Tag Archives: Expressionism

Egon Schiele – Autumn Trees

9 Nov

When one sees a tree autumnal in summer, it is an intense experience that involves one’s whole heart and being; and I should like to paint that melancholy.”

(Egon Schiele)

Egon Schiele, Four Trees, 1918

Austrian painter Egon Schiele, at once demonised and celebrated as a genius, is mostly remembered for his provocative art infused with eroticism and his watercolours and gouache paintings of nude or semi-nude girls appear dangerous even today. Still, many of his paintings of nature and townscapes reveal to us that it wasn’t only the human figure that fascinated him so. Indeed, Schiele found trees and flowers to be equally as good mediums to capture the many emotional states. His persistent dedication to capturing the state of the soul led him to many different motives to paint. In this post we will take a look at three paintings of trees in autumn, all painted by Egon Schiele, but in different times of his life. The first one in this post which you can see above was painted in 1918, near the very end of Schiele’s rather short life – he died on the 31st October 1918 – and the other two were painted in 1911 when Schiele’s artistic career was practically just starting out and he was at the verge of breaking with the style of his teachers and idols and at the point of finding his own way of expression.

Schiele’s oil on canvas painting “Four Trees” painted in autumn of 1918 – the last autumn of his short life – shows a departure from his earlier style of portraying nature and trees. The scene shows four trees in the dusk of an autumn day. This painting is the month of November encapsulated, to me; the trees with red leaves and one almost with branches almost bare, a sense of decay, finality and a sense of inevitable ending, sky descending from warm yellow to deep red tones, and then there is the ominous red setting sun. This is how November feels to me. The setting sun in the sunset of Schiele’s own life. A bloody red sun signifying the death of the day, death of nature as autumn starts to slowly give way to winter’s coldness and desolation. Everything feels so final in November, as if it is happening for the last time because many months of cold, grey weather are before us. The leaves falling down, chestnuts hitting the pavements, evenings coming sooner, wet pavements glistening in the yellow light of the streetlights, dried cornfields seen through the morning fog; just some November imagery that comes to mind.

Egon Schiele, A Tree in Late Autumn, 1911

The two paintings of autumn trees painted in 1911 are very different from the one painted in 1918. A small oil on wood painting “Tree in Late Autumn” painted in 1911 when Schiele was only twenty-one years old is a great example of his ardour for portraying the different states of the soul through the motif he paints. The portrait of this tree is a portrait of isolation; human isolation expressed through the motif of a tree. Some have even called this series of Schiele’s painting “antrophomorphic” and that term may well be applied. The image of a lonesome tree in the middle of nowhere, all alone in the white canvas, painted in dense and heavy brushstrokes, really speaks to the viewer. The twisted, naked branches of the tree are like the arms of a skeleton protruding from the dark, barren soil.

Schiele’s main obsession were portraits and even when he paints trees, flowers or even houses and towns he is always painting portraits, not of people, but of things. Take a look at his sunflowers or his autumn trees here and you will see that without a doubt they are portraits. Schiele was fascinated by death and decay and sought it everywhere he went; in faces of his lovers, the urchins from the streets of Vienna, the roofs and facades of small town of Krumau, the heavy-headed sunflowers, and in the naked and twisted tree autumn trees. Gustav Klimt, Schiele’s early idol, also painted landscapes but they were always decorative and ornamental and their aim was not to capture moods and states of the soul, but rather Klimt painted flowers, trees and gardens as a way to relax on holidays and also to use up the left over paint he had.

These two paintings painted by Schiele in 1911 shows a distinct departure from Klimt’s influence. Schiele isn’t hesitant to leave the background almost bare and he is not eager to use colour and make the painting overflowing with detailings as if it were a Persian rug. Schiele is content with sleek simplicity here and that is the way he was convey the mood of these paintings better. The lack of colours and details allows us to focus solely on the tree and what it stands for, and if you look at it longer you will begin to feel the loneliness and coldness deep in your bones. These are not merry pictures.

