Despite its inclusion of more than 130 works on paper and canvas, the ravishing retrospective Egon Schiele: Portraits, occupying the third floor of New York’s Neue Galerie, leaves you hungry. Not for more art, because there’s plenty of that, but for something else, something to make whole an ineffable absence — a deficit attributable not to the artist, nor to the exhibition or curator, but to time and fate.
The curator is the incomparable Schiele scholar Alessandra Comini, who has written extensively on the artist since the early 1970s, starting with the essential Schiele in Prison, published by the New York Graphic Society in 1973, and Egon Schiele’s Portraits from the University of California Press in 1974 (reissued in 1990).
Comini has put together a stunning array of images in a range of media, from pencil, crayon, charcoal, chalk, drypoint and lithography, to ink, gouache, watercolor, tempera, oil, wax, and metallic paint. All the works are on paper except for a dozen or so that use canvas or board. There are even a couple of sculptures here and there. It should be noted, however, that although the show is based on portraiture, it also includes a large selection of the artist’s nudes and erotic drawings, as well as a few allegorical paintings, making it more precisely an overview of Schiele’s treatment of the figure, which was his prime subject.
With so many works crammed into three galleries and one small side room, the salon-style installation by Federico de Vera, which the museum’s press release describes as borrowing “from design principles popular in Austria during the early twentieth century,” is beautiful but in places not particularly conducive to the intimate contact these artworks demand, with some drawings hanging at knee-level and others way above your head.
The lighting, however, is a minor miracle. While maintaining a low level for conservation’s sake, its wash of white light heightens the contrasts between the line and the page and intensifies the often discordant color. Unlike many museum shows devoted to works on paper, you do not enter a world of gloom but one that softly sparkles with crisp black curves and bright bursts of pigment.
The compact arrangement, despite its drawbacks, succeeds in conveying the sense of a too-short life (Schiele died of the Spanish flu in 1918 at the age of 28) jammed with ceaseless creative activity. It also allows the museum’s second floor to be given over to an exhibition of concurrent Austrian portraiture, which serves to reveal just how different Schiele was from everyone else. Pair him up in your mind’s eye with his mentor, Gustav Klimt, who also died in 1918 (of a lung infection following a stroke and pneumonia, at 55; Schiele made some drawings, not in the show, of Klimt on his deathbed), and he comes off as a barbarian. Next to Oskar Kokoschka, who was four years older than Schiele, he’s positively a classicist.
The image that Schiele leaves with us through his multiple self-portraits and erotic works is that of a feral, beetle-browed, sexually omnivorous misfit. Compared to Klimt, whose sinuous line and luxe materials are suffused with the overripe perfume — sometimes intoxicating, sometimes suffocating — of the 19th century’s final flowering, Schiele belongs to the new, ugly, violent era to come.
And he seems to expend a lot of effort to not being Klimt. Where his teacher’s approach is soft and misty in, say, the swells of a woman’s cheek, Shiele’s is raked and acidic. Instead of Klimt’s elegant contours, which often enclose flat, schematic, sometimes highly textured and decorative shapes (as in his high-society portrait, “The Black Feather Hat,” 1910), Schiele’s line looks like it’s been put through a shredder, with sharp breaks and jarring collisions along the edges of his forms, and dozens of short, brusque strokes — cross-hatched by rows of vertical jabs, like the legs of a centipede — creating ridges and hollows across the subject’s skin.
It was while looking at the abundance of these strange, fragmented, insect-like marks that I began to sense — not a kind of mannerism, exactly — but a consistency of approach that felt repetitive and confining, a go-to tic to signify the ravages of time even on an object of desire. An impression of uniformity is often the inevitable consequence, for any artist, of gathering together so much work in one place, but that aside, the overall effect of this retrospective is a sense of incompletion, as if Schiele were one hurdle away from a real synthesis of the polar forces at work in his art: dissipated Late Romanticism and embryonic Expressionism; the floating worlds of the East and the Sturm und Drang of the West; the literal and metaphorical weight of paint and the fleeting light of drawing.
