Egon Schiele: Drawing the World: Edited by Klaus Albrecht Schröder

Egon Schiele: Drawing the World: Edited by Klaus Albrecht Schröder

Taps the collection of Vienna’s Albertina Museum, which owns nearly 200 master drawings.

Egon Schiele: Drawing the World: Edited by Klaus Albrecht Schröder

4.25 / 5

A number of memorial exhibitions and publications are in the works next year to commemorate the death of artist Egon Schiele (1890-1918). The Hefty tome, Egon Schiele: Drawing the World edited by Klaus Albrecht Schröder, taps the collection of Vienna’s Albertina Museum, which owns nearly 200 master drawings, most of any other collection of this celebrated German Expressionist.

Schröder observes that his subject refuses to tell a story with his characters, isolating them in white space without a focal point. “Self-thematizations” of emaciation multiply as Schiele captured his own contorted figure and his alienation in poses that he used to depict hundreds of nude girls and women. These subjects represented the transience of forlorn people. Immediately before the Great War, Schiele conveyed the isolation within his society and its tottering empire and in the process invented a new, existentialist aesthetic.

In conjunction with an exhibition at the Albertina, this catalog (not to be confused with a similarly titled 2006 book by the same editor) focuses on the artist’s quieter side, including drawing and works on paper and paintings, and is supplemented with scholarly essays, a timeline of Schiele’s life and times, a bibliography and tributes by his then-peers.

In an introductory essay, Johann Thomas Ambrózy goes beyond the conventional view of Schiele as a harbinger of the past century’s despair, seeing the artist as, “a champion of high ethics and impassioned spirituality” who sought love as his “elevated goal.” Nature within his landscapes revealed an allegorical orientation to St. Francis of Assisi and his radical Spiritual successors who vied to embrace destitution and exalt a Christ-like humility. Ambrózy extends this interpretation into the erotic and physical expressions of a similar “holiness.”

Drawing the World opens with a 1906 self-portrait as a 16-year old in which the artist already conveyed himself as a dandy with a fixed gaze. By 1910, early “garish” female nudes begin to appear along with the so-called Red Men figures. Soon he fled what he felt as the oppressive Viennese atmosphere and settled in Krummau (now the Bohemian UNESCO heritage site of Český Krumlov). The view from its castle looking down on this picturesque town appears in subdued tones. Schiele kept producing off-center representations of nudes supplemented with watercolors, some of which anthropomorphize floral contours. His grimacing, torn self-portraits explore a performative, sexualized stance as he confronts his own image as well as that of women.

The editor distinguishes Schiele from his sometime-mentor Gustav Klimt with what he calls the younger artist’s “spatioperspectival uncertainty.” Even his portrayals of children dismiss sentiment, his subjects standing rigid and helpless with set expressions and serious eyes. Unfortunately, such subjects found Schiele in real life trouble, as in 1912 he was incarcerated for the alleged abduction and rape of a 13-year-old girl. Panic and dread emerged from his prison in penciled drawings of deputies and of course self-portraits, which conveyed a Franciscan aesthetic of a poor man.

Schiele was released after 24 days, and his self-portraits in the following year captured a taut and delicate image. Firm lineaments and geometric details enlivened his art, and by 1915 his wife entered the scene in nudes and portraits, along with her sister. War-related deployment sent Schiele to posts that included a job as a clerk in a prison camp for Russian officers, and these people too became the artist’s subjects.

One of Schiele‘s most recognizable works was a 1918 color lithograph made for the 49th exhibition of the Secession, which brought him a measure of financial success that was unfortunately short-lived. Even worse, just before the war ended, his pregnant wife succumbed to the Spanish flu, and three days later he became another victim of the pandemic. His last words summed up the fate of a man leaving behind a tumultuous time. “The war is over– and I must go.” Egon Schiele: Drawing the World is a valuable, affordable survey of this essential artist, giving readers who are unable to travel to Vienna a chance to see a volatile era through Schiele’s scrutinizing spectacles.

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