Tag Archives: Expressionism

Oskar Kokoschka – The Bride of the Wind

26 Nov

And you held me, my love, and then went on dreaming.
Of perhaps a different kind of death.

Oskar Kokoschka, The Bride of the Wind (or The Tempest), 1914

In nervous, swirling and frantic brushstrokes Kokoschka painted two lovers lying side by side in a sad embrace. The woman is asleep, her eyes are peacefully closed and while she is sailing the seas of dreams, unaware of the shadows of reality that grow bigger with each passing hour of the night, the man is awake. His deep set eyes gaze into the void, his cheeks are hollow, his fingers ugly and twisted, his chin protruding, his skin taunted over his bones; he might as well be a skeleton already. While their bodies are painted in quick nervous strokes of white colour with dashes of yellow and blue the abstract space around them is made out of swirls of black and midnight blue. The blueness of the space around them might, in different circumstances, lead us to thoughts of something spiritual and serene, a vast blue sky or a calm sea, but his frantic brush strokes have dismissed such thoughts. It’s difficult, or rather impossible to determine the setting, for the whole space appears to us like a nihilistic swamp of darkness and despair; it’s a world from a dark dream, a nightmare, a premonition of the future, a scream from the bottom of one’s being.

The painting allegorically represents the painter and his beloved Alma Mahler who was at the time his lover and the wife of the composer Gustav Mahler. They are carried by strong gusts of wind, but it isn’t the wind of passion that carried Paolo and Francesca in Dante’s hell, but the wind of anxiety, uncertainty and the futility of everything. Oskar Kokoschka was a representative of the Viennese Expressionism and this catastrophic vision of the world and the future is typically Expressionistic. The same dreary mood fills his portraits which all have a psychological aspect to them and look as if they were made out of mud and tears, and is similar to painting of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s paintings with urban mood of alienation and premonitions of catastrophe that the World War One was about to bring. Expressionistic art was a whirlwind of colours and screams created from the nervous energy of the antebellum period, and although many artists shared the sentiment, none experienced it so deeply and profoundly as the artists who were the closest to the fire, that is those who lived in the Austria-Hungarian Empire; Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele, poets Georg Trakl and August Stramm, Arnold Schönberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, and many other across the vast decaying empire.

So, the painting is infused with his personal torments or life and love, and fragile nature of both, but at the same time it hold a deeper meaning because it perfectly represents the changing times and the political and cultural changes that were taking place. The painting mirrors the uncertainties that the future beholds; both the fleeting nature of love and passion, and the political instability that affects everyone. Here is a poem called “With Your Right Hand on my Neck” by a Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti that seems to fit the mood of Kokoschka’s painting and also mingles the themes of love and death:

With your right hand on my neck, I lay next to

you last night,

and since the day’s woes still pained me, I did

not ask you to take it away,

but listened to the blood coursing through your

arteries and veins,

Then finally around twelve sleep overcame me,

as sudden and guileless as my sleep so long ago,

when in the downy time of my youth it rocked

me gently.

You tell me it was not yet three when I was

startled awake

and sat up terrified and screaming.

muttering strange and unintelligible words,

then spread out my arms like a bird ruffled with

fear

flapping its wings as a dark shadow flutters

through the garden.

Tell me, where was I going? And what kind of

death had frightened me so?

And you held me, my love, as I sat up half-asleep,

then lay back in silence, wondering what paths

and horrors awaited me.

And then went on dreaming. Of perhaps a

different kind of death.

During the process of painting this painting, the poet Georg Trakl had a habit of visiting the artist almost daily and he composed this poem called “The Night” directly inspired by the painting:

Over nocturnal dark floods
I sing my sad songs,
Songs which bleed like wounds.
However, no heart carries them to me again
Through the darkness.

Only the nocturnal dark floods
Rush, sob my songs,
Songs which bleed from wounds,
They carry them to my heart again
Through the darkness.

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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.

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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.

