sounds in the distance and smell the air. Bellows observed and painted meticulously the City’s rapid change, its vivacious energy, its joys, sorrows and struggles for a sense of identity in a never ending flow of change. Here is a quote from the magazine Harper’s Weekly from 1869 in connection to Bellows’s portrayal of a culture that is always rushing and always changing: “In London or Paris you may see some relic of past centuries; these are reverenced and preserved as long as they endure, but New York is a series of experiments, and every thing which has lived its life and played its part is held to be dead, and is buried, and over it grows a new world.”

When I daydream of New York, my visions are pink and soft-edged like clouds and shaped by Lou Reed’s songs and the street-wise groovy rock ‘n’ roll of Velvet Underground, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe’s romance as artists working side by side, Edie Sedgwick on one of the legendary parties wearing huge earrings and talking to Andy Warhol, Sid Vicious and Nancy kissing in an alleyway in the film “Sid and Nancy” (1986), Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane walking hand in hand with Katrina in the last scene of “The Sleepy Hollow” (1999) as snow starts falling gently… so being introduced to Bellows’s art and gazing through New York City through his eyes is just adding to the richness of my daydreams!

Rembrandt, The Mill, 1645-48

In connection to the sentiment of seeing the building in the full scale of emotions that you would see a human being with, I will mention Rembrandt’s darkly romantic and hauntingly beautiful “The Mill” which shows a scenery and a mill bursting with emotions. It’s more than a landscape and the Mill appears more like a melancholy loner than just a mill.

Happy Birthday, Marc Chagall!

7 Jul

A dreamer amongst artists, a poet of colours, a kind soul with a psychedelic imagination: Marc Chagall, was born on 7th July 1887. Let us dive into the beauty of his art, be high as kites for a while, and then close our eyes and become a part of his world of love, dreams, flowers and the rapturous ecstatic blue colour.

Marc Chagall, Bouquet près de la fenêtre, 1959-60

I think this is a good moment to read about Chagall’s years in Paris and the whimsicality of his art. If you are perhaps interested in the mystery behind his birthdate and the symbolism of number seven in his art, you can read about it here. And this is a post I wrote about Chagall last February:

Marc Chagall – The Paris Years (1910-1914)

‘At that time I had grasped that I had to go to Paris. The soil that had nourished my art was Vitebsk; but my art needed Paris as much as a tree needs water. I had no other reason for leaving my homeland, and I believe that in my paintings I have always remained true to it.’ (Marc Chagall, My Life)

Marc Chagall, Paris Through the Window, 1913

It’s 1910 and Marc Chagall has just arrived in Paris. After a four day journey by railway from Saint Petersburg, he settled in the first available atelier. Paris was the Mecca for young artists; dominant art form at the time was Cubism, all sorts of avant-garde movement, both in painting and poetry, were emerging and art circles of Paris had just began migrating from Montmartre to a chic area called Montparnasse which would remain a home to many artists in the years that followed.

Chagall visited ‘Salon des Indépendants’ (Society of Independent Artists), just a day after he arrived in the ‘capital of arts’. He visited Louvre as well. He realised there, in front of the canvases by Manet, Monet, Pissaro and Millet, why for all those years Russian art seemed foreign to him, why he couldn’t connect with it. Language of his paintings was foreign and bizarre to Russian artists. Chagall soon enrolled at Academie de La Palette, an avant-garde art school. Other notable pupils of the school were: Sonia Delaunay, Roger de La Fresnaye and Lyubov Popova.

Marc Chagall, Still-life (Nature morte), 1912

Still, not everything was as rose-tinted as it may seem. In addition to being penniless and not speaking French, Chagall was very lonely and often his thoughts wandered back to his home in Vitebsk, his Hasidic experiences, Russian folklore, and his beloved Bella. ‘All that prevented me from returning immediately was the distance between Paris and my home town’, he wrote in his autobiography My Life.

After living in a small atelier in Montmarte, Chagall moved into one of the studios in artist’s residence called ‘La Ruche’ (literary Bee Hive, named after the shape of the building), in Montparnasse. This atelier was more spacious than the previous one, which meant he was able to use larger canvases. Night after night he painted until dawn. Sometimes he used cut-out sheets and his nightshirts instead of proper canvases. His atelier was often disorderly; eggshells and tins of cheap soup could be found lying around. On the wooden table reproductions of El Greco and Cezanne’s painting laid scattered around. Sometimes, after a night spent painting furiously, he thought of buying warm croissants on the loan, but went to bed instead. In the market, he could only afford to buy a cucumber, as he once said. Other mornings, he hoped his friend Blaise Cendrars would come around and take him to breakfast. Also, Chagall painted naked because he despised being dressed, and he had poor taste when it came to clothing. One of his neighbours in La Ruche was Chaim Soutine, a ‘wilful and grouchy eccentric’ and a fellow Eastern Jew.

