Egon Schiele at The Neue Galerie

Egon Schiele, Girl With Black Hair (1911), gouache, watercolor and pencil on paper, 22-3/8″ x 15-7/8″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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Egon Schiele: The Ronald S. Lauder and Serge Sabarsky Collections, an exhibition on view at the Neue Galerie, will be one of the most popular events of the 2005–2006 art season.  Visitors to the newest addition to the Upper East Side’s Museum Mile—the Neue Galerie, dedicated exclusively to Germanic art—will enter its door after having patiently stood in line. A significant number of young patrons will visit the Neue Galerie for the first time, eager to acquaint themselves with the angst-ridden art of the Austrian Modernist. The museum’s overview of Schiele’s art will, in fact, be the most heavily trafficked exhibition in its short history and, in all likelihood, for the foreseeable future.

The statements above, in other words, aren’t feats of clairvoyance. They are the received wisdom—that is, for anyone with even the barest comprehension of contemporary culture. Unlike “Egon Schiele: The Leopold Collection, Vienna,” an exhibition seen at the Museum of Modern Art in 1997 (and the last time the work was seen in any depth), the Neue Galerie show is peculiarly, perhaps even presciently, in sync with the times.

It is certainly less troubled by history. The MOMA show was plagued by controversy. Schiele’s sexually and psychologically charged imagery was obscured by matters of restitution. Two pictures in the exhibition had been seized by the Nazis in 1939 from the collection of a Jewish family living in Austria; the family wanted them back. The press had a field day. The Schiele pieces at the Neue Galerie were culled from the collections of the late art dealer Serge Sabarsky and Ronald S. Lauder, the heir of the Estée Lauder cosmetics fortune, and every last piece is above board. “Egon Schiele” will not suffer the same fate as the MOMA show. This time around, the artist will have his say.

Egon Schiele (1890–1918) is, in many ways, the perfect contemporary artist or, rather, his life and art are emblematic of tendencies in our own culture. At this early juncture of the twenty-first century, in an era dominated by celebrity and fashion, narcissism is not a moral or psychological failing. It is an inherently positive attribute—at least, for those who choose to live their lives by the seductive strictures of commercial culture. Schiele’s relentless and unapologetic fascination with self marks him as a startlingly of-the-moment type—not Paris Hilton exactly, but not far off the mark either. More than the skills as a draftsman for which he is renowned, Schiele’s vanity, hyperbolic in nature and consummately constructed, is his defining attribute.

Schiele’s imprisonment for “immorality” —he was arrested for abducting and seducing a woman under the age of consent, but ultimately jailed for exhibiting explicit drawings—coupled with the early deaths of his pregnant wife and himself fits all too snugly in to the hoary myth of the tortured artist. Schiele’s premature death guaranteed a romantic, if inadvertent, claim to immortality.

A visit to the Neue Galerie usually feels like time travel, as we find ourselves taking pleasure in the artifacts of the Secessionist movement; an unerringly tasteful mustiness prevails. Walking through “Egon Schiele,” in striking contrast, isn’t that much different from channel surfing, leafing through the latest edition of Vogue, or strolling through Williamsburg, Brooklyn. A not unattractive mix of youthful vigor, self-absorption, and strident sexuality is the rule.

We have, in many ways, only begun to catch up with Schiele. Photographs of the artist pepper the elephantine catalogue—published by Prestel, at 504 pages—and form a significant component of the installation. Schiele was nothing if not photogenic and knew it. With his shock of black hair, dramatically arched eyebrows, slow curl of the lip, and flair for stylized gestures, he was, at least in front of the camera lens, never not posing. In the attention paid to extreme artifice and manufactured image, Schiele was a rock star before such a thing existed. In the back of the catalogue, indeed, you’ll find photos of Schiele and his art featured alongside Pop culture staples like James Dean, Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Johnny Rotten, and (if you blinked in the early 1980s, you missed him) Adam Ant. Schiele makes them all seem quaint in comparison.