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*Egon Schiele, Frank Whitford

Edvard Munch – Spring

10 Mar

Edvard Munch, Spring, 1889

At last spring has won the battle against winter and now the soft breeze and mellow sunlight are coming through the open window, flowers started blooming and a little sparrow is ready to sit on the windowsill and sing a little ditty to brighten up the lonely days of this weak and ill young girl. In this simple, almost genre-scene, Edvard Munch managed to convey so much depth and emotion. The most poignant detail in the painting is the girl’s mute ghost-like pale face with eyelids almost closed. While the sun bathes the room in warm yellowish glow, she is turning her head away from it, symbolically turning away from the life and lightness, gazing in the distance with watery eyes that saw the other side of the grave. Her small head, with that sad and gentle face, resting on the white pillow awakens empathy and compassion in the viewer because you get the sense that death has started living inside her, just the same as spring has started being alive outdoors. Her face radiates calmness and spiritual beauty, but the stillness that envelops the room is illusive, for the moment of death is yet to come and the scene we are looking at is merely the calm before the storm. The end of the long struggle and pain is near, and her soul will soon be dancing with the pure white daisies in the meadow. Stylistically, it is not Munch is his full Expressionist frenzy, but thematically, his obsession with death and the awareness of it is prevalent.

Death was Munch’s silent bride and his most faithful companion since his childhood; his mother died from tuberculosis when Munch was only five years old, his dearest sister Johanne Sophie died from same malaise in 1877 at the age of fourteen, and he himself was of frail health. The death of his sister affected him deeply and he returned to this sense of loss and tragedy numerous times in his artistic career, making many versions of the painting “The Sick Child”. Here, in “Spring”, he portrayed the same event.

Edvard Munch, The Sick Child, 1885-86, the original version

It was with this painting, “The Sick Child”, that Munch departed from Impressionism and for the first time painted in a style which would later be called Expressionism. The theme was such that is needed depth and emotions, and a new style. It’s interesting that in “Spring”, which was painted a few years later, he returned, for a moment, to a more Realistic style of painting which looks more similar to some Victorian genre-scenes than the art Munch is known for. Where did this artistic “regression” arise from?

Edvard Munch – Maiden and the Heart

11 Feb

And “love” is just a miserable lie
You have destroyed my flower-like life
Not once – twice
You have corrupt my innocent mind
Not once – twice.

(The Smiths, Miserable Lie)

Edvard Munch (Norwegian, 1863-1944), Maiden and the Heart, 1896

Edvard Munch’s etching shows a nude girl sitting outdoors, on the grass, surrounded by a few scarce flowers. She turned her back on us, showing off the beautiful line of her arching back. We cannot meet her gaze, but seen from the profile her furrowed brow allows us to assume that the feelings mounting in her soul are that of sadness or pain. Our attention immediately leads somewhere else. In her stretched hands she is holding a heart; live, bleeding, crimson red (we can imagine), pulsating, aching, painful heart. From about 1894, Munch was getting more and more interested in woodcuts and etchings, and he was skilful in those art forms as well as in standard oil on canvas.

Paintings of Edvard Munch nearly always explore deep, profound themes and states of the soul; anxiety and alienation, loneliness, death and despair, love and pain, and the crown of his themes is love as a source of anguish and pain. The sorrowful Maiden who is holding the bleeding heart in her hands is a visually simple etching, without too much detail, but the longer you gaze at it the more feelings it evokes, the more depth you see in it. Often used, and overused phrases such as “heart ache” or “broken heart” suddenly get a new exciting flair when I gaze at Munch’s interpretation of the subject. The idea of portraying pain so literally and so directly has so much of childlike straightforwardness and honesty in it. A broken heart is presented as a real bleeding thing that the Maiden can hold in her hand just as she would hold a book or a flower, and her hands and her feet are coloured with the crimson blood which drips, sweet and sticky as honey, on the grass, while the flowers listen, their petals full of worry. The trees in the background, silent and sketch-like, are mute to her pain.

Frida Kahlo, Memory (The Heart), 1937

I simply adore the idea of expressing pain so directly! In her painting “Memory (The Heart)”, Frida Kahlo did a similar thing. The oversized bleeding heart is meant to portray the pain inflicted by Diego Rivera’s affair with her younger sister.

Vincent van Gogh, Sorrow, 1882

Simple lines, expressiveness and pain of Munch’s etching reminded me of a famous drawing called “Sorrow” that Vincent van Gogh made in 1882. It shows Vincent’s friend Sien, at the time a sad, destitute pregnant woman prone to drinking, mostly likely working as a prostitute. Such simplicity of lines and depth of emotions in both works. I usually love Van Gogh’s rapturous mad yellows and Munch’s strong whirling, almost psychedelic brushstrokes but here the black line on white background is all I need. Perhaps the colour is an excess when the subject is such an intense emotion?