Various sounds could be heard coming from the ateliers: humiliated models wept in Russian studios, Italian ateliers echoed with songs, romance and sounds of guitar, in Jewish – discussions and quarrels, while Chagall painted in solitude and silence.

Marc Chagall, The Fiddler, 1912

Chagall couldn’t have chosen a better moment to come to Paris. Russian artists were welcomed with great enthusiasm. Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, formed in 1909, sparked a passion for all things Russian and exotic. Diaghilev brought together dancers, choreographers, musicians, writers and painters. Ballets such as Scheherazade, Les Orientales and Stravinsky’s The Firebird caused sensation. Exotic mood, colourful costumes, emphasis on the individual dancer and expressive dance movements changed public’s notion of ballet, and opened doors for many young artists to express themselves. Leon Bakst, Chagall’s former teacher in Saint Petersburg, came to Paris and worked as a scene-painter for Russian Ballet.

Chagall once visited Diaghilev’s ballet, hoping to encounter Bakst and Nijinsky. Behind the scenes he stumbled upon rosy-cheeked and red-haired Bakst who smiled to him. Then Nijinsky came along, but quickly returned to the stage where he performed a dance from the ballet ‘Le spectre de la rose’ with Tamara Karsavina. Italian poet Gabrielle D’Annuzio was flirting with Ida Rubinstein. Bakst considered hiring Chagall as his helper in scene-painting, but he quickly dismissed the idea when he saw how unskilled Chagall was.

Marc Chagall, Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers, 1913

Interestingly, Marc Chagall’s circle of friends in Paris was mostly comprised of poets and writers, not merely painters. His closest friends were Guillaume Apollinaire, poet, novelist and art critic whom Chagall called ‘gentle Zeus’, and Swiss-born poet and novelist Blaise Cendrars, whom many considered as Rimbaud’s direct heir in poetry style. Sonia and Robert Delaunay were one of his painter-friends. Chagall was drawn to Sonia for various reasons: they were almost the same age, both grew up in Jewish homes and both had studied art in St. Petersburg.

Unlike Sonia, who fully delved into Orphism along with her husband Robert, Chagall’s paintings from ‘The Paris Years’ burst with motifs reminiscent of his childhood in Vitebsk. Painting ‘I and the Village’, a psychedelic Cubist fairytale, with soft, velvety colour transitions, is a whimsical kaleidoscope of colourful houses painted upside-down, Ortodox church, man’s face with a green mask, upside-down female violin-player, man carrying a scythe, and a Jewish element – The Tree of Life. Chagall’s style is unlike anything else in art history, and just like Modigliani, he is a painter whose art cannot be placed in a specific art movement. Nourishment of his art was childhood memories and imagination. This painting is a visual representation of his thought ‘The soil that had nourished my art was Vitebsk; but my art needed Paris as much as a tree needs water.

Marc Chagall, I and the Village, 1911

I just finished reading his autobiography ‘My Life’, and I can’t express how much I’m enchanted with his art and him as a person. His humanity is what I admire the most. To me, he is an embodiment of Terence’s quote ‘I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me.’ (Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.)

Marc Chagall, The Drunkard (Le saoul), 1911-12

MARC CHAGALL (poem by Blaise Cendrars)

He is asleep

Now he is awake

And suddenly he is painting

He reaches for a church paints with a church

He reaches for a cow and paints with a cow

With a sardine

With skulls hands knives

Paint with a nerve of an ox

All the besmirched sufferings of little

Jewish towns

Tormented by burning love from the depth

of Russia

For France

Death heart and desires

He paints with his thighs

Has his eyes in his behind

There it is your face

It is You dear reader

It is I

It is he

His own betrothed

The grocer on the corner

The milkmaid

Midwife

Newborn babies are being washed in

buckets of blood

Heavenly madness

Mouths gush forth fashions

The Eiffel Tower is like a corkscrew

Hands heaped on each other

Christ

He himself Jesus Christ

He lived a long youth on the cross

Every new day another suicide

And suddenly he is no longer painting

He was awake

Now he is asleep

Strangles himself with a tie

Chagall astonished

Born on my immortality.’

