Although the iconic Egon Schiele passed away at the early age of 28 years old, he is arguably one of the most intense artists of the turn of the XIX century. With a groundbreaking style of figuration, marked by an expressive use of brushstrokes and a singular intensity, his twisted anatomy and use of color can be understood as early manifestations of Expressionism. The Leopold Museum in Vienna has its biggest collection, with more than 200 works. Although he is most known for portraits such as Seated Woman With Bent Knee, he also created striking cityscape paintings such as Yellow City.
Egon was born in June of 1890 in Tulln an der Donau, also known as the city of flowers, in lower Austria. Adolf Schiele, his father, worked as a Stationmaster in the Austrian State Railways. Schiele quickly developed a talent and interest in art. Adolf disapproved that he spent hours drawing, and it is known that he came to a point where he destroyed one of his son's sketchbooks filled with drawings of trains - one of his early interests.
By the age of eleven, Egon had to move to Krems, a nearby city, to attend school. He wasn't very enthusiastic about school activities, only exceeding in athletics, and was referred to as an awkward and reserved person by his colleagues. During this period, one of his art instructors noticed the youngling's talent for the arts and recommended that he search for education in the area.
It is recorded that during this period, Schiele displayed incestuous behavior towards his younger sister, Gertrude, which frequently made Adolf act aggressively towards him, once knocking down a door to a room where the two were together.
His father was diagnosed with syphilis and passed away when Schiele was fifteen. His maternal uncle got custody of the young artist, wishing that Schiele would join him in his profession as a railway official, following his father's footsteps. He tried to pursue young Schiele but was forced to recognize his immense talent, ultimately putting him with an art teacher, Ludwig Karl Strauch.
In 1906, the Austrian artist began studying at the prestigious School of Arts and Crafts in Vienna, an institution that Gustav Klimt had studied at before. During his first year, he was transferred to the Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, an institution that favored a much more traditional approach to art education. Dissatisfied with his instructor, Christian Griepenkerl, and his strict parameters, Schiele came in contact with Gustav Klimt, who mentored other young artists in the past and became compelled by Schiele's work.
Because of Klimt, Schiele now had contact with models, museums, and possible patrons for his work. Although Schiele always had a unique style of drawing and painting, the influence of Klimt, as well as Oskar Kokoschka, are visible in his early works, especially from 1907 to 1909. Klimt also introduced Schiele to the Wiener Werkstätte, a workshop of arts and crafts of the Vienna Secession and one of Vienna's fundamental Modernist manifestations.
One of the many traits of Modernism was the interest in other mediums other than painting. Since the Renaissance, painting relished a privileged position as a noble and prestigious language, especially oil painting, while other techniques were associated with artisans.
The Wiener Werkstätte blurred the lines of this distinction, teaching and encouraging the engagement with manufacturing methods while favoring an experimental sensibility. The active quest for taking inspiration in other mediums can also be seen in Gauguin's passion for folk art, as well as Van Gogh's declared admiration for Japanese prints, something they would embody in their artworks.
The workshop was coordinated by Josef Hoffmann, who was also one of the founders of the Vienna Secession. Hoffmann was a famous Modernist architect of his time, being praised by the likes of Le Corbusier. Inspired by Art Nouveau and other Modernist circles that were bridging design, crafts, and the art world, Hoffmann established the Werkstätte with Dagobert Peche and Koloman Moser.
Schiele participated in his first exhibition when he was only eighteen, a collective effort that happened in the city of Klosterneuburg. Feeling confident after the show, the Austrian artist founded the New Art Group, the Neuekunstgruppe, along with other colleagues who left the Academy as well.
In 1909, Schiele came in contact with works of other remarkable artists like Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, and Jan Toorop while exhibiting at the Vienna Kunstschau, under Klimt's invitation. The painter was especially inspired by Van Gogh, painting a tribute to his sunflowers, as well as Schiele's Room in Neulengbach.
Schiele painted landscapes and still lifes but was especially drawn to the human form. He explored the possibilities of creating shapes, playing with the distortion of the body while freely delving into themes of sexuality. His art brings questions about the conventional ideas of gender, sexuality, and beauty - which shocked society at the time.
