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The Belvedere in Vienna Dedicates Comprehensive Show to Austrian Artist Egon Schiele
A man points to a self-portrait by Egon Schiele at the opening of the exhibition "Egon Schiele - Selbstportraets und Portraets" (Self-Portraits and Portraits) at Belvedere museum in Vienna. REUTERS/Herwig Prammer.

VIENNA.- The Belvedere dedicates a comprehensive show to Egon Schiele (1890-1918), one of the most outstanding Austrian artists of the twentieth century; it is the first to concentrate on his selfportraits and portraits.

Beginning with works in the academic style, Schiele succeeded, in a series of revolutionary portraits, in overcoming the traditional conception of portraiture and redefining the genre. In keeping with early Austrian Expressionism, in his portraits the artist attempted to give visual form to the mental states of his models. Toward the end of his life he became Vienna’s most important portraitist, alongside Gustav Klimt.

An important moment in his recognition as an artist was the purchase of a portrait of Edith Schiele by the Austrian Staatsgalerie (today Belvedere) in 1918. This first public acquisition of a painting by the artist, brought about by the director of the time, Franz Martin Haberditzl, laid the foundation for the museum’s now extensive Schiele collection, which contains several major works by the artist.

Roughly one-third of the artist’s mature oeuvre in oil consists of portraits. (The other two-thirds comprise, again in approximately equal parts, landscapes and allegories.) Portraits and self-portraits are even more prominent among the drawings and watercolors. While some of these works on paper serve as direct studies for oils, others manifest a distinctly different, independent approach to the artistic task at hand. Viewed in their totality, Scheele’s portraits and self-portraits are an incongruous mix of the revolutionary and the conservative: at one moment, the artist pioneered radical new ways of looking at the self, and then again, he circled back to the convention. In presenting some 100 works, roughly one quarter of which are on view in Austria for the first time, the exhibition traces Scheele’s evolution as an artist and his extraordinary achievements as a portraitist. Arranged in chronological order, the show documents the complex interactions between Scheele’s portraits and self-portraits, and his continuous exploration of both genres. Attracted to human subject matter already in early adolescence, Schiele was inclined to view others through the mirror of himself. In his breakthrough Expressionist self-portraits of 1910 and 1911, he tried on multiple personalities, probed his own emotions, and then projected his reactions onto his portrait subjects of the time. Only gradually did the artist develop a more objective approach to the people. At the same time, Scheele’s sense of self coalesced. With new maturity, Schiele acquired an acute sensitivity to the human personality, and his late portraits benefit from the same profound insights that animate his earlier self-portraits.

Relating these representations to the written correspondence between the artist and his collectors and patrons also casts new light upon the close ties between artist and patron, characteristic of the Viennese art scene at the time.

EARLY WORK (1906–1909)
Schiele’s interest in portraiture was already evident in his childhood, and family members were among his earliest subjects. In 1906, the precocious artist was admitted to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, where, at sixteen, he was the youngest student in his class.

At first, Schiele dutifully executed his academic assignments, which began with copies from antique casts and progressed to portraits of live models. But soon he came under the influence of Vienna’s more avant-garde artistic trends. By 1909, he had all but stopped attending classes at the Academy. Impressed by Gustav Klimt’s exhibition at the 1908 “Kunstschau,” Schiele instead spent his time assimilating the lessons implicit in the elder master’s work. From Klimt’s example, Schiele developed a fluid, elegant line and an awareness of negative space that would remain with him for the rest of his life.

At Klimt’s invitation, Schiele exhibited three large portraits at the 1909 “Kunstschau.” This Viennese debut—a flagrant violation of the Academy’s rules—was followed by an exhibition offer from a local gallery, the „Kunstsalon Pisko“. Fed up with the Academy’s repressive policies and regressive artistic philosophy, Schiele and a group of likeminded classmates, dubbing themselves the “Neukunstgruppe”, resigned en masse in June 1909. Schiele’s life as an independent artist had begun.

In early 1910, Egon Schiele emerged with an Expressionistic style unlike anything that had ever before been seen in Vienna. Dispensing with the tightly packed decorative surrounds characteristic of Klimt’s and his own prior portraits, he positioned his figures against blank backgrounds that emphasized the subjects’ existential isolation. Schiele’s artistic development during this period progressed at a tremendous speed, and his style changed rapidly. Works from early 1910 are distinguished by a jarring palette of acid greens, reds and yellows, while works from the latter part of the year are more somber in tone, suggesting the influence of contemporaries like Max Oppenheimer and Oskar Kokoschka.