Egon Schiele – Neuelengbach Affair – Martyr for the Cause of Art: Part II

25 Apr

I do not deny that I have made drawings and watercolours of an erotic nature. But they are always works of art. Are there no artists who have done erotic pictures?” (Egon Schiele)

Egon Schiele, Prisoner (Gefangener), 24-4-1912

What are the two most important things that happened in April 1912? I shall tell you; Titanic sank and Egon Schiele was arrested. “Neulengbach Affair” is the name given to the string of events which took place in April 1912, and this affair holds an important place in the romanticised myth of Schiele as a tortured genius and a painter of perversity.

In the first part of this post, I’ve written about things that Schiele painted in Neulengbach; self-portraits, Wally, landscapes, and a very interesting Van Gogh-inspired painting of his bedroom, but he also did many erotic drawings, which was his primary subject. Schiele’s studio became a gathering place for the misfits, the delinquency, the mischievous children of Neulengbach, and he’d often paint them too. Sometimes, after he’d finished painting Wally, he’d let the children play around his house while carelessly or naively leaving his erotic drawings around the studio. Older children, who weren’t so innocent any more, started whispering things, and soon gossips and accusations started spreading through this peaceful town. All sorts of disgusting things have been said; that he invited children to his house, painted them nude and encouraged them to do improper things. While the people of Krumau disliked Schiele for no apparent reason, the inhabitants of Neulengbach at least had a motif to hate him, and soon complaints were made to the police. On 13th April 1912, Schiele was arrested and charged for seducing and abducting a minor, and exhibiting erotic paintings in front of children; only the latter has proven to be true.

Although the charges of abduction and seduction were quickly dropped when Schiele appeared in court after two weeks in prison, a large amount of erotic drawings found around the house certainly didn’t please the police, nor the town’s people, nor served good to Schiele. They confiscated more than a hundred of them and filed them under ‘pornography’.

Egon Schiele, Tür in das Offene (Doors in the Cell), 1912

The judge obviously shared the views of town’s inhabitants towards Schiele and his art because, at the end of the trial, he burned one of his drawings on a flickering candle flame, a gesture I find heartbreaking and could not watch without tears of anger. They burnt his drawing. They could have burnt all of his drawings, but the hands that made them were alive and full of vigour to produce more masterpieces, and they did. The Neulengbach affair only propelled Schiele to fame. Sometimes the ‘Neulengbach affair’ takes too much spaces in the myth of Egon Schiele, but it is important in a way that it cemented Schiele’s image as notorious figure in Vienna’s artistic circles. Just twenty-two years old and already the image of him as a dangerous and a provocative artist started spreading in Vienna. The myth of Schiele has started.

This is a fragment from “Schiele’s” prison-journal:

At the hearing one of my confiscated drawings, the one that had hung in my bedroom, was solemnly burned over a candle flame by the judge in his robes! Auto-da-fé! Savonarola! Inquisition! Middle Ages! Castration, hypocrisy! Go then to the museums and cut up the greatest works of art into little pieces. He who denies sex is a filthy person who smears in the lowest way his own parents who have begotten him.

A note: the journal is true to some extent, but it needs to be taken with reserve because it was not written by Schiele himself, rather, it was written by Arthur Roessler, an art critic and friend of Schiele.

What started as just an artist making erotic drawings, turned into sinister stories of abduction and seduction, but when it comes to the bottom of things, people of Neulengbach didn’t like him because he was different. In small towns the story goes like this: if you don’t fit in, you’re going down, if you dare to be different, you’ll get punished for that. I think that even if Schiele restricted himself to painting only landscapes and sunflowers, they’d still find something to accuse him of.

Egon Schiele, Self-portrait as prisoner, 25 April 1912

All in all, Schiele spent 24 days in prison, and while he was there, he wasted no time, but continued creating his art. Supplied by Wally with thin, bad quality paper and food, such as oranges, he drew his surroundings and many self-portraits. Don’t think he drew frantically day and night, he also spent many hours in deep thoughts and contemplation, and his self-portraits show the agony and torment the artist endured. Drawing above is a good example. In the upper right corner, Schiele wrote this: “Ich werde für die Kunst und meine Geliebten gerne ausharren” or “For my art and my loved ones I shall gladly endure.” Watercolour of greys and blue, anguished face in an agony, and yet he states he shall gladly endure. Schiele was full of such statements, elevated and full of pathos such as “I do not feel punished, but rather purified.” and my favourite “To restrict the artist is a crime. It is to murder germinating life“, which show what a drama queen he really was.