Scholars, and even other artists that were still attached to academic convictions, found his depiction of the body as disturbing. It was in 1910 when he would first delve into the nude as a theme, and in a year, he reached the visuality for which he is known for till the present day.
This was a fruitful period for Schiele. Not only did he participate in a lot of group exhibitions, both of the Neuekuntsgruppe and the Secession group, but he also made his first solo show. The event took place in Galerie Miethke, and the artist's controversial depictions of nudity, including self-portrayals, warranted criticism. Still, Schiele sold a considerable amount of work to private collectors.
In 1911, Schiele fell in love when he met one of Klimt's previous models, Walburga Neuzil, also known as Wally, who was seventeen years old. It is speculated that before Schiele, Wally had an affair with Klimt, but little is known about her outside interactions with the artists. They moved together to Schiele's mother's hometown in southern Bohemia but were eventually forced to leave because of the town's conservative view of their lifestyle.
By this period, the painter's work was becoming more complex and existential. The couple moved to the larger city of Neulengbach. The artist was continually being part of group exhibitions in several cities and was then invited to participate in a show with the Expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter. The event also had the works of artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc.
While living in Neulengbach, the couple faced a similar situation to what happened in Bohemia. Since the artist worked with underaged models, the town's rejection of his lifestyle led him to be arrested in 1912. The police took hundreds of drawings from his studio, claiming they were pornographic, and the judge of the case even burned one of his drawings in the courtroom. Schiele was arrested on the charges of rape, which were later dropped, and spent about a month in jail, where he produced a small series of paintings. After this incident, Schiele didn't depict children anymore, but his work's sexual nature and tension only seemed to grow.
Even with these incidents, Schiele's career was still going pretty well. The artist had a solo exhibition in Munich in 1913 and one in Paris in the next year. In an attempt to better his reputation, the artist planned to marry a woman of a respected family, as he told a friend through correspondence. He thought of Edith Harms, who belonged to a middle-class protestant family.
He still had the intention of seeing Wally in secret. When he told his lover about his plans to marry Edith, she was deeply hurt and left, never to come back. Wally's departure caused him great pain resulting in the painting Death and the Maiden. Despite the strong family opposition, Schiele and Edith still got married in 1915.
The artist avoided as long as he could to present himself to the military, but three days after his wedding, he was ordered to report in Prague. While Schiele was living there, Edith came along and stayed at a hotel, where the artist received permission to see her occasionally.
During this period, the scale of Schiele's works was growing, and his paintings were getting more detailed. Serving the army would restrict his time, forcing him to turn to mostly drawings to keep his creative production going. Edith posed for him whenever it was possible, and works of this time also dealt with family themes.
Despite serving in the military, his exhibitions didn't stop, and he had shows in Prague, Dresden, and Zurich. Since Schiele developed a good relationship with his commander, he was allowed to portray prisoners and even use a storeroom as his studio.
In 1917, the painter was allowed to go back to Vienna. This is considered his best year production-wise, and his artworks exuded maturity. In that same year, Klimt and Schiele created the Kunsthalle, a new space for Austrian artists to exhibit their work.
The next year was a tragic one: on the one hand, Schiele had 50 works accepted for the Secession's yearly exhibition. His work was situated in the main space of the event. On the other, Klimt's pneumonia was ultimately fatal. In October, Edith, who was six months pregnant, died after being contaminated by the Spanish flu. Schiele did a few sketches of his loved one and passed away only three days later.
Even living a short life, Schiele was an impressively prolific artist. He made around 3.000 drawings and a considerable number of canvases. Schiele's work, while embodying the best ambient the Vienna culture had to offer, and taking many aspects of Klimt's oeuvre, was still singular in many factors.
It is safe to assume that dealing with the body as his primary subject and rejecting academic anatomy norms to depict a somewhat deformed body shaped the figurative imagery of Expressionists. Also, the raw intensity and the non-conforming to realist aesthetics while portraying nudes is something that painters like Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon would explore and expand upon later.