Egon Schiele is a celebrated artist now, in the present century and decade when studies on sexuality and desires have come far, far enough to relegate the once shunned artist on a pedestal. Schiele faced antagonism over the course of his life for his paintings that often depicted subjects, raw and exuding desire, delving into the looker’s mind and interrogating their personal fantasies. But these are the words of the more evolved audience. In the early 1910’s when Schiele was painting his nude portraits, he was termed as a blasphemous pornography promoting artist, who found it very difficult to even find accommodation in his own city of Vienna.
Sciele’s life term wasn’t an easy one. He was born to working class parents who wanted him to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather and become an engineer in the railways. His father suffered from the lifelong disease of syphilis and his mother saw death of too many of her own children dying in their infancy. Schiele was however closest to his sister, Gertrude ‘Gerti’ Schiele, who was a model for many of his paintings.
While Schiele’s landscapes can almost be described as calm, soothing and brimming with beauty that one comes to accord the nature with. His portraits were enigmatic, rippling with grotesque bodies, misshapen, real and perhaps more exemplar in their portrayal of the Expressionistic style that he used. They were marked by angst, grief and rawness of feeling. Though a lot of critics refrain from commenting upon the queer nature of his paintings and his nude self-portraits, his paintings cannot however be separated from the question of sexuality and voyeurism of same sex depictions. After all it can come as a no surprise to anyone, that Schiele and Sigmund Freud shared not only the same time line but also the same continent. The early modern period was the time of questions and change, and for that reason alone, one cannot escape the pending question of Schiele’s paintings and their queer nature.
His self-portrait titled, Double Self Portrait, 1915, shows two men, locked in a semi embrace. Now for the most part this painting can either stand as an example of Schiele’s dual personality, or for the fact that if he did have a duality in him, did that second part desire another man. This is however the only painting depicting two men embracing for us to go far in that conjecture. Dicsussing his portraiture, Gerald Izenberg writes –
Schiele’s explorations in portraiture were . . . refracted through a turn-of-the century crisis in European masculine identity. The crisis was born of social and political developments that worked to undermine middle-class males’ sense of power and self-esteem, among them the woman’s movement and a new cultural awareness of the psychological power of mothers and of female sexuality. These factors were especially powerful in the psychology of artists, who often felt both marginal and effeminate in a culture that valued the manly virtues of the warrior and the entrepreneur (Izenberg, 1).
When it comes to studying his possible queer nature, we have numerous paintings, where his female subjects, often nude, are lying down together, in each other’s arms.
Reclining Girls Embracing 1911
Before forging accusations of his queer voyeurism, it is also important to establish a reason as to why his paintings can stand as the early modern period’s effort to understand alternate sexualities. It was the same period, which started a conversation on sexual desires through Freud and it was the period that gave us the self-proclaimed, longest love letter from Virginia Woolfe to Vita Sackville West, Orlando. In this process it is difficult to eliminate Schiele’s paintings as purely voyeuristic while he presents women in a private and a sensuous world.
Two Nudes Embracing 1911
Kneeling Girls Embracing 1911
But coming back to the question of Schiele’s painting containing voyeuristic quality, bordering on fetish, it is no secret that Schiele was often criticized for his treatment of his models. He was accused of seducing young underage girls to model for him nude. His famous mentor Gustave Klimt, was also under scanner for exploitation of female models, whom he used to pass off to his students and friends without a regard. Towards the latter half of his life, Schiele ceased to use children as models. His relationship with his sister Gerti, has been a subject of many studies on his personal self.
Schiele enacted a number of transgressive strategies in his drawings, beginning with the depiction of his sixteen-year-old sister Gerti as an erotic nude posing provocatively in suspenders and a large hat (no. 12). Schiele had long since had an ambiguous relationship with his sister: when she was just twelve years-old he took her on trips to Trieste, booking into a hotel in order to retrace the steps of their parent’s honeymoon. (Loyd, 3)
Egon Schiele has been present in the contemporary consciousness. He has made a major impact on the contemporary artists like the band Rachel’s and a painting inspired by his works was included in the famous 2014 movie by Wes Anderson, called Grand Budapest Hotel. He has inspired future painters and has assisted in opening up a space where conversations about sexuality can be conducted.
Painting used by Wes Anderson
To sum up, Egon Schiele, remains on the pedestal for his present and future audience for his art. We might never know what his art symbolized for him, and can make deductions based on our own understanding of his portraiture.