Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 16, 2015
Alessandra Comini, ed. Egon Schiele: Portraits Exh. cat. New York: Neue Galerie in association with Prestel, 2014. 296 pp.; 227 color ills.; 72 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9783791354194)
Exhibition schedule: Neue Galerie, New York, October 9, 2014–April 20, 2015
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Egon Schiele. Self-Portrait with Peacock Waistcoat, Standing (1911). Gouache, watercolor, and black crayon on paper, mounted on board. 20 1/4 x 13 5/8 in.

In 1911, while viewing new works by the emerging Viennese Expressionist painter Egon Schiele (1890–1918), Albert Paris von Gütersloh suggested that Schiele’s paintings “yearn only for gestures”—an observation that epitomizes the very crux of Schiele’s varied portraits, with their enigmatic visual language of the human body (Albert Paris von Gütersloh, Egon Schiele, Vienna: Brüder Rosenbaum, 1911, 1). Gütersloh, who was a fellow artist, writer, and critic in turn-of-the-century Vienna, was aware of the power of these signs early in Schiele’s career; thus, it is not surprising that Schiele later captured Gütersloh’s likeness (and hand gestures) in a number of paintings and prints in 1918. The critic was not alone in his observation that gestures were key to Schiele’s oeuvre, as scholars past and present have uniformly noted the appeal and uniqueness of his representations of the body.

Egon Schiele: Portraits highlights the young Austrian artist’s interest in representing sitters and subjects—many of whom were family members, fellow artists, or self portraits—with wholly bizarre gestures or poses. In this regard, the exhibition indirectly posits that individuals who occupy Schiele’s portraits were primarily constructed through the artist’s modernist lens, rather than his need to reveal the “truth” of his subjects’ personas or bodies. As with recent exhibitions at the Neue Galerie, the show offers audiences the kind of polished, comprehensive exhibition that individuals have come to expect from this intimate gem of a museum devoted to modern Germanic art, design, and architecture. Viewers to the exhibition, which occupies the museum’s entire third-floor galleries, are immediately confronted with a large-scale reproduction of a black-and-white photograph of Schiele by Anton Josef Trčka, who collaborated with the artist between 1914 and 1915 on a series of photographic portraits. With his arms raised above his head in a choreographed gesture resembling a dance pose, or perhaps a theatrically contrived, confrontational stance, Schiele demonstrates his masterful ability to construct artistic identity through manipulations of the body, even his own body. The show’s opening wall text, which appears next to the photograph, offers that Schiele “positioned his figures in an existential void.” Whether existential or not, the empty space that surrounds his subjects intentionally serves to draw the viewer’s eye to the only necessary information in his oeuvre: the human figure.

Egon Schiele: Portraits nicely reveals the evolution and continuity of the artist’s understanding of the body throughout his short, twelve-year career. Schiele’s exploration of corporeal form quite often bordered on the grotesque, a point his contemporary critics regularly noted, given his propensity to visually twist, shorten, elongate, or seemingly break the bodies of his sitters. To illustrate this point, the exhibition brings together a number of works from private collections, including two watercolor drawings from 1910 of the painter Karl Zakovšek that hang next to the more famous oil painting of Zakovšek, from the Neue Galerie’s permanent collection. Even though affinities exist between all three works, the two drawings read more as autonomous character studies, or explorations into the sitter’s more whimsical or contemplative moods, rather than as sketches for the larger canvas, which portrays a despondent Zakovšek. This juxtaposition between the drawings, where Schiele utilizes simple lines and patches of strategically placed color on the sitter’s flesh, and the oil painting, with its restricted and muted color palette, provides a key insight into the artist’s propensity to portray the same subject matter through various means and mediums. The drawings predominantly rely on facial physiognomy to convey the sitter’s identity, and thus approach the realm of caricature, whereas the painting gives the impression that viewers are looking into the depths of Zakovšek’s melancholy. Schiele breaks down the sitter’s elongated torso into stick-like, bony arms and skeletal fingers, thus adding to the emotionally brittle tone of this striking composition. Crucial to deciphering Schiele’s portraits is the viewer’s effort to mine the sitter’s corporeality for subtle nuggets of expression and emotion alongside twisted forms and broken limbs.

Rather than arranging artworks chronologically, Alessandra Comini—the show’s curator and a renowned Schiele scholar—alternatively grouped the exhibition’s 125 portraits into 6 thematic areas: Family and Academy; Fellow Artists (both in the exhibition’s first gallery); Sitters and Patrons (in the second gallery); Lovers; Eros; and Self-Portraits and Allegorical Self-Portraits (in the third, larger gallery). In the section titled Family and Academy, Schiele’s Mime Erwin van Osen (1910) is a disarming portrait. Schiele portrays his friend with a misshapen, trapezoidal head, a deeply furrowed brow, unnaturally long eyelashes, and a noticeable hint of swagger. Somewhat humorous for viewers today, the caricaturistic qualities of the image seem to visually anticipate the iconography of Lurch from The Addams Family, or even Frankenstein’s monster, sans neck bolts. Although this section of the exhibition includes an important, early canvas of the artist’s sister—Portrait of Gerti Schiele (1909)—the clear emphasis is a 1910 watercolor drawing of the artist Max Oppenheimer (Mop), who appears in profile, wearing a black trench coat as he confronts the viewer’s gaze directly with his spectral, greenish-yellow face. As Comini explains on the accompanying audio guide, Schiele’s decision to portray his friend’s skin in shades of green was intended to show the intensity of the sitter’s personality, rather than portray him as a sickly man. Equally striking is Oppenheimer’s bony middle finger, which protrudes conspicuously from his left hand in a gesture that was undoubtedly as shocking in 1910, as it is today.