Elsewhere in the catalogue we are presented with evidence of Schiele’s influence on fashion and art. His paintings and drawings are juxtaposed with photos of sullen men and women wearing clothes designed by Calvin Klein, Missoni, and Louis Vuitton. Testimonies to Schiele’s legacy are offered by living artists—Tracy Emin, Vanessa Beecroft, and Marlene Dumas among them. Schiele the “pornographic humanist” is held in high esteem. This isn’t surprising. The art world has an insatiable craving for—and there’s no other way of putting it, really—icky sex.

Schiele’s pictures of women spreading their legs, Sapphic entanglements, and auto-eroticism resonate with a crowd for whom transgression is manna. The German artist Helmut Koller pines for Schiele’s return: “In a time where dismembered cows in formaldehyde tanks are considered art, the world needs to be reminded that something really great has come before it.” Amen and hallelujah, one wants to reply, but is Schiele the “great” figure to rescue us from the mistakes of culture?

The Neue Galerie thinks so. The introductory wall label tells us that Schiele was “one of the most gifted artists of the twentieth century.” This is standard curatorial boilerplate and to be expected. It’s difficult, though, to believe that anyone with the eye to see it would rate Schiele’s not inconsiderable gifts over those of Matisse, Beckmann, Picasso, and Vuillard. Over the course of a fairly adumbrated overview, Schiele doesn’t register as much more than a precocious and forbiddingly narrow talent.

More interesting and, in the end, troubling is the museum’s insistence that Schiele was a harbinger of “greater openness to the art of his time.” What, exactly, does that mean?

Schiele didn’t add “openness” to the history of artistic form. Pictorial invention was not his forte or interest. He learned most everything he knew from his mentor, the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt, twenty-eight years his senior, and not much more. They shared a fascination with morbid eroticism, but Klimt’s was a less restrictive worldview and a more encompassing talent. It is impossible to imagine Schiele’s signature tics—particularly, the emphasis on contour as a sinuous, decorative agent and an all but unbridgeable disconnect between figure and ground—without Klimt’s example.

What Schiele didn’t pick up from Klimt was the vital distinction between drawing and painting. Schiele cannot, in fact, properly be considered a painter. When working with oils on canvas, he used paint as filler, not as a determinant of form. The efforts on canvas, defined largely by linear armatures, feel rickety and hollow, as if they were in danger of collapsing under the pigment with which they’ve been burdened.

Color, especially, was foreign to Schiele’s vision. A preponderance of brown pervades the work. The vitrines ensconced in the introductory gallery, filled with documentary ephemera, stand in welcome relief to the paintings displayed nearby. Their crisp and clean arrangement of letters, photos, and exhibition announcements offer a welcome rejoinder to Self-Portrait with Model (Fragment) (1913) and Single Houses (Houses with Mountains)(1915), dour and muddy canvases that practically disappear into the Neue Galerie’s lustrous, wood paneling. If anything, the rich decor of the museum reveals Schiele’s lack of coloristic know-how. Schiele’s brown, redolent of nothing so much as tobacco stains, is an unappealing, viscous material, sludgy and inert. With rare exception, and almost never in the paintings, color is a subservient, all but arbitrary element of Schiele’s oeuvre.

The oppressive tonalities lift in the second gallery of the exhibition, wherein the curators place a greater emphasis on drawing. Portrait of Dr. Erwin von Graff (1910), for instance, is essentially a line drawing done in oils and gouache. Schiele’s painterly touch lightens a bit, at times being no more than a thinned swipe across the canvas. The areas surrounding Schiele’s human subjects become increasingly flat and starkly empty, existing less as dimensional spaces than as indicators of psychological remove. The figure literally comes front and center. Leading the way is Schiele’s line.

Schiele’s line is among the most distinctive in the history of art. Irritable and angular, it traces every contour in its path with an agile, obsessive severity. A gallery featuring student work proves that Schiele was a capable draftsman, yet “straight” drawing was anathema to his vision. Putting pencil to paper without conflating eroticism and anxiety proved all but impossible.

