A graceful presentation of Egon Schiele’s art, and the life’s work of one who collected it.
Opening in 2001, the Leopold Museum in Vienna has distinguished itself with its collection of Austrian art from the previous century. Rudolf Leopold (1925-2010) spent six decades amassing art. Out of all the talented creators in Vienna around 1900, Egon Schiele captivated this collector most of all.
Dr. Leopold concentrated on Schiele when few remembered his impact outside of Austria. Beginning in the early 1950s, Rudolf Leopold turned from his medical degree to his fascination with Schiele. As Hans-Peter Wipplinger notes in his preface to this catalogue of the Leopold Museum’s holdings, no other institution matches its archive of 42 paintings, 184 drawings and graphic works, 66 autographs and nine photographs. These testify to this German Expressionist’s achievements during his short life.
This volume features “A Sketch of the Era” by Elisabeth Leopold. She recounts the artist’s birth in a small city on the Danube, his academic studies from age 16 on in Vienna and the impact of the Secession movement in 1897. This brought the French Impressionists to exhibitions in that city, as well as works by Auguste Rodin and Vincent van Gogh. The first president of the Secession, Gustav Klimt, prepared the way for Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele. Although a generation younger than Klimt, they shared his modernist sensibility and his bold approach.
Schiele made his breakthrough in 1910, but he had little time to enjoy it. Dead at 28 in 1918 in the Spanish flu pandemic, his demise timed itself with Klimt; as well as the end of an Old World era. It took admirers such as Rudolf Leopold to rescue Schiele and some of his contemporaries, and this only happened after the close of a greater conflict.
Introducing the artist’s oeuvre in a 1972 essay reprinted here, Rudolf Leopold interprets Schiele. Whereas Klimt combined the disparate, abstract patterns, mosaic color and realistic figures, Schiele turned from the allegorical compositions of the elder artist. Instead, he portrays ugly and awkward depictions of the body, clothed and nude. His spare or vivid landscapes merit equal attention.
Although influenced by Edvard Munch, Schiele—as Leopold characterizes the younger artist’s reaction—elevated the erotic, away from the “demon woman” or “battle of the sexes” in the Norwegian’s estimation. Leopold views loneliness and distress in Schiele. “For him autumn functions as a symbol of all that is fleeting in human existence.” Ten years were all that Schiele spent with any of his works on display. In that span, he mastered Expressionism, but he also incorporated geometry and his own take on Cubism into his mannered later compositions. Schiele, while part of the Secession, managed in his prematurely terminated career to go beyond any school or style. One of his watercolors bears his inscription: “Art cannot be modern; art is eternal.”
This book then matches photographs of more than 140 works with text by both Leopolds, along with Franz Smola and Birgit Summerauer. A 1906 sketch of a young girl opens this section, and the teenage student’s rendering of her head attests to his command of his lessons. While seeming natural, his drawings demonstrate his care in composing them in planes, angles and somber moods suiting the Secessionist style. A leap into the ornamented and gilded preferences of the Jugendstil approach to art results two years later in angular poses which would become Schiele’s preferred style for figures.
Soon, structure rather than decoration dominates. By 1910, his often emaciated, puppet-like naked subjects contort. Planes and lines sharpen. The fragility of the flesh contends with pride or submission. Some of his chalk illustrations look as if they are watercolors, as he channels hues into eddies.
Increasingly, he splays himself in self-portraits, gawking or grimacing at the viewer as well as himself. The houses he crowds together as he looks down at the town of Krumau huddle in the dark. Trees shiver, contours ripple, faces glower and his favorite model from this pre-war period, Wally Neuzil, manages to soften Schiele’s brush, with a huge pair of pale blue eyes, blushing cheeks and reddish hair. Yet the longing looks persist, as wartime may have hastened Schiele away from a focus on dappled flesh and crouching females to brooding over the blind and the dead now and then.
Once in a while, Leopold’s commentary reveals telling moments. The sister of a model who posed for Schiele in 1915 wrote the collector that, due to war shortages of “good fabric,” those two young women made dresses out of a striped curtain in the artist’s studio. Whether exaggerating corpulence, recording (during a post he served working in a holding camp) a dulled Russian prisoner of war or paying homage to the dead Klimt, Schiele continued up to the year of his death to challenge himself.
For those who long for a visit to Vienna, this compendium may serve as a stimulant to travel. For those who have returned from the Leopold Museum, this gathers its most famous artist’s achievements. Closing with a timeline for Schiele and a list of exhibitions of his creations, this stands as a hefty but graceful presentation of Egon Schiele’s art, and the life’s work of one who collected it.