Episode 29: Egon Schiele's Nude Self-Portrait (1910)
VOICE 1: So I’m looking at this very thin guy, you know, with his hair standing on end.
VOICE 2: A naked man. Like, diagonal across the page.
VOICE 3: He’s really thin, like, emaciated thin, like he kind of looks like a bony finger?
VOICE 4: A really…unconventional skin tone. He’s got bruising, he’s got half an arm, it looks like it’s been torn off at the elbow.
VOICE 3: Like his elbow sort of looks like the gnarly end of a chicken wing?
VOICE 4: Really walks the fine line between a living body and an upright corpse.
VOICE 5: He looks like a Tim Burton character. He looks…used up, kind of. Like a bloody Calvin Klein ad. Almost. [laughs]
VOICE 4: Incredibly grotesque. And…a generally dark and disturbing view of a portrait of a man.
VOICE 1: It’s kind of a really intense, expressive kind of thing. You know, very emotional for me. This – I can’t just describe it without talking about emotions. Yeah, I mean, it’s, it’s sexual, it’s fraught, it’s like… yeah, so no, I can’t keep the emotions out of it.
VOICE 2: We all have the days where we feel like this portrait. [laughs] Anyway…
TAMAR: Do you…like it?
VOICE 6: Yes!
VOICE 7: I love it.
VOICE 2: I mean, I’m totally biased because I’m a huge fan.
VOICE 6: It’s just something you can’t look away from.
VOICE 1: It’s just…fabulous. I love it.
VOICE 2: So much of it depends on that very free-seeming line that’s actually so specific.
VOICE 6: It’s like the extremes of human physique, it’s kind of like people are bent in the way that I feel like is just pushing the line of, like, what’s possible for a human being? And right now he also looks like he’s right there pushing that line.
VOICE 2: How much line can I get away with to just describe what’s absolutely necessary to describe a body?
VOICE 2: So much of it comes down to the particularity of that contour, right? And exactly where it pushes out or dips in…
VOICE 6: But he still has this very specific movement, like he knows where he’s going with these lines. It’s dynamic. It’s like, none of these figures are just sitting still. You can see that, like, movement that’s inherent in any kind of living being.
Have you ever really wanted to piss off an art historian? Ask them who their favorite artist is. You wouldn’t think that a question so simple, and, seemingly, so relevant, would inspire such rage. But if you’re an art historian, you know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve just introduced yourself at a cocktail party and you say that you studied art history, and bam, it’s the first follow-up question. It’s just innocent chitchat, of course, or maybe a way to get you to ask them about their favorite artist in return. But as means of really understanding why someone studies art history, it just feels… beside the point. Art historians don’t think in terms of trees; we think in terms of forests. Art history is a study of movements and humanity, woven together, warp and weft, and to isolate a single artist out of that tapestry is like isolating a single thread. It’s hard to imagine asking a chemist what their favorite element is, or a historian what their favorite battle is, an astronaut to name their favorite star. It’s not that, in our civilian lives, we don’t all secretly have one same as you, but it’s just not the distillation of why we do what they do in the way that might you think it is, standing there, cocktail in hand. Being a good art historian is not about learning everything you can about your favorite artist, it’s about placing that artist in a larger context. Very few, to me, in my heart of hearts, can stand on their own.
Except Egon Schiele.
So full disclosure: I unabashedly love Egon Schiele. I’m not going to pretend that it’s easy for me to approach him with the same critical art historical distance I try to with everyone else, or that I didn’t name my cat after him, which I absolutely did. And while I find myself falling a little bit in love with every artist I do an episode on, even Gauguin, kind of, this is a longstanding love affair that goes deep. I can’t get enough of the raw intimacy of his work, his use of line as electric as a third rail, that feeling I get like the high school bad boy just cried in my arms. Schiele distills a time and a place of intense psychological exploration down to a series of vulnerable yet unapologetic portraits, which themselves are distilled down to single, confident, dynamic line that he spent a good part of his incredibly brief life turning on himself. And then he died, completely tragically, at the age of 28, without ever having had the opportunity to work through that heady, horny, angst-ridden period of life we call adolescence. You know, that time when baby art historians like me discover him and fall hard.