In these drawings, the cold greyness of his prison cell mingles with eloquently expressed angst and torment, and that’s what makes these prison-portraits so memorable. They are like a visual diary. Pencil lines and watercolour work in absolute harmony and the gradation of the blue-grey colour is gorgeous, like the sky and clouds on an overcast day, and the parts where the greyness mixes with orange-yellows is exquisite. I think watercolours in general are an excellent medium, I love the effect of lyricism and fragility they create, colours mixing freely, kissing one another and creating a new shade, there’s something bohemian about it. Another very interesting thing about these self-portraits is that they are the only self-portraits Schiele ever made using his memory, without a mirror. In his studio, he’d always use a mirror. But notice how old he looks in most of these drawings, he was just two months shy of his twenty-second birthday and yet he drew himself looking old, tired, worn out, and on the self-portrait down below, he almost looks dead, or at least creepy.

Egon Schiele, The Single Orange Was the Only Light, 19th April 1912

Along with self-portraits of himself as a prisoner, Schiele also drew his prison cell, and in The Single Orange Was the Only Light we see his bed and the doors of the cell. His pillow is actually his coat folded to serve the purpose of a pillow, and we see his blanket and one orange. We can understand the importance he attributes to a piece of shiny, orange-coloured fruit, given to him by Wally, if we think of his drab prison existence; the lonely hours filled with uncertainty in that cold, grey prison cell, sleeping in an uncomfortable bed, staring at barren walls, covered with a mangy blanket. It’s also great that we can know the exact dates these were made. No matter how rebellious and provocative he was, when it came to adding signatures and dates to his paintings, he was the most meticulous fellow out there.

I think Schiele himself had mixed feelings about his prison-time. One the one hand, he was worried about the outcome of his imprisonment because the prospects looked bleak in the beginning; exhibiting erotica was considered a serious offence with a maximal punishment of six month’ hard labour, while the offence of seducing a minor would result in twenty years of hard labour. From April 1912, Schiele had only six more years to spend on this earth. Imagine if he’d have to spent them all in prison. What a dreadful crime against art that would have been!? I shudder at the thought.

Egon Schiele, Self Portrait as St. Sebastian, 1914

On the other hand, for the dramatic, self-pitying side of Schiele’s personality, those three weeks spent in prison were just the thing that was needed to make him a true martyr for the cause of art. I’m sure that Serge Gainsbourg has a self-satisfied smirk on his face when he heard that the eroticism of his song ‘Je t’aime’ was deemed offensive and that the song was banned in many countries. He said himself once that provocation was his oxygen, and I think Schiele felt something similar because he was self-consciously provocative. Perhaps that’s just my view because I’d certainly enjoy being provocative. Schiele wrote himself that he feels ‘purified, not punished’, and he identified himself with St Sebastian, who is always presented in art with arrows; this is an identification that he shared with the German poet Georg Trakl, and both wrote similar poetry, full of anxiety and symbolism at the same time. Schiele’s yet another self-portrait from 1914 shows this fascination and identification with St Sebastian; he drew himself as a thin, fragile figure with half-closed eyes, almost falling down from the attack of the two arrows protruding his body. He didn’t fill in the drawing with watercolour, yet the paper and pencil lines are eloquent enough to tell us about the anguish he felt. No colour – no life. No colour because he’s fading away.

Egon Schiele, I Love Antitheses (self-portrait), 1912

All in all, the Neulengbach affair that seemed like a tragedy at first sight, turned out to be a stepping stone for Schiele’s career and it started the cult of Schiele as a tortured genius who endured suffering for his art – a martyr of art. After the darkness, followed the light. Schiele has risen from the ashes and once again he was arrogant, brazen, bursting with confidence, and the words he wrote to his mother in March 1913 confirm that a fruitful period lay in front of him: “All beautiful and noble qualities have been united in me… I shall be the fruit which will leave eternal vitality behind even after its decay. How great must be your joy, therefore, to have given birth to me!”

Egon Schiele – Neuelengbach Affair – Martyr for the Cause of Art: Part I

21 Apr

This is the first out of two posts which will explore Egon Schiele’s artistic endeavours in a small town of Neulengbach and his time spent in prison for his erotic drawings.