Schiele’s depictions of the human form are rife with elongated arms, twisted necks, and contorted torsos, all of them seemingly wracked with arthritic pain. At its best, Schiele’s line crackles, whether it is delineating the belly of a pregnant woman or the profile of his father-in-law, Johann Harms. At its worst, it devolves into a hysterical form of caricature. As with any mannerist, the excesses of style can easily descend into parody. Portrait of the Painter Karl Zakovsek (1910) is laughable in its moist treatment of an oh-so-delicate temperament. Self-Portrait in Brown Coat (1910), in which Schiele surrounds his head with a jabbing halo of white, is little more than a calling card for arrant self-absorption.

Then again, it has the benefit of being an out-and-out drawing. Schiele’s drawings, along with a smaller sampling of prints, are the focus of the Neue Galerie’s third floor galleries. After the turgid array of paintings, it comes as a relief to look at work where line is a priority and oil paint is no longer an obligation. Drawing doesn’t necessitate the creation of space; we instinctively “read” the white of the page as holding the images drawn upon it. Schiele realized this early on and was liberated by the knowledge. All of the drawings “sit” well. This much can be said in Schiele’s favor: He never wasted a sheet of paper.

The open expanse of the page allowed Schiele to concentrate and elaborate on his favorite motif: the human form. Acutely aware of the parameters of each page, he generated psychological and sexual frisson by working against them. His stylizations of the human form can be extreme and are often offputting and operatic, but they are always defined with a confident and spiky expedience. Unencumbered by place, Schiele’s figures—particularly, the neurasthenic young women—exist in a realm dedicated solely to their own desires.

Or, to be more precise, the desires of the artist. Forget composition: Schiele created psychological and sexual frisson through brute physical fact. His women, but not only the women, were put through uncomfortable contortions with the express purpose of revealing their sex. (Pudenda serve as the centerpiece of not a few of the pictures.) Schiele’s distorted nudes bear some comparison with Edgar Degas’s pictures of women bathing in metal tubs. Not that Schiele benefits from the comparison. For Degas, the woman is a medium for the exploration of form and, as its coefficient, sensuality. For Schiele, she is only a repository for obsession. There is nothing at all sensual about the work. Sexuality is rendered as a blatant and manipulative form of theater.

Seated Girl with Hat Masturbating (1913) remains, in its casual confluence of public presentation and private endeavor, unsettling. Looking directly at the viewer, the title character acknowledges the viewer and, in doing so, reveals the artifice inherent in her actions. Erotic abandon as an expression of love (or loneliness) invites a loss of self. In Schiele’s world, erotic abandon is never not a well-rehearsed performance. Pornography is defined as much by cynical presentation as by sexual content. In that regard, Schiele could be considered a consummate pornographer.

Exiting Egon Schiele comes not a moment too soon. The world depicted in his drawings and paintings is wholly contained, sensible in its own way, yet suffocating. Entranced by the prerogatives of narrow ambitions, Schiele could barely admit to a world that didn’t kowtow to his rapacious appetites. As a stylist he discovered himself swiftly and went nowhere brilliantly. It is worth remembering that Schiele died at the age of twenty-eight. Few visual artists stake their claim on history while young. Schiele’s talent never developed, never gained in breadth or feeling. His limitations as an artist were fully commensurate with his immaturity as a human being.

Seen on a piecemeal basis, Schiele provides a reliable jolt of discomfort. Over the long haul, he is a pretentious, unsavory bore. His was a cruel and arrogant gift, perpetually adolescent in its rage and fascinations. No wonder he is the first love of so many young artists: He embodies their own callow, if no less real because of it, turmoil. Would that Schiele approached his human subjects with the probing curiosity brought to bear on Office at the Muhling Prisoner of War Camp (1916), the finest drawing on display at the Neue Galerie. He didn’t—in the end, he couldn’t—and that was a greater loss for Schiele than it is for the rest of us.

© 2005 Mario Naves

Originally published in the December 2005 edition of The New Criterion.

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