And I think it’s worth asking myself why he gets so completely under my skin. Which might actually activate the art historian inside of me. Because he, like every artist, was shaped by his context, by something much bigger than him, before reshaping it right back. You can’t fully appreciate his drawings without understanding in the psychological padded cell otherwise known as turn-of-the-20th-century Vienna, the city he came of age in both geographically and artistically. And you also can’t understand his drawings without turning our art historical lens on drawing itself, on his most fundamental and essential use of line. So before I risk swooning any harder, let’s dive into these one at a time.
We’ll start with Vienna. The city of Vienna at the turn of the century was an artistic period known, helpfully, as fin-de-sciecle – or, turn of the century. But the phrase is less about marking time than sensation. The end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th felt, to the Viennese, like the end of an era. Wrestling with onset of industrialization on their staunch Hapsbergian decadence, Viennese society underwent a psychological civil war, pitting the individual against society, our raw interiors against the gilded surface. The critic Karl Kraus wrote that Vienna during this period was “an isolation cell where no one was allowed to scream.”
It’s no accident that Vienna during this time was the birthplace of psychoanalysis, with Sigmund Freud publishing his most famous works in the last decade of the 19th century, coining the phrase psychoanalysis in 1896, and championing the most objectively self-centered thing a person can do: recognize the value of their own subjectivity and celebrate their own narcissism, their own flaws and chipped marble, so to speak, in a society that had, up to this point, so doggedly depended on the façade.
And it’s also not an accident that this was the heyday of Gustav Klimt, an artist synonymous with beauty, patterning, gold leaf, ornamentation, and yet who also, upon closer inspection, seems to be fully aware of the superficiality of all these techniques, and how they mask the pulsing tension beneath the surface. Take his famous, “The Kiss,” for example – a staple of college dorm rooms nationwide, including, once upon a time, my own. Because it’s an objectively beautiful painting, a swirling mosaic of a passionate kiss between lovers, his large hands cradling her face, their bodies amalgamating into oneness. But beneath these rich textures lie a dark underbelly that co-eds like me don’t usually pick up on. I mean, she’s turning her face away from him. He’s pushing an erection against her. Klimt said that he in fact painted the man’s face to be ugly. There’s a sense of impulsiveness and sexual anxiety at play, a sense that beneath the ornamental beauty lies something more… human.
This bait-and-switch was classic Klimt. He was the leader of an artistic movement known as the Secession, stylistically known for their art nouveau of regeneration, garlands, and spring, also known as Jugenstil, or the young style, but intellectually known for rebellion. Their name tells you all you need to know: a collective of young artists banding together to stick it to the man, liberating themselves both stylistically and intellectually from the previous generation – the previous century – and their false and formal sense of certainty, when there was spiritual and sexual freedom to be had. Their motto, in fact, was “To the age its art, to art its freedom.” And freedom came, they believed, from self-scrutiny, from probing beneath the surface, from celebrating the individual beneath it. When the first issue of their publication, Sacred Spring, came out in 1898, it was emblazoned with a Klimt drawing on the cover, titled “Nuda Veritas” or ‘naked truth’. It’s a simple line drawing of a nude woman, draped in arabesques of hair that echo the paired down background, and holding a mirror up to us. As Freud well knew, in a city that had always prioritized the façade, this was a monumental act. Viennese avant garde artists are holding up the mirror to us, to themselves, to anyone willing to take the risk of being a flawed, subjective individual.
And so, enter Egon Schiele. The poster child for picking up a mirror, staring into the very depths of one’s soul, and recording what you see. Schiele was born in 1890 in a small Austrian town, and after a somewhat traumatic childhood, made his way to the Vienna, and specifically the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. He was accepted in 1906, at the age of 16, the youngest student ever admitted. He had been a poor student in public school, but a compulsive draftsman, forever drawing, forever with a pencil in hand. When his mother asked an instructor at the Academy if her son had any talent, she was told, yes, too much. You can imagine how frenetic and distracted and frustrating he must have been as a teenager – as the story goes, one of his professors yelled at him that “the devil shat him into his class.” In 1907, the same year, incidentally, that Adolf Hitler was denied entry into the very same art school, Schiele boldly sought out Klimt, whom he deeply admired for his uncompromising search for freedom in art, to be his mentor.
But while Schiele was so indebted to Klimt’s attitude, he broke away from his mentor’s style pretty fast. In 1909, at the age of 19, Schiele had had enough of a world of garlands in perpetual bloom, even as those garlands represented a newfound celebration of the individual. Schiele, who came of age in this atmosphere of psychoanalytical probing, wanted his individuals stripped down, distilled to their essentials, isolated in a void, and articulated through clean, spare line work that was both emotionally-charged and dead-on accurate.