Egon Schiele, Autumn Trees, 1911

The painting above, “Autumn Trees”, also from 1911, shows three little trees with leaves still on their branches. Compared to the previous painting this one is a bit more colourful. The brown-green colour of the ground and the pink tinted sky in the background may suggest playfulness, but in the end we still know that these little brown leaves will fall anytime soon and that these thin black branches will be naked and unshielded from cold winter winds. Poor little trees, so weak and frail, and so alone.

Vladimir Varlaj – Red House

10 Oct

Vladimir Varlaj, Red House, 1923

A lonely and mysterious pink house with red windows. Tall crooked trees. A passing train. There is an inexplicable loneliness about this autumnal scene which is very captivating to me. The loneliness is combined with vibrant, almost cheerful colours and this combination gives a sense of strangeness, uneasiness even. The contrast confuses and charms both at once. Strangeness is seeping from all sides of this canvas. Even the viewpoint is strange; we are seeing the scene as if we were standing on the hill, above the railway and the house, hidden behind the trees, or maybe we are one of them. The bare crooked trees come alive in the autumn wind, contorting and stretching their thin branches in all directions, their branches are like long arms trying to grab the stars. The soft gradience of the colours, pink mixing with orange and purple, is flying through the canvas from the unknown misty distances to the foreground, and it looks as if the colour is being carried by the wind. Varlaj transformed what might have otherwise been a drab, depressing scene into an almost magical realism landscape which is more a landscape of the soul than that of nature. The ecstatic pink colour is unsettling, like the laugh of a madman. It has the opposite effect than we might expect from dainty color pink. The red windows on the house are a nice contrast against the pink walls, but the place where the doors ought to be are a hollow space that will suck you in if you come too close, like the mouth opened in a scream in Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream”. And the motif of a train at night passing by without stopping through the strange landscape is perhaps a symbol of the man’s transience, of the passing of life, of the arrival of death.

Vladimir Varlaj (1895-1962) was a Croatian painter and a member of the Group of Four or the Prague Four; the four artists who worked and lived in Prague for a while during and right after the First World War. I have already written about another artist from this group Vilko Gecan here. In 1911 Varlaj started studying in the private school of the Croatian painter and graphic artist Tomislav Krizman, then he studied at the college of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb. In 1915 he was sent to the Russian front and in 1918 he was in Prague. In the 1920s he was back in Croatia, working with passion and eagerness, but sadly, after 1933 he was no longer able to paint because of his illness. The critics and art historians have had a hard time placing Varlaj into a distinct art movement, for his landscapes at times have elements of Expressionism and other times of magical realism. There is an influence of the German New Objectivity painter Alexander Kanoldt whose landscapes had a similar unsetting and strange appeal, but also, without a doubt, Varlaj was painting the state of his soul when he was painting a landscape which is something that the German Romantic Caspar David Friedrich was a big proponent of. Some of Varlaj’s landscapes are more tame, continuing the tradition of Croatian landscapes. But other, such as the “Red House” are more moody and romantic, and filled with visual elements that add to the drama such as the nocturnal setting, lonely house by the railway, a passing train, bare trees; the desolation of late autumn is perfectly encapsulated in this painting, and so is the desolation of the artist’s soul. Varlaj was known for destroying his artworks in moments of depression and disillusionment so we are lucky that this amazing painting survived the painter’s madness.

Vilko Gecan – The Cynic

12 Sep

“Inside every cynical person is a disappointed idealist.”

(George Carlin)

Vilko Gecan, The Cynic (Cinik), 1921

Painting “The Cynic” is a self-portrait with an interesting and thought-provoking title. Gecan was twenty-seven years old when he painted it and yet the title doesn’t match the ardour of youth, the optimism and a sense of endless possibilities that we might usually tie with that phase of life. The man in the painting looks tired, old and worn-out. His hair, little of what is left, is combed in a strange way, adding to his dishelved appearance. The look on his face is close to a grimace; we can read the turmoil on his face. His lips are sealed tight; he is not the type who would spill his heart out to a stranger in a bar, he is closed-off from the space around him and yet, despite the wall of silence and moodiness he had built, we can sense that this man with an elegant bow-tie is a fragile, sickly and deeply lonely individual. His twisted fingers bring to mind the way Viennese Expressionists such as Egon Schiele and Richard Gerstl would paint the hand. The pose in which he is sitting at the table is contorted and strange as well, certainly looks uncomfortable and agitated. Carefully crafted sense of depth in the painting is reminiscent of many Expressionist paintings and films. You can see from the sketch bellow how Gecan built the sense of depth. The figure of the Cynic takes up most of the canvas and the space around him feels crammed and too small. A feeling of uncertainty and dread hang in the air.