At the same time, Schiele made considerable professional strides. By the end of 1910, he had gathered a group of important patrons: Carl Reininghaus, heir to an industrial fortune; Oskar Reichel, a successful doctor; Arthur Roessler, art critic, author, and sometime dealer; and Heinrich Benesch, a civil servant whose devotion often exceeded his financial means. Patronage brought with it an upsurge in portrait commissions. A series of large canvases depicting such sitters as Roessler, the publisher Eduard Kosmack, and the boy Herbert Rainer make 1910 one of Schiele’s most productive years as a portraitist.

SELF-PORTRAITS (1910–1918)
Self-portraiture was central to Schiele’s creative vision. Beyond the practical convenience and cost-savings of using himself as a model, self-examination was for him a key to the human soul. Though Schiele’s self-portraits are often inflected with his own emotions, these emotions serve as a bridge to broader existential themes.

Twenty at the time of his Expressionist breakthrough in 1910, Schiele used self-portraits to explore post-adolescent issues of identity and sexuality. In these works, he tried on different personalities: sometimes elegant and assured, at others belligerent or anguished. Schiele’s sense of artistic mission served as a powerful subtext for many of the self-portraits, particularly in the years 1911-14. He was a “seer” both literally and metaphorically. He viewed himself as a quasireligious figure, as a saint, or in the aftermath of his imprisonment, a martyr.

In 1914, on the cusp of full adulthood, Schiele bid farewell both to his adolescent self and to his lover Wally Neuzil in the monumental Death and Maiden. Hereafter, self-portraits would figure less prominently in his work. In later paintings such as The Family, the distinctive features of the artist fade to give way to universal meanings. While Schiele now represents the male gender, the female is represented by an anonymous model.

COMING OF AGE (1912–1915)
Just as Schiele’s career in Vienna was starting to take off, he decided to leave the city. Unfortunately, the conservative denizens of smaller towns such as Krumau (today’s Český Krumlov, where Schiele spent a few months in mid-1911) and Neulengbach (where he moved subsequently) did not take kindly to the artist’s bohemian ways. In April 1912, Schiele was arrested on charges of “public immorality” for allegedly exposing minors to pornographic art.

The so-called prison incident proved a turning point in Schiele’s personal and artistic growth. His relationship with his model and lover, Wally Neuzil, deepened, resulting in some of the artist’s most moving portraits to date. Looking more objectively at his portrait sitters, Schiele grew more responsive to their personalities. His portrait of fifteen-year-old Erich Lederer and his double portrait of Heinrich Benesch and his son, Otto, both depict sensitive youths on the brink of maturity.

Schiele did not consider Wally a suitable long-term mate, and in 1915 he married a more respectable bourgeois girl, Edith Harms. While the marriage was not without its problems, Schiele proved extremely attuned to his wife’s moods and whims, in his art if not in their shared life. Schiele’s portraits of Edith mark the beginning of the final phase in his development.

LATE PORTRAITS (1916–1918)
Three days after his marriage to Edith Harms in June 1915, Schiele, who had been drafted into the army, reported for basic training. Military duties left little time for art, but his portraits of prisoners-of-war demonstrate the sensitivity that is the hallmark of his late style.

In early 1917, Schiele managed to get himself transferred to Vienna and to resume his artistic activities. His growing professional success was reflected in numerous portrait commissions. Schiele painted notable figures such as Franz Martin Haberditzl, the Director of the Austrian Staatsgalerie (today Belvedere), and the industrialist Hugo Koller, as well as friends like the artist Albert Paris Gütersloh. Edith, too, continued to be a favorite portrait subject. In tandem with Schiele’s greater responsiveness to his sitters’ personalities came a change in style. His work was now more conventionally realistic. His lines, which formerly had jumped seismographically in response to the artist’s emotions, now hewed tightly to the subject’s inner life. Toward the end of his life he became, alongside Klimt, the most important portrait painter in Vienna.

In October 1918, he and his pregnant wife both succumbed to the deadly Spanish flu. The artist was twenty-eight years old.

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February 18, 2011

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