And this is where we look at the act of drawing itself. There’s something incredibly vulnerable about seeing the naked line on the paper, that first breath of the artist in the larger act of creation. To put this specific drawing of Schiele’s, “Nude Self-Portrait” from 1910, in context, it’s one of a series in a show dedicated to the drawings of Klimt and Schiele that is currently on view at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. And seeing these drawings together is a pretty powerful thing, not just for the emotional content on display, but because works on paper are extremely delicate and sensitive to light, and are therefore only let out of the vault for small periods at a time – whenever you see one, know that you are catching it during a rare window of time that you both get to cross paths. And, if you want to learn a thing or two about drawing itself, it’s also extraordinarily educational. Because these drawings are not doing the same thing for each respective artist. In looking at the Klimts, which are largely preparatory sketches for later paintings, we almost feel like we’ve caught the painting with its pants down. Like we’ve walked in on it in the dressing room. We’re trained to look at paintings and not see the many, many preparatory drawings that got us to the finished product. We’re not supposed to see how many lines an artist erased before arriving at the ones that will make it into the painting, just like no one reads the proverbial balled-up pieces of notebook paper in and around the trashcan next to my desk. And so to walk into a room of drawings automatically invites us into a special kind of intimacy. We feel cozied up to Klimt because it’s like we’re being let in backstage, into a little sneak peek before the greatness, like seeing the ballet dancers perform in their warm-up clothes and topknots.
The intimacy we’re invited into with Schiele is something else entirely. Klimt didn’t intend for us to see him backstage, and it shows – to be honest, putting Schiele’s drawings next to Klimt’s doesn’t do much for Klimt. But Schiele’s drawings have no backstage: they are the entirety of the performance. These drawings are it; they are the final product, so exposed on their slightly crinkled cheap butcher’s paper. And this means that we’ve been invited into something so exquisitely vulnerable, it almost leaves you breathless.
And yet, the vulnerability of the mental state you see in his depictions of himself are counteracted by an utterly confident line. You see a personal exploration of pain so immediately depicted, but you never see the strain of depicting it. To put it another way, watching the progression of Egon Schiele’s line is like watching Simone Biles and, like, any other gymnast. Anyone else, and you’re still always a teensy bit nervous they’re going to fall. You see a bit of the sweat, the uncertainty. But with Biles, you’re watching someone so completely in control, you never question it for a second. Schiele’s command of line is the same way. His ability to draw the elongated silhouette of a woman’s back in one single, sure stroke speaks to a total simultaneity of observation and capture, both completely in sync. He often sketched in contour lines, that is, one continuous line where he never took his pencil off the paper, or his eye off his model. And this continuous eye contact creates a powerful sense of intimacy. His models were often people he knew – family members and lovers – and we can sense it: his unbroken lines, his unbroken eye contact, his stare piercing through the space between.
Take, for example, his drawing “Self Portrait with Model in Front of a Mirror”, a master class in the simultaneity of looking and drawing. We get the sense that he isn’t just rendering the shape of his model, or himself drawing her, but the very stuff of their essence, something at their core. His model isn’t just a body for him to render, she’s coquettishly owning her curves, strutting her stuff. And he’s not just drawing a self-portrait: he’s capturing himself – focused, furrowed in intense concentration. With just a few lines and minimal shading, we get an image that is both masterfully composed and tenderly specific.
And so confident, so assured is his pencil stroke, that we don’t even notice how unfinished she is. We don’t pay attention to how her right arm ends in two slightly curved lines. And returning to the nude self-portrait, he doesn’t even need to finish the insinuation of the forearm and hand. Instead, he simply suggests it with the pencil lines that project into the space of the body. He eliminates all backgrounds; his figures are always floating in a void, completely dislocated from their space. His entire use of line seems to be asking, how little can I get away with to still create a powerful, expressive sense of the whole. Because a Schiele drawing isn’t finished when it’s finished, it’s finished when it’s finished. In other words, the two ends of the line don’t need to meet to complete the physical act of rendering a subject. And the drawing itself doesn’t need to be the precursor for a painting. The drawing is done when the aim of the drawing is met, both compositionally, and, most crucially, emotionally.