The impressive, fully illustrated catalogue similarly groups the portraits into the exhibition’s six categorical sections and includes essays by Comini, Christian Bauer, Lori Felton, Jane Kallir, Diethard Leopold, and Ernst Ploil. Collectively, the essays afford a succinct overview of Schiele’s style and patronage, as well as the manner in which his portraits were historically and presently regarded as arbiters of angst, sexual frankness, and psychological introspection. Given that Sigmund Freud was a powerful interlocutor in fin-de-siècle Vienna, Schiele’s desire to look inward certainly seems to be at the fore in a number of the artist’s self-portraits, and Comini notes Schiele’s desire to reveal the inner state of his patrons, particularly in a work like Portrait of Dr. Erwin von Graff (1910), shown in the second gallery. The accompanying wall text states that Schiele sought to depict Von Graff as a “shrunken-headed cadaver in a state of rigor mortis,” perhaps morbidly suggesting that his painted subjects begin to assume the traits of their profession, given that Von Graff was a medical doctor. In a similar fashion, the piercing, uncomfortable stare of the sitter in Portrait of Eduard Kosmack, with Raised Left Hand (1910) reveals that there is more to this patron’s personality. Included in this gallery are Schiele’s Head of a Woman (1910), Portrait of a Lady (1911), and Portrait of a Woman (Trude Engel) (1911), which collectively share iconographic and stylistic affinities with works by Gustav Klimt, who, as the older and more celebrated Viennese artist, served as Schiele’s friend and mentor throughout this early artistic training.

Moving into the small, third-floor focus gallery, viewers are confronted with images and ephemera related to Schiele’s twenty-four-day incarceration in a prison cell in Neulengbach, a village outside of Vienna. Having been arrested in April 1912 on numerous charges, but ultimately only found guilty of exposing minors to his “pornographic” drawings, Schiele nevertheless utilized his time in prison productively: he completed thirteen watercolors; carved a tiny portrait bust of a prisoner out of stale bread; and purportedly compiled a detailed prison diary of his daily experiences, though the authenticity of this journal (published posthumously in 1922 by Schiele’s friend and promoter, the art critic Arthur Roessler) has justly been questioned by historians. Somewhat amusingly, the “prison section” of the exhibition appears in the museum’s smallest gallery space, which imparts a feeling of being crammed into a tight cell, particularly when shared with other visitors. The original prison drawings, currently in the collection of Vienna’s Albertina Museum, are alternatively represented by ten color reproductions of the drawings. A plaster cast of the artist’s death mask, pages from the prison journal, and black-and-white photographs taken by Comini in 1963 of Schiele’s Neulengbach jail cell are also displayed in the gallery to further contextualize the artist’s imprisonment.

The focus gallery is, however, a rather confusing addendum to the exhibition, particularly since the Albertina reproductions, which illustrate chairs and the interior of the jail cell, are not portraits. One might be tempted to read these images as object portraiture in the style of Vincent van Gogh, whose oeuvre Schiele greatly admired, but Schiele seems not to have conceived of his prison drawings in this manner. As such, the “prison section” drifts away from the exhibition’s overall theme. Though the whimsical bread portrait certainly serves its role in highlighting Schiele’s resourceful use of media, Comini’s decision to include reproductions is puzzling. It is understandable that logistical or condition-related restrictions may have kept the original Albertina prison drawings from traveling to the Neue Galerie, but one is left to wonder if the focus gallery may have been utilized for more effective means, such as viewing the artist’s smaller-scaled, printed portraits, or Trčka’s expressive photographic portraits of Schiele.

The largest of the galleries is devoted to the remaining sections (Lovers; Eros; and Self-Portraits and Allegorical Self-Portraits) and contains a wealth of works on paper, as well as important canvases, including Man and Woman I (Lovers I) (1914), Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Standing (Edith Schiele in Striped Dress) (1915), and The Family (Squatting Couple) (1918). Additional highlights in this gallery are Schiele’s haunting Self-Portrait with Arm Twisted Above Head (1910) and Self-Portrait with Red Eye (1910), the latter cleverly punning on the artist’s last name, given that the German word for “squinting” (schielen) was utilized by contemporary critics to damningly suggest that the artist was predestined to squint, whereas other artists see. As if in response to his detractors’ negative assessment of his work, Schiele offers that his so-called partial vision contrastingly reveals the truer depths of his inner, emotional state. Thankfully for us, we need not squint to comprehend the power of Schiele’s dramatic portrayals of the human body and psyche.

Nathan J. Timpano
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of Miami

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.