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 and Kokoschka – Proletarian Lolitas

27 Mar

Friendship of Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, who were both remembered for being a thorn in the eye of the art scene in the late Art Nouveau and early Expressionism phase of Vienna, was merely an artistic one. They both soaked each others ideas and for a very short time created from the same wellspring of inspiration, only to move apart and drift into totally different directions.

Egon Schiele, Mädchen mit übereinandergeschlagenen Beinen (Girl with crossed legs), 1911

The very first thing you notice when gazing at Schiele’s portraits and nudes is their ‘elegantly wasted’ appeal mixed with some kind of twisted eroticism, smouldering melancholy and trashy glamour. There’s some subtle poetry of sadness about their worn out faces, tired eyes, sunken cheekbones, and their pale greyish skin. Completely nude, or dressed in lingerie and stockings, they gaze nervously, tiredly, forlornly at us; they provoke a response. Certain malaise pervades their smiles.

A true-blooded Expressionist, Oskar Kokoschka was the first to show interest in portraying the underprivileged, the poor, the misfits, but Egon Schiele soon followed his path, and they both worked and soaked inspiration in the gritty everyday reality of working class Vienna. Schiele’s drawings from 1910 and 1911 show resemblance to Kokoshka’s drawings from 1908 and 1909, but they are more poetical. In my view, Kokoshka’s drawings cannot even be compared to the power of his later paintings which are full of Expressionist frenzy, unsettling and distorted, painted in layers and layers of colour, as if every brushstroke brings relief. Below, you’ll see one of his drawing from this period which shows a half-nude girl. It slightly reminds me of Paul Gauguin’s way of portraying bodies, her face contour is strong, her body is kind of geometrical, overall she looks rough, stiff. This just shows that Schiele’s main method of expression was line, while in Kokoschka’s paintings colour plays a more important role. Kokoschka later even accused Schiele of ‘stealing’ his style.

Oskar Kokoschka, The juggler’s daughter, 1908, pencil, watercolour

But Schiele… Schiele’s drawings are like existentialist poems. He was an excellent draughtsman. Otto Benesh, son of Schiele’s patron Heinrich Benesh, wrote this of Schiele’s drawing technique: “Schiele drew quickly. The pencil skated over the white surface of the paper as though led by some ghostly hand… and he sometimes held the pencil in the manner of a painter from the Far East.” It’s also interesting to note that he never used an eraser; he rarely made mistakes, but when he did, he’d simply throw the paper away. And he sketched quickly, and then later, in the absence of the model, he’d fill in his drawings with watercolour or gouache.

Egon Schiele, Seated Girl Facing Front 1911

The beauty of his drawings is unsurpassed, even Klimt once admitted to him that he is better at drawing. His lines seem fragile and constricted, but their firm and controlled nature cannot be denied. Schiele employed the language of melancholy and lyricism, in a similar way to Modigliani, and used it to portray his own bewildering loneliness. In my view, all of his portraits, nudes, sunflowers and landscapes, express the same thing – melancholy, death, decay, they are windows into his soul and mind. This is just what Caspar David Friedrich said: “The artist should not only paint what he sees before him, but also what he sees in himself. If, however, he sees nothing within him, then he should also refrain from painting what he sees before him.” Schiele always paints what is within him.

When he chose to paint these poor girls from the streets, he did so because he saw through their sunken cheeks and sad eyes, his artistic vision penetrated through their souls. Kokoshka is interested only in their bodies, but Schiele wants to see the world through their eyes. Kokoschka was interested in their crooked postures and inelegance because it suited his distorted visions of the world, whereas in Schiele’s drawings you see the souls behind their tired little bodies. Pale, skinny, beaten and hungry, unnoticed till that moment, these street urchins, mostly girls, always ignored, pushed into the corner, out of the way, were brought into the spotlight all of a sudden, which undoubtedly made them feel special, privileged. Someone noticed them, someone was nice towards them, someone wanted to paint them!

