The good, the bad and the ugly
The Austrian painter Egon Schiele is famous, or some would argue infamous, for the disturbed intensity, twisted bodies and raw sexuality he depicted in his paintings, many of which are self-portraits. A major figurative painter of the 20th century, he created over 3,000 works on paper and around 300 paintings, often considered shocking and offensive for their explicit, unapologetic eroticism. His sharply drawn angular lines and combination of color signify him as an early champion of Austrian Expressionism, which rejected typical conventions of beauty and introduced ugliness and exaggerated emotion into art.
Here are 9 things you should know about him:
He was a total train geek
Born in 1890 to a station master for a father, Schiele grew up around the railway and locomotives, which became an early influence on his passion for art. As a young boy, he was fascinated by trains and would spend many hours drawing them. He was so absorbed in his sketching that his father, frustrated that his son wasn't interested in pursuing the same career path, ended up destroying his sketchbooks. When his father died, Schiele was 15 and he was taken in by his maternal uncle who also worked on the railways. Luckily his uncle recognized Schiele’s skills and begrudgingly let him pursue his artistic talents.
He was an art school dropout
In 1906 Schiele applied to study Vienna’s School of Arts and Crafts, Kunstgewerbeschule, but during his first year his teachers decided he was better suited to the more traditional Akademie der Bildenden Künste. He dropped out after 3 years after becoming frustrated with his tutor’s conservative style. He and some other dissatisfied students, including artists Oskar Kokoschka and Max Oppenheimer founded the Neukunstgruppe, or New Art Group, and held numerous exhibitions together over the years.
He was mentored by Gustav Klimt
Gustav Klimt was a willing mentor of young artists, and took a particular interest in Schiele after he approached him in 1907. Like Schiele, Klimt also came under fire during his career for pornographic elements in his art. Klimt bought Schiele’s drawings, arranged models for him and introduced him to potential patrons. As such, some of Schiele’s earlier works shows similarities to Klimt's, for instance the pose of Schiele’s Cardinal and Nun (Caress) mirrors that of Klimt’s iconic The Kiss. The two went on to share a lifelong mutual appreciation, friendship and, it's rumored, love of the same woman.
The two artists shared the same muse
When Schiele was 21 he met the 17-year-old Walburga Neuzil, known as Wally, who had previously modelled for Klimt. It’s suspected that Wally may have been one of Klimt’s mistresses, before she moved in with Schiele and began sitting for him. Together they moved to a small town called Krumau, where Schiele’s mother had come from, but were soon driven out by residents who disapproved of their bohemian lifestyle and Schiele’s alleged practise of recruiting teenage girls to model for him.
He spent 24 days in prison
In 1912, Schiele and Wally had moved to the area of Neulengback, where Schiele was arrested for seducing and abducting a young girl. Over a hundred of his drawings were considered inappropriate and seized from his studio, leading to the exhibition of pornographic materials to minors being added to his list of charges. After spending 21 days in custody, he was eventually only found guilty of the last charge. He was sentenced to a further 3 days of prison, and the judge made a show of burning one of his drawings in front of him. Throughout his imprisonment, Wally remained loyal and delivered food and art supplies to him behind bars.
He ditched Wally to marry someone more socially acceptable
Across the road from Schiele’s Vienna studio lived the Harms sisters, Edith and Adéle. Schiele decided it would be a good idea to marry Edith, who came from a middle-class family and was therefore in a better social standing than Wally, who was from a poor background and may have worked as a prostitute in her youth. He did however still expect to maintain his relationship with Wally, and made the proposal that the two of them would go on a vacation every summer without Edith. Wally, upon hearing this, walked out on him and never saw him again. Schiele and Edith married in 1915.
He painted Russian prisoners of war while in the army
World War I was already in full swing when Schiele married Edith, and just three days after their wedding he was ordered to report for active service. He was stationed in Prague, where Edith joined him to live in a hotel while he bunked with the other conscripts. His military service didn’t prevent him from exhibiting, and he had successful shows in Zürich, Prague, and Dresden. He was appointed to guarding and escorting Russian prisoners, whom he began to use as subjects for his art. His commanding officer even gave him a disused storeroom to use as a studio.
He supposedly had an affair with his wife’s sister
Schiele had a great love for women: he once claimed that he had 180 women pass through his studio in just 8 months. When he first married, he focussed on using only Edith as a model, with his style changing to become more naturalistic, perhaps a reflection of the tenderness and intimacy he shared with her. Soon he also began asking her sister, Adéle, to model for him as Edith’s body shape had changed and she was no longer lean and fragile, like Schiele liked his models to be. Adéle later claimed that her relationship with Schiele wasn’t as chaste as it should have been.
He died in the Spanish flu epidemic
In the autumn of 1918 Europe was swept by the Spanish flu pandemic, which claimed over 20 million lives, including Schiele and his wife. Edith, six months pregnant at the time, died first and Schiele followed three days later. He was 28 years old. Below you can see an incomplete painting he left behind of his friend and Neukunstgruppe cohort Paris von Gütersloh. Although active for such a short period, his work laid the foundations for the Viennese Expressionist movement as well as inspiring other future movements, such as Abstract Expressionism.