Egon Schiele: In Search of the Perfect Line at Galerie St. Etienne




Self Portrait with Brown Background, 1912. Gouache, watercolor, and pencil on paper. Signed and dated, lower left. Kallir Family Foundation. Image courtesy Galerie St. Etienne.

The exhibition Egon Schiele: In Search of the Perfect Line will mark the 100th anniversary of Schiele’s death in 1918 with nearly 50 watercolors and drawings, including several iconic self-portraits, at Galerie St. Etienne in November.

The exhibition is curated from numerous private collections, providing a rare, comprehensive overview of Schiele’s artistic development. Some of the pieces in this exhibit have not been on public view in more than 20 years.

A group of 1910 drawings by Egon Schiele, previously thought to be self-portraits, are in fact portraits, says Jane Kallir, the author of the catalogue raisonné on Egon Schiele and co-director of Galerie St. Etienne.

Reclining Male Nude, 1910. Watercolor and black crayon on paper. Signed and dated, lower left. 12 3/4″ x 17 3/4″ (31.4 x 45.1 cm) Kallir D. 663. Private collection. Image courtesy Galerie St. Etienne.

Schiele’s male nudes from 1910, which are known to Schiele fans as the ‘Red Men,’ have long been considered self-portraits. Kallir’s knowledge of the artist’s friends and models at that time caused her to think differently about them. When she was writing the book Schiele’s Women (Prestel, 2012) and curating the accompanying exhibition for the Belvedere museum in Vienna, she had a revelation:  Could it be that, since homosexuality was illegal in early 20th century Vienna, the true identity of these subjects was concealed, first by Schiele and then by subsequent biographers?  Under the circumstances, it was probably safer to consider the works self-portraits than to admit that Schiele may have been depicting gay men.

The idea came back to life this summer as Kallir was updating the artist’s catalogue raisonné, which will be unveiled in digital format on November 1 this year.  In most of the 1910 male nudes, the artist’s vantage point – from behind or above – precludes the possibility that he himself could have modeled. Kallir further asserts, “Schiele doesn’t hide his identity in his numerous self-portraits, and almost all the ‘Red Men’ are faceless.” Kallir, whose research revealed that Schiele had a brief homosexual liaison in the summer of 1910, also knew that during this period he had two close artist friends, Max Oppenheimer and Erwin Osen, who were, respectively, gay and bisexual. She believes that it is likely that one or both of these friends modeled for the male nudes.

“While I mentioned my hunch in Schiele’s Women, I can now say that there is no question in my mind that Egon Schiele’s so-called ‘Red Men,’ are indeed portraits, not self-portraits as previously thought,” said Kallir. “There is no way he would depict himself with his face obscured. All of his self-portraits are so obviously him.”

Male Nude, Back View, 1910. Watercolor and charcoal on paper. Initialed and dated, lower right. Estate stamp, verso. 17 5/8″ x 12 x 1/4″ (44.8 x 31.1 cm) Kallir D. 649. Private collection. Image courtesy Galerie St. Etienne.

Several of the ‘Red Men’ portraits will be on view in Egon Schiele: In Search of the Perfect Line.  The exhibition will link Schiele’s drawings together to tell the story of the artist’s brief life, which ended when he died of the Spanish Flu at age 28. One of the greatest draughtsmen of all times, Schiele drew almost daily, using the medium to record his fluctuating responses to the basic problems of human existence: sexual desire, personal identity, and the tenuousness of life. His works—and the works in the exhibition—thus function as a visual diary, tracing the artist’s emotional and creative development from adolescence to adulthood.

The exhibition will begin with a 1906 self-portrait: Done the year Schiele gained admittance to the prestigious Vienna Academy of Fine Art, it shows the sixteen-year-old proudly wearing the traditional garb of an artist. By 1910, Schiele had dropped out of the Academy, frustrated with its conservative rules. During this breakthrough year, he not only painted the ‘Red Men,’ but made his first tentative explorations of female sexuality. At the start of the year, his most reliable female model was his sister Gerti, a compliant and totally unthreatening subject who would go on to model professionally. She can be seen in his Portrait of a Woman in an Orange Hat (1910).

In early 20th-century Austria, young men were encouraged to “sow their wild oats” with prostitutes before settling down at around the age of 25.  However, when Schiele left the urban environment of Vienna for the rural town of Neulengbach, his open cohabitation with his model, Wally Neuzil, raised eyebrows. In April 1912, a teenage runaway asked the couple to take her to her grandmother in Vienna. Although they brought the girl back a day later, her father had already filed charges of kidnapping and statutory rape. The charges were dropped once an investigation was conducted. But a new charge stuck: the artist was sentenced to 24 days in jail for “pubic immorality,” because minors had visited his studio and been exposed to erotic works of art. Included in the exhibition is a 1912 self-portrait, painted shortly after Schiele was released from prison that reflects his traumatized emotional state.

True to contemporary custom, Schiele married at the age of 25, choosing not Wally but a proper bourgeois young lady, Edith Harms. Whereas Wally had been a full partner in Schiele’s artist mission, Edith found it hard to adjust to her husband’s bohemian ways. Less out of prudery than embarrassment, she was reluctant to pose naked. She feared, understandably, being recognized by the couple’s family, friends, and acquaintances. A 1915 portrait, Woman Holding Flower (Edith Schiele), evokes the subject’s wistful sadness.

Given his wife’s reluctance to pose, most of Schiele’s later nudes depict professional models. In 1917-18, the artist reverted to an almost classical realism: in tandem with a more three-dimensional coloring style, his lines became smoother and rounder.  This increased naturalism served to accentuate the subjects’ autonomy. Schiele’s nudes and semi-nudes are considered among the first modern women in art; the first to command their own sexuality.

Jane Kallir is the author of catalogue raisonné “Egon Schiele: The Complete Works” (1990; revised edition, 1998) as well as 9 books and more than 20 articles on Schiele. Most recently, she wrote catalogue essays for the exhibitions Egon Schiele: Pathways to a Collection at the Lower Belvedere, Vienna (October 19, 2018, through February 17, 2019), and Klimt/Schiele: Drawings from the Albertina Museum, Vienna at the Royal Academy of Arts, London (November 4, 2018, through February 3, 2019). Kallir also contributed to the catalogue for the exhibition Egon Schiele at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris (October 3, 2018, through January 14, 2019).

A note about the Gallery ~ Galerie St. Etienne is the oldest gallery in the United States specializing in Expressionism and Self-Taught artists, established in 1939.  Galerie St. Etienne mounted Schiele’s first American solo exhibition in 1941.

Egon Schiele: In Search of the Perfect Line will be on view from November 1, 2018 to March 2, 2019 at Galerie St. Etienne, 24 West 57th Street, NYC