The differences between the drawings and the paintings in the show are stark; while the drawings are made mostly on blank sheets with little concern for a background setting or any other purveyor of context, the paintings are locked-in, dark, shallow spaces defined by compressed and folded quasi-Cubist shapes. Of all the paintings, only the brilliant “Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Standing (Edith Schiele in Striped Dress)” (1915) manages to pull together the divergent strains of Schiele’s conflicted vision.
Like the subjects in his drawings, Schiele’s young wife Edith appears to hover inside the frame, with nothing connecting her to the physical edges of the surface. It’s as if he took the minimal backdrop of certain Edouard Manet paintings, such as “The Dead Toreador” (1864) and “The Fife Player” (1866), and eliminated the necessity of a floor. Edith’s hair, face, dress, arms, hands and feet are linear and modeled, tonal and coloristic. There is no border crossing between painting and drawing. Western compositional strictures are dispensed with; the fill-in-the-lines prismatic array on her striped dress is both sophisticated and naïve. A lightness of touch, so intrinsic to the drawings and so rare in the oils, is paramount; compared to “Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Standing,” the other paintings in the show are overcooked and burned in the pan.
As sublime as this picture is, what feels more indicative of where Schiele might have gone if he had lived past his twenties is the set of harrowing self-portraits he made in 1912 while serving a 24-day jail sentence in the village of Neulengbach, where he went in search of solitude after a conspicuous lack of success in Vienna. In a story that’s becoming almost as iconic as van Gogh’s ear, Schiele, whose bohemian cohabitation with his then-mistress Wally (Valerie) Neuzil scandalized the town, was arrested on trumped-up kidnapping and rape charges. He was quickly cleared of those crimes, but not of “immorality,” an accusation that arose from some erotic drawings that had been seen in his studio by several of the village’s children.
While in prison he made thirteen watercolors that survived, several of them self-portraits. (In one, he lies on a cot — gaunt, bearded, his hair cropped and his orange greatcoat thrown over him for warmth — looking uncannily like a Guantanamo inmate.) Represented, unfortunately, by reproductions in a small side room, these watercolors are remarkable documents not only of the most traumatic period of the artist’s life, but also of what he would do when stripped of everything but his pencil, brushes, paints and paper. According to Comini, writing in Schiele in Prison:
For perhaps the first time in his life he portrayed himself without reference to a mirror image. Contemplation of self when undistracted by a physical reflection reached new depths of introspection.
And so, uncharacteristically, Schiele worked from memory and imagination, and achieved something new in his work — not merely in terms of the acute, unselfconscious poignancy it expressed, but in its liberated use of the medium, in which a nose is no longer a hatched, linear form but an oblong puddle of watercolor, and a warm, moist glow rises from flesh no longer carved up with creases and slashes. Material and expressive freedoms unite in unforeseen layerings of form, color and rhapsodic pathos.
How differently would we feel about Franz Kafka (eight years older than Schiele) if he had died at 28, before he started his first novel? Or if Alban Berg (five years older than Schiele and the only member of the Second Viennese School triumvirate — Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Berg — whose portrait is not featured in the exhibition) hadn’t lived to write Wozzek (1925) at the age of 40?
This is the scope of loss we experience in the sudden cancellation of Schiele’s life: the breadth, nuance and complexity of subject and form over an ever-expanding oeuvre. The works on display present a dichotomy. The drawings, zigzagging up and down the walls, often double- and sometimes triple-hung, as immediate and indelible as the black crayon used to make many of them, are crystalline shards of psychological insight, but the figures they depict are also as distinct and separate from one another as they are isolated on their otherwise blank pages.
The paintings, with the exception of “Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Standing,” are equally cut off, turned in on themselves, worked over within an inch of their lives and desperately constrained by the four sides of the canvas. In the context of the show, the portrait of Edith is anomalous, its emotional warmth and sublimated sensuality radiating into the rich, bone-white paint surrounding her, redirecting the non finito ethos of the drawings into a different paradigm — of an existentially isolated figure who is also rooted in her world.
The exhibition traces the path of a young man baring himself to every pain and pleasure life can offer, molding and refining his vessels of expression under the weight of a brutal new century, ripping away the veils of comportment and hypocrisy to expose the irredeemable naked human animal beneath, and then — abruptly — nothing.
Egon Schiele: Portraits continues at the Neue Galerie (1048 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 19, 2015.