Trailblazer is not a descriptive that anyone commercially inclined would wish for, because quite often it means that the fruits of your labour are enjoyed by those that follow in your wake. In central Europe, between the wars, cities were gripped by an air of liberation. A budding bohemian revolution was underway to such a rabid extent that it often descended into decadent oblivion.
In the mid-1920s cities like Berlin and Vienna were a cesspit of hedonism that would even make David Bowie at his rock ‘n’ roll pinnacle blush with prudence. In short, the streets were awash with artistry, an atmospheric air of sanguine spring following the dark winter of the war, and all those things that money can’t buy, namely poverty. This blossoming scene of sexual liberation and skylarking heathenry was one that Egon Schiele and his daring works had seeded a decade earlier, though it would tragically evade him personally.
His works are renowned for their overt sexuality, which in their own way, express a subversiveness ahead of their time. Adolf Hitler would label his works ‘degenerate art’ and, in fact, Egon Schiele would even be imprisoned after police raided his home for exhibiting erotic drawings in a place accessible to children. While by today’s standards such a charge might seem ludicrous considering that in a legal sense the artworks were no different from a spam javelin etched onto the back page of a teenager’s exercise book, it shows retrospectively just how truly evocative his distinctive style was.
In the years that have followed his tragic death at the age of 28 by Spanish Flu, only three days after his wife succumbed to the same illness, his works remain as provocative as ever. However, the gaze through which they are viewed has changed dramatically, leading the daring trailblazer of expressionism to be heralded as an LGBTQ icon.
As Jane Kallir, a Schiele scholar and art researcher told Dazed, “He was unmoored from gender norms and that is a huge legacy.” His works themselves explore sexuality in a conceptual form. “[He was] struggling with his own sexual feelings and gender norms, and I think that is where his work very much speaks to people’s concerns today,” says Kallir. “We are questioning gender norms and so was he.”
His art questioned sexuality in all of its guises. While his works are noted for their unique style and grotesque depiction of the human form, behind them is a sense of profound curiosity and exploration. With the subject blurred beyond recognition Schiele is able to direct the gaze like an auteur in a search for realism beyond representation. Portraits of naked men, pictures depicting lesbian embraces and apparent sexual fluidity in many works may present this in a very overt sense, but behind all of his works is a generalised sense of questioning gender ideals. “He who denies sex,” Schiele once said, “Is a filthy person who smears in the lowest way his own parents who have begotten him.”
While this may make Egon Schiele as relevant today as ever, it is the works themselves that define his present popularity. As the Taschen novel, Egon Schiele: The Complete Paintings 1909-1918 from which these images are taken states, “A century after his death, Egon Schiele continues to stun with his contorted lines, distorted bodies, and eroticism.” With his daring depictions, Schiele sought to probe at the blurred lines of self beyond the physical form that had been left for new-fangled photographs the capture.
His style was fluid and loose not only by design but also by necessity, he would work while maintaining constant eye contact with his subject. As such his way of operating meant forming intense connections with his subjects making his pieces more figurative than a mere question of style. As he said himself, “Art cannot be modern. Art is primordially eternal.”
This unique collection of images captures the pure timeless intrigue of his work, which has had a lasting impact on society at large. From his most basic line drawings of on-the-nose named ‘Standing Nude in Orange Stockings’ to the indefinable essence of ‘Portrait of Wally Neuzil’, these examples capture the inescapable intrigue of Schiele over one hundred years on from his death in 1918.
You find out more about the Taschen book Egon Schiele: The Complete Paintings 1909-1918 by clicking here.