The heavy and muted earthy tones are pulling us down into the abyss along with the Cynic who is cynically reading his newspapers and sitting in his armchair. The manner in which the space around him is painted certainly speaks of Gecan’s knowledge of Cezanne’s art and Cubism, but the overall mood and energy speaks of other, more disturbing currents in art at the time; expressionism, which sought to portray the inner world of the sitter. Gecan’s self-portrait and the space in which he is seated speak volumes about the state of his mind. Furthermore, the newspapers he is reading are called “Der Sturm” and were known for promoting Expressionist art. “The Cynic” is Gecan’s best work and one of the best examples of the Expressionism in Croatian art.

Gecan was, unfortunately, drafted in the First World War, captured in July 1915 and spent the rest of the war in captivity in Sicily. After the war, in 1919, he moved to Prague with his fellow-artist and life-long friend Milivoj Uzelac. Two other artists had been living and working there since the war had started; Vladimir Varlaj and Marijan Trepša. The four artists; Gecan, Uzelac, Varlaj and Trepša make the “Group of Four”; a group of artists who worked in Prague at the same time and returned to Croatia soon after the war. Each artist soaked in the artistic influences in his own way and upon returning home they were a wind of change for the Croatian art scene. In 1921 Gecan held his first solo art exhibition in Zagreb, and in 1922 he already, restless and eager for experiences, found himself in Berlin.

Gecan was described by people who knew him as a gentle, slightly aloof, tidy and elegant man so his perception and portrayal of himself as a cynic may imply less a personality trait and more an acquired realisation of the way the world and society is. This was the man who had experienced the horrors of war and the following disillusionment with everything he believed in, it brings to mind the well-known saying of George Carlin: “Inside every cynical person is a disappointed idealist.” And it also makes me think of Georg Grosz’s portrayal of the world and that of other Neue Sachlichkeit painters. Gecan’s slightly deformed figure and face are perhaps a mirror to the degeneracy of the society around him. Nothing is the same for him. Having once tastes the bitter taste of disappointment on his tongue he cannot go back to painting idyllic landscapes and classical beauty.

Vilko Gecan, The Cynic, sketch from the Zenit magazine

A sketch for this painting appeared in the avant-garde Dadaist magazine called “Zenit” which was published in Zagreb (1921-1924) and then in Belgrade (1924-1926). The magazine promoted the newest and most rebellious art from all over Europe as well as a concept of the Balkan’s barbaric-genius painter. They emphasised the power of dreams, spontaneity, and subconciousness, in contrast to the cold and rational academic art.