Because boy howdy, Egon Schiele will do a number on you emotionally. Largely because he always seems to be doing a number on himself. Schiele uses his own body as a subject matter in a way that was unprecedented. He draws himself tortured, emaciated, castrated, with skin that gives off the bruised pallor of pounded-out meat. He contorts and twists and elongates himself into impossible poses. His figures vibrate with dynamic energy, building and building until they’re about to blow right off the page. And we’ve got to talk about this sense of climax, because there’s really no getting around it: the work of Schiele is intensely sexual and just a little grotesque, in that kind of way that pubescent sexuality is both intense and just a little grotesque, fueled by hormones and tinged with shame, simultaneously unbearable and insatiable, anxious and exploratory. And Schiele was always exploring, always testing boundaries, seeing what he himself could get away with in a society so easily triggered. Austrian men were considered fit for marriage around the age of 25, and so the years before were treated with a watchful wink, with the expectation that teenagers would sow their oats with prostitutes. Schiele was like the child in the Emperor’s New Clothes, voraciously curious about sexuality, gender, and the human body, and seeing society’s willful blindness for what it was.
And he paid dearly for his sexual wokeness. He developed a reputation for peddling pornography, and was even arrested in April of 1912 and sentenced to three weeks in prison for immorality and pedophilia. It was essentially a trumped-up charge by a conservative Austrian court – a young runaway stayed with Schiele and his girlfriend Wally and saw a number of drawings, including several of children, that were better left to adults. But look, I’m not going to be the one to defend his innocence or his sexual reputation. What I will say is that the weeks that he spent in prison seem to have been the most excruciating of an already harrowing life, because for the first few days, he was denied drawing supplies. And I think that’s telling, how his own spiritual release seemed tied more powerfully to the act of drawing than to anything physical. Then he was finally issued a pencil, paper, and watercolors, but not a mirror, and this is where all hell breaks loose. His self-portraits, the only in his catalogue created without the aid of a mirror, sequence a slowly deteriorating state of mind, and state of line, until he’s literally just a gray puddle of tortured angst. It’s interesting to think about what Klimt’s Nuda Veritas might have made of this anguished response to a denial of self-analysis. Or Freud, for that matter.
Schiele continued to draw feverishly in the six remaining years of his life until he died in 1918, the same year as his mentor Klimt, and only three days after his pregnant wife, all of the Spanish flu. Like I said, impossibly tragic. And in those brief post-prison years, having been deeply traumatized by the experience, he moved away from the highly sexualized stuff and towards a life of relatively grown-up respectability, which included landscapes and flowers, beautifully clothed figures, some light military service, and ultimately dumping his muse to marry an upper-class woman he hadn’t defiled with his graphite. All of this would suggest a kind of maturity that, quite frankly, we aren’t all that interested in. It’s just not as good a story when the high school bad boy grows up.
And so we continue to worship in the cult of the punk with virtuoso technique, we art historians who will compromise our values and admit to having a favorite artist. Because let’s be honest. I’d still jump at the chance to spend a single day in his studio, in the electricity of his presence, experiencing his complete and utter command of the pencil, and of me, as he maintains unbroken eye contact, tracing my contours and telling me, with the confidence only a twenty-year-old punk artist could have, that “bodies have their own light which they consume to live: they burn, they are not lit from the outside.”
Yeah, well. What can I say? I’ve always been a sucker for a good line.
Special thanks to Charles Gustine and the intrepid museum-goers at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where you can catch the show Klimt and Schiele: Drawn, until May 28th. Go before it’s gone, you won’t regret it. For more information, past episodes, and all of the images, go to the lonely palette.com, or follow us on twitter, @lonelypalette, or on Instagram where I regularly post bonus images @thelonelypalette, like us on facebook, and, if you really like what you hear, support us on Patreon, where you get swag and I get paid and everyone wins.
Speaking of which, today’s patrons of the day are the wonderful John O’Leary and Sarah Britton, who are unique because they make my worlds collide. John and I actually go way back in the finance world – we actually started our jobs on the same week in 2009, and have been supporting each other both in and outside the walls of our office ever since. John and Sarah, thank you so much.
The Lonely Palette is a proud founding member of Hub & Spoke, a collective of idea-driven podcasts.And by the by, did you know that the classic Stanley Kubrick film, 2001 A Space Odyessey, came out 50 years ago this spring?And did you know that my fellow Hub & Spoker Wade’s inaugural episode of Soonish was on that very movie?Now you do!He’ll be introducing a special 70 mm showing at the Coolidge Corner Cinema in Brookline on June 19th, and you should absolutely go, and pregame by listening to the episode.For all the info, go to Soonish podcast.org.