Egon Schiele, Nude against coloured background, 1911

As I already wrote in my post about Egon Schiele’s Krumau Scenes, small towns and suburbs held a particular charm for this artist, and even before coming to Krumau in May 1910, just a month shy of his twentieth birthday, he’d dreamt of an artistic paradise in some small town where he could afford to rent a cheap studio and be surrounded by nature all day long. Also, he wanted to escape the dark city full of shadows – Vienna, or that is at least how he saw it. Krumau was the birthplace of his mother and that’s why it caught his attention. He first visited the place with his painter-friends; Anton Peschka and Ervin Osen, and then, in May 1911, he settled in a little house near the river Vltava (Moldau) with his new model, lover and a muse – Wally Neuzil. He painted her in the studio, and he also painted a lot of landscapes, capturing the densely situated colourful houses, emphasising their decaying mood, and sunflowers too.

Need I mention that the inhabitants of this little, dreamy, provincial town weren’t really pleased with having a cocky artist living in sin with his pretty little red-haired muse? Town had its charm indeed and Schiele produced some good paintings there, but their heaven came to an end sometime in July 1911, when he wrote to Roessler: “You know how much I like to be in Krumau and now life is made impossible. People boycott us simply because we’re red. Of course I could defend myself, even against all 7,000 of them, but I don’t have the time and why should I bother?” Term ‘red’ was used for a person not going to church. And so Schiele and Wally returned to Vienna.

Egon Schiele, The Self Seers (Death and Man), 1911

Schiele’s longing for a peaceful and creative mood of a small town or a village is so naive in my eyes. Yes, nature is beautiful, but the mood of a small town, the provincial claustrophobia, the judgemental and simple-minded people, there’s no beauty in that, and I should know. People of Krumau, in Schiele’s time, were a bunch of intolerant, simple-minded fools who probably couldn’t understand his art if their lives depended on it, but wait till you hear what happened in Neulengbach.

Schiele spent only a month in Vienna and already started looking for a new rural paradise where his art would thrive, and he found it very near Vienna, just 35 km away or a short train ride, a town of Neulengbach. Paintings that he made there are very interesting; dark, disturbing, painted with thick heavy brushstrokes in scarce, murky colours they are heavily influenced by the late nineteenth century Symbolist paintings. Just reading the titles of his paintings from these years, such as ‘Dead Mother’, ‘Prophet’ or ‘Pregnant Woman and Death’, gives us a sense of dark times and some serious questioning of life and meaning of existence, and while that may be true to a point, I can’t know what was in his head, his time in Neulengbach was actually a rather happy and productive time.

Painting The Self-Seers is a good example of things that he painted in Neulengbach, and it unites Schiele’s obsession with himself and his interest in morbid themes. Did I mention that he was immensely fascinated with himself? He painted many self-portraits; in some he presented himself in a wild embrace with death, in others – simply masturbating, but in this rather sinister self-portrait he painted himself with his Doppelgänger, the person’s exact double, and a very popular motif in German literature of Romanticism, but also in works of Shelley and Poe. Colours of mud, face expressions unsettling, fingers in a strange position, brushstrokes heavy; like the fingers of a corpse scratching its way from the coffin through the moist loam. While his drawings ooze lightness and colourfulness, his paintings are dark and distorted, like they grew from the muddy, scarce, infertile soil after the rain.

Egon Schiele, The Artist’s Room in Neulengbach, 1911

Perhaps the most important and most interesting of Schiele’s works created in Neulengbach is the painting The Artist’s Room in Neulengbach which obviously took inspiration from Vincent van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles painted in 1888. In both cases, artists painted the bedrooms of their artistic havens. People of Arles and Neulengbach ought to have been privileged that an artist came to live and work in their town, but needless to say that they weren’t.

We can’t help notice the sombre and claustrophobic mood of his bedroom; high viewpoint, the usual palette of browns, black, a bit of yellow and muted red, all intensify the tense and static mood of the room which doesn’t seem that much different to that of a prison cell. Schiele again presents us with his nihilistic vision of the world, and his bedroom, no matter what it looked like in reality, is presented here looking as drab and miserable as the bedroom of Gregor Samsa from Kafka’s Metamorphosis must have looked like. In comparison, Van Gogh’s bedroom bursts with colour and frenzy. Ah, you know what it’s like, bright sun of Arles and some absinthe, and the world appears before your eyes in colours of a rainbow! In van Gogh – it’s passion and vigour, in Schiele – it’s death and decay.

While van Gogh’s room is oil on canvas, Schiele’s painting was made on a smooth piece of wood with colour being applied in many thin layers producing a kind of enamel effect. He made several paintings in this technique, and he called them ‘Bretterl’ or ‘little boards’.

Vincent van Gogh, Bedroom in Arles, 1888

In the following post you’ll find out why he was imprisoned and the effect his time in prison had on his art and the cult of him as a provocative artist. To be continued 🙂