Japonism in Oskar Kokoschka’s Fan for Alma Mahler

7 Jun

Oskar Kokoschka, Third Fan for Alma Mahler, 1913

Japonism, or the influence of Japanese art on Western art, was all the rage in the European art circles of the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Ukiyo-e prints and folding screens were the most influential. Artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet and many others were captivated by the strange and vibrant beauty of Japanese artworks and decorative objects and they found all sorts of ways to be inspired by what they saw. It is very obvious then that the semicircular shape and vibrant patterns of Japanese fans were also highly popular with European artists. In the shape of the fan and in its changeable quality, it being different when it is open and when closed, they found a new inspiration to play with shapes and depictions of landscapes and other motifs. Degas of course incorporated his delightful ballerinas on the fan, Manet painted chrysanthemums, but a very striking and exciting example of a fan inspired by Japanese art comes from the brush of Oskar Kokoschka; an Austrian artist very prolific in the period just before and during the First World War in Vienna. In those times ladies still wore their fans as a fashion accesory so it was not just an artwork but also a useful object. In his series of six fans painted for his lover Alma Mahler, Kokoschka brings the art of fan painting on a whole new artistic level. The pictorial space on the fan stretches over several sections, not just one, and you can only imagine how exciting this fan would look when being slowly opened and all the figures were enliven for a moment. The central scene of the fan is the most beautiful and romantic one; it shows two lovers, Kokoschka himself and Alma, under the Mount Vesuvius. Perhaps the eruption of the vulcano Mount Vesuvius can be symbolically seen as the culmination of all his intense love, desire and yearning for the seductive and charming Alma who, very tragically, ended their relantionship and ended up marrying the architect Walter Groppius, and later even the writer Franz Werfel. The scenes on the left and right of the fan are an hommage to the couple’s trip to Italy.

Marc Chagall and Kokoschka: Flying Lovers

23 May
“But I believe in Love
And I know that you do, too
And I believe in some kind of path
That we can walk down, me and you
So keep your candles burning
Make her journey bright and pure
That she’ll keep returning
Always and evermore”
(Nick Cave, Into My Arms)

Marc Chagall, Over the Town, 1913

These two paintings by Marc Chagall and Oskar Kokoschka, painted in 1913 and 1914, both show the same motif; a couple in love, and yet they are so different. Let us see why is that. Chagall’s painting “Over the Town” shows an embracing couple flying in the air, flying above the little houses of the little town which is too small now to contain the love that they feel. The houses and the landscape under them both seem faded, as if seen in a dream or in a memory, painted in shades of grey. Only that one house is red, like a pulsating red heart ready to burst. “Over the Town” is a painting which thematically and aesthetically goes hand in hand with Chagall’s painting “Birthday” painted in 1915; both paintings show lovers magically lifted from the ground by the power of life, the power against which all the mundane things in life suddently seem gray and irrelevant.

Marc Chagall, Birthday, 1915

Chagall’s beloved Bella Rosenfeld, whom he married in July 1915, wrote about this feeling which Chagall so beautifulyl portrays in his paintings: “I suddenly felt as if we were taking off. You too were poised on one leg, as if the little room could no longer contain you. You soar up to the ceiling. Your head turned down to me, and turned mine up to you… We flew over fields of flowers, shuttered houses, roofs, yards, churches.” Bella is painted in the same clothes she would have been wearing everyday and on the photos which exists of her, and the town we see is their hometown of Vitebsk in Belorus. Both of these elements bring a domestic kind of familiarity which becomes magical and sweet when Chagall portrays it. Lines “but I believe in love and I know darling that you do too” from Nick Cave’s song come to my mind as I gaze at this painting and as I think of Chagall and his beloved.

Kokoschka’s lovers are also seen flying in an undefined space, but they are not flying in the clouds of love, rather they are carried by the wind of frenzy and uncertainly and they cling to each other in despair. They are not drawn together by love like Chagall’s lovers but by fear. Lovers found in the whirlwind of political, social and personal changes, nothing to be hold onto because nothing is certain anymore. 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.

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

Let us take a moment to compare how the composition, brushstrokes and colours contribute to the mood that is conveyed; in Chagall’s painting the composition brings a feeling of stability, a steadiness of love shall I say, while in Kokoschka’s painting the composition is more dynamic thus conveying uncertainty. Chagall’s brushstrokes are soft and gentle, his colour palette filled with soft shades and dreamy gues which makes it seem so peaceful and serene, while in Kokoschka’s painting we see how the wild, rough brushstrokes and stronger colours add to the mood opposite of peacefulness. While the vision of love in Chagall’s paintings is pure, idealistic and romantic, in Kokoschka’s painting it is sour as vinegar and cynical. Still, both paintings were painted around the same time which goes to show that the painter naturally expresses what is inside him; Chagall and Kokoschka’s perspectives on things were very different and it shows in their art. I find both paintings immensely interesting, but Chagall’s view of love and his dreaminess is still dearer to me and closer to my heart.

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.

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

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!”