[Part 2/2] Egon Schiele: In Praise of Anorexia of Viennese Beauties

Schiele met Klimt in 1907 and they immediately befriended each other. Klimt even modelled for one of Schiele’s sketches. Schiele played to his strength by employing his exceptional skill in manipulating the composition and thus creating works with a tense expressiveness. He was deeply convinced of his own artistic importance and thus achieved more in his short life than many other artists have in a long one.

Schiele slowly veered away from Jugendstil and more towards Expressionism. This is most obvious when comparing Klimt’s Kiss with any painting that his former protégé created at the same time. Klimt’s painting was exhibited in 1908 as the central piece in a special hall of the Kunstschau (Art Show) which also displayed another 16 of his more recent paintings. The Kiss was the culmination of a development that had begun with two opulent wall paintings, the Beethoven Frieze from 1902 and the wall mosaics which he created between 1905 and 1909 as decoration for the dining room of Josef Hofmann’s Palais Stoclet in Brussels.

Although the painting was already regarded as a sumptuous icon of sensuality, it was still not decorative enough to be bought by the government. The painting shows a magical, ethereal dreamscape in which a man is embracing a woman who seems to fall unconscious at the touch of lips. They are surrounded by glimmering gold, silver and minute blossoms. The “biomorphic” shape of the halo-like aura which surrounds the couple alludes to the blossoming of sexual passion and serves the religious function of an altar at the same time. Klimt himself did not bother to hide the subtle eroticism of his painting. Some of his friends (including Schiele) explained that the broad back of the man is not only representative of his potency but is also supposed to look like the underside of a phallus.

Unlike Klimt, Schiele found his models on the streets: young girls of the proletariat and prostitutes; he preferred the child-woman androgynous types. The thin, gaunt bodies of his models characterised lower-class status, while the full-bosomed, luscious ladies of the bourgeoisie expressed their class through well-fed corpulence. Yet, the attitude of the legendary Empress “Sissi” is symptomatic of a time in which the conventional image of women began to change. She indeed bore the desired offspring; however, she rebelled against the maternal role expected of her. The ideal of a youthful figure nearly caused her to become anorexic. At the same time, she shocked Viennese court society not only with her unconventional riding excursions, but also in that she wore her clothing without the prescribed stockings.

Egon Schiele, Schiele Drawing a Nude Model in front of a Mirror, 1910.
Pencil, 55.2 x 35.3 cm. Albertina, Vienna.

Around the time of the fin de siècle, Schiele portrayed young working-class girls. The number of prostitutes in Vienna was among the highest per capita of any European city. Working-class women were where upper-class gentlemen found the defenceless objects of their desire, which they did not find in their own wives. The young, gaunt bodies in Schiele’s nude drawings almost stir pity; red blotches cover their thin skin and skeleton-like hands. Their bodies are tensed; however, the red genitalia are full and voracious. Like little animals, they lie in wait for the lustful gaze of the beholder. Despite their young age, Schiele’s models are aware of their own erotic radiance and know how to skilfully pose. The masturbating gesture of the hand on the vagina accompanies the provocative gaze of the model. Contrary to the hygienic taboos of the upper class, for example, not to linger overly long while washing the lower body and not to allow oneself to be viewed in the nude, Schiele’s drawings testify to a simple body consciousness and a matter-of-fact attitude. For the lower levels of society, “love for sale” pertained to earning one’s daily bread.

Egon Schiele, Reclining Male Nude with Yellow Pillow, 1910.
Gouache, watercolour and black pencil on paper, 31.1 x 45.4 cm
Private collection

Schiele’s productive life scarcely extended beyond ten years, yet during this time he produced 334 oil paintings and 2,503 drawings (according to Jane Kallir, New York. 1990). He painted portraits and still-lifes, as well as land and townscapes. However, he became truly famous for his draughtsmanship. Even his most scant sketches are the result of his extraordinary skill of observation. Similar to many other artists of his age, he deeply analyses his inner life and his subjects. According to expressionist ideas this first introspective step is what truly defines the artistic process of creation.

While Sigmund Freud exposed the repressed pleasure principles of upper-class Viennese society, which put its women into corsets and bulging gowns and delegated them a static and lone role as future mothers, Schiele bares his models. His nude studies penetrate brutally into the privacy of his models and finally confront the viewer with his or her own sexuality.

The photograph of Schiele on his deathbed depicts the 28-year-old looking asleep, his gaunt body completely emaciated, his head resting on his bent arm; the similarity to his drawings is astounding. Because of the danger of infection, his last visitors were able to communicate with the Spanish flu-infected Schiele only by way of a mirror, which was set up on the threshold between his room and the parlour.

On October 31, three days after the death of his wife who was six months pregnant, Schiele also died from Spanish flu. Three days later, on 3 November 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire capitulated. Earlier in the same year, 1918, Schiele designed a mausoleum for himself and his wife. Did he know, he who had so often distinguished himself as a person of foresight, of his impending death?

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