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Five things to know: Egon Schiele

Meet the radical artist who used a distinctive drawing style to create intimate and unapologetic portraits

Egon Schiele, Standing male figure (self-portrait) 1914. Photograph © National Gallery in Prague 2017

Egon Schiele, Standing male figure (self-portrait) 1914. Photograph © National Gallery in Prague 2017

1. HE WAS GUSTAV KLIMT’S PROTÉGÉ

As a teenager, Egon Schiele idolised Gustav Klimt. Klimt was the founder and leader of the Viennese Secession and had a wealth of experience in painting, sketching and murals. In 1907, Klimt became Schiele’s mentor and the two developed a close friendship. Both artists shared artistic traits and techniques, for example they drew elongated bodies, used expressive lines and injected bright colour into sketches. Klimt’s influence is noticeable in Schiele’s works produced between 1907 and 1909. Schiele painted The Hermits (Self-Portrait with Gustav Klimt) in 1912 as homage to their friendship. When Klimt died in February 1918, a devastated Schiele painted Klimt on his deathbed.

2. HE COULDN’T TAKE HIS EYES OFF HIS SUBJECTS (LITERALLY)

Egon Schiele, Squatting Girl 1917 © Staatliche Graphische Sammlung München

Egon Schiele, Squatting Girl 1917 © Staatliche Graphische Sammlung München

According to art historian Albert Elsen, Schiele used Auguste Rodin’s continuous drawing technique to create his loose, fluid figurative sketches. It required constant eye contact with the life model, making Schiele’s process of drawing an intimate experience between him and his subject. His models often included people he knew, for example his wife, sister and lovers, but also occasionally featured young prostitutes from the streets of Vienna.

3. HE HAD A RUN-IN WITH THE LAW

Schiele’s intense portraits frequently featured nude figures, which were unapologetic, contorted and emotionally-charged. In 1912, Schiele was arrested for distributing obscene drawings and the police confiscated hundreds of his works due to their sexually explicit nature. Arrested on 13 April 1912 for allegedly seducing and kidnapping a minor, Schiele’s charges were downgraded to public immorality for distributing obscene drawings, which saw the artist spend 24 days in custody. The judge, however, burnt one of his drawings during the trial as an act of warning.

On 18 May he said in a letter to the writer and art critic Arthur Roessler, who had not been in Vienna at the time of his arrest:

I am still completely shaken. During the trial a drawing of mine, the one I had hanging on the wall here, was burned. Klimt is hoping to do something. He assured me that the same thing could happen to one of us one day, another the next, that we're none of us free to do as we will.

4. HIS ART WAS GIVEN AN UNWANTED LABEL

Egon Schiele, Self Portrait in Crouching Position 1913. Photo: Moderna Museet / Stockholm

Egon Schiele, Self Portrait in Crouching Position 1913. Photo: Moderna Museet / Stockholm

When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, he ordered the National Socialist (Nazi) authorities to rid the Jewish communities of their belongings and valuables, including artwork. Although Hitler was an artist himself, he rejected artwork which he believed insulted the classical ideals of human beauty. Egon Schiele’s drawings fell into this category and was judged as degenerate art. Some of the degenerate art was sold at auction in Switzerland in 1939 and more was disposed of through private dealers. About 5,000 items of degenerate art were secretly burned in Berlin later that year. Today, more and more countries are signing declarations and laws which commit to returning lost or stolen artworks to their rightful owners.

5. HE DREW RIGHT UP UNTIL HIS DEATH

Image: Egon Schiele, Self Portrait 1914. Image courtesy: Hadiye Cangökçe

Image: Egon Schiele, Self Portrait 1914. Image courtesy: Hadiye Cangökçe

Schiele died on 31 October 1918 after contracting Spanish flu, just 3 days after his pregnant wife Edith died of the same fate. The last drawing of Edith, titled Edith Schiele on Her Deathbed, captures her exhaustion and suffering.

I love death and I love life
Egon Schiele

Visit Life in Motion: Egon Schiele/ Francesca Woodman at Tate Liverpool, open until 23 September 2018

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Degenerate art

Degenerate art is the English translation of the German phrase Entartete Kunst which is the label the National Socialist (Nazi ...