Egon Schiele, Girl with black hair, 1910

A sentence which sums it all, and which inspired me to write this post in the first place:

“Physically immature, thin, wide-eyed, full-mouthed, innocent and lascivious at the same time, these Lolitas from the proletarian districts of Vienna arouse the kind of thoughts best not admitted before a judge and jury.” (Egon Schiele, by Frank Whitford)

You’ll notice how awkward they look. Girl with black hair has a look of sadness and resignation in her eyes. For a while that has been one of my favourite of Schiele’s nudes because of the discord between her cute round face with large eyes and full lips, and the awkward skinny body with skin stretched taunt over the bones, and small breasts. She looks uncomfortable with being naked, she looks shy and hopelessly sad. My more recent favourite is the one below, Sitting girl with ponytail, again, I love her body and her skin tone, which Schiele obviously enjoyed painting. His nudes always look pale and sickly, but sometimes their skin has a greyish tone and sometimes it takes yellowish shades, but you’ll notice how he paints patches of unnatural shades of colour where they should not naturally be, like adding a bit of green, blue or brown on their bodies. And look at the face of this little proletarian Lolita – it resembles that of a sad and dreamy porcelain doll, eyes gazing in the distance, lips painted in rich red colour.

This is what Schiele’s friend Gütersloh wrote of these child models:

There were always two or three small of large girls sitting about in his studio, brought there from the immediate neighbourhood, from off the street or picked up in the Schonbrunn park that was nearby. They were ugly and pretty, washed and unwashed and they did nothing – at least to the layman they might have seemed to do nothing… They slept, recovered from beatings administered by parents, lazily lounged about – something they were not allowed to do at home – combed their hair, pulled their dresses up or down, did or undid their shoes… like animals in a cage which suits them, they were left to their own devices, or at any rate believed themselves to be. (…) With the aid of little money and much charm he had managed to lull these little beasts into a false sense of security… They feared nothing from the sheet of paper which lay by Schiele on the divan.

Egon Schiele, Sitting girl with ponytail (Sitzendes Mädchen mit Pferdeschwanz), 1910

I think Schiele’s pencil and brush could have captured the appearance of Sonia Marmeladova from Crime and Punishment to utter perfection. Sonia is a pale, skinny, meek, painfully shy but deeply religious eighteen year old girl, and a prostitute who somehow manages to transcend the misery of her surroundings and remain pure at heart. And she also falls in love with Raskolnikov. Don’t they make a splendid match: a killer and a harlot. This is how Dostoevsky describes Sonia in the book:

She had a thin, very thin, pale face, rather irregular and angular, with a sharp little nose and chin.  She could not have been called pretty, but her blue eyes were so clear, and when they lighted up, there was such a kindliness and simplicity in her expression that one could not help being attracted.  Her face, and her whole figure indeed, had another peculiar characteristic.  In spite of her eighteen years, she looked almost a little girl- almost a child.

Sonia is one of my favourite literary heroines, and ever since I’ve read the book, I wondered what she looked like. Now I know that only Schiele could capture that irregular pale face, that fragile thin body, those big bright eyes. No doubt he would be attracted by her childlike figure, but would she dare to pose for him, as shy as she was? I don’t know, but maybe modelling would be better than prostitution. There’s a lot of descriptions of poverty in the book as well. Sonia’s little brothers and sisters, and her step-mother Katerina live in bad conditions; each has only one clothing garment, which Katerina washes every night, they are always hungry and frail, often ill. We can assume that the working class Vienna of Schiele’s time was no different, and that all these little innocent creatures that Schiele has painted with such zest probably lived similar lives. It was all very poignant to me. You just can’t read a book by Dostoevsky, close it, and not come out changed.

Oskar Kokoschka, Children Playing, 1909
 
As you can see by now, I can’t get Egon Schiele out of my mind. He is one of my favourite artists, and the more I read about his art, the more richness I discover. These days, I think, read, daydream about his art, various aspects of it, a lot, and I can tell you one thing – there are so many interesting fragments about his art that even a hundred posts wouldn’t be enough to explore his magic. And he has indeed woven magic over me.

Egon Schiele – Portrait of Edith in a Striped Dress

21 Mar

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. First symbolises his rapture, the latter his gloom, which Kundera later wrote in his book Slowness as two main characteristics of central European mentality. Rapture and gloom, life and death, Eros and Thanatos; all intertwined in Schiele’s paintings.

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*Egon Schiele, Frank Whitford