Remembering Austrian painter Egon Schiele’s revolutionary erotic art style

As STIR takes a look at the works of artists from modern history who thrived during the past pandemics, the last part delves into the works of Gustav Klimt’s protégé, Egon Schiele.

by Shraddha Nair Published on : Jul 27, 2020

A protégé of Gustav Klimt, a European sensation and a household name, the powerful work of Egon Schiele often slips into the surrounding shadows of the spotlight, which shines on Klimt. Known for his many self-portraits, provocative nudity and sharp line work, Schiele’s work is markedly different in aesthetic when compared to Klimt, but the one common thread between the two artists remains their shared appreciation for beauty of the human form, in particular the female form. Although Egon Schiele lived an unfortunately short life, leaving the world even before he turned 30, he remains one of the 20th century’s major names in figurative painting. Schiele’s works were known to focus primarily on the themes of sex and death, and his hand was adept at creating risqué and jarring images, highlighting the grotesque in a rather beautiful light.

A self-portrait by Schiele depicting his own nude form | Egon Schiele| STIRworld
A self-portrait by Schiele depicting his own nude form Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Dubbed as the titan of modernism, Schiele’s work broke past the rules which artists of the time were burdened with by the society. His art proved to be far too scandalous and beyond anything his viewers were used to. While Klimt himself rejected the boundaries of traditional painting by moving into more expressionist styles, Schiele went above and beyond. He introduced ugliness at a time when art was expected to be the preserver of beauty, a radical turn which shocked many. In my eyes, Schiele contributed much more to art than Klimt ever did, simply through redefining what was worth putting onto the canvas. Even at a young age, Schiele’s style was developed and translated with confidence. The colours of his works are distinct and emotionally invigorating, creating palettes to evoke the mood of the moment. His use of colour is deliberate and extremely careful, with many of his sketches only using colour as highlights. His obsession with human form was rendered in a lifelike manner capturing the spirit of his subjects, albeit with little regard for realism. The figures, both male or female, were often frail looking and emaciated. His models, not excluding himself, were pictured contorted, pale, bruised and more often than not, postured in rather erotic dispositions. One of the most striking features of his renders lies in the androgynous style in which the models are depicted. His male figures were depicted with tender and vulnerable treatment, rather than exaggerated machoism. He embodied fragility and struggle of the human existence in all its psychological and emotional manifestations with the effortless compositions.

Umarmung, which translates to ‘embrace’, made in 1917 by Schiele | Egon Schiele| STIRworld
Umarmung, which translates to ‘embrace’, made in 1917 by Schiele Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Egon Schiele was born in 1890 and died in 1918. His life was short but nothing if not eventful. He was born in Austria to a German father and German-Czech mother. His father suffered from psychosis, possibly where the seeds of Schiele’s curiosity about the human condition were first sown, and also frequented brothels, which is likely where the artist’s fascination with sexual acts and experiments first began. He lost his father to syphilis when he was only fifteen-years-old. He started taking tuitions to improve his sketching skills soon after, and eventually enrolled for formal education in a fine arts school. However, he dropped out due to instructors enforcing conservative and conventional methods, which did not agree with Schiele’s perspectives. At 17, he was approached by Gustav Klimt, who was known to have regularly taken young artists under his wing. Klimt, like Schiele, had an inclination towards depicting raw sensuality, which has been criticised for being far too explicit. Klimt arranged models for the young artist and it is a well-known fact that many years later Schiele also had an enduring relationship with one of Klimt’s models named Wally. In his early 20s, Schiele was arrested for seducing and abducting a young girl, below the age of consent (14 at the time), supposedly in order to use her as a model for his drawings. He was sent to 21 days in custody for it and also charged with exhibiting his erotica in front of minors, which led to another three days in prison. It is being said his artworks were burned in front of him while he was imprisoned. A few years later, Schiele went on to marry a woman named Edith, who unlike Wally was deemed to be of suitable social stature in the eyes of Schiele's surrounding community at the time. Just a few days after their wedding, Schiele was drafted to join the forces for World War I. He continued to create art even during this time, often using prisoners of war as models.

Portrait of Eduard Kismack by Schiele | Egon Schiele| STIRworld
A portrait of Eduard Kismack by Egon Schiele Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Edith died in 1918, just a month before she was about to deliver Egon’s child, after contracting the Spanish flu, which had spread across the world. Schiele succumbed to the same condition just a few short days after losing his wife. He continued to create incredible portraits until the end of his life despite the global pandemic. Although his life was short and his artistic career even shorter, Schiele left behind a legacy that was duly appreciated by the following generations. Today, he is seen as an artist who paved the path for many Viennese Modernists and whose artworks also served as inspiration for the Abstract Expressionist movement.

Liegender Weiblicher Akt by Egon Schiele | Egon Schiele| STIRworld
Liegender Weiblicher Akt by Egon Schiele Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Read more from the series here:

Exploring artist Edvard Munch’s iconic works developed during the Spanish flu

Celebrating the life of pop artist Keith Haring who promoted AIDS awareness

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