Egon Schiele, "Self-Portrait with Peacock Waistcoat, Standing" (1911), gouache, watercolor, and black crayon on paper, mounted on board (collection of Ernst Ploil, Vienna, all images courtesy the Neue Galerie, New York)

Egon Schiele, “Self-Portrait with Peacock Waistcoat, Standing” (1911), gouache, watercolor, and black crayon on paper, mounted on board (collection of Ernst Ploil, Vienna, all images courtesy the Neue Galerie, New York)

The central question of portraiture is how to best turn its subjects inside out — how to best manipulate an inanimate medium so as to capture an animate sitter with a hidden history of invisible experience. In its ideal form, a portrait would reproduce a person, not merely the appearance thereof. Egon Schiele: Portraits, at the Neue Galerie through January 19, represents a radical departure from a tradition that sought to accomplish this goal by situating subjects within their social contexts.

Egon Schiele, born in Austria at the turn of the century, found himself in the midst of an artistic revolution that strove to overturn the norms of Renaissance and Romantic portraiture, much of which portrays aristocratic sitters alongside their possessions. A contemporary audience would have had little difficulty interpreting these images as clear-cut markers of social status, and as a result the subjects of classical portraits are deeply embedded in a scripted world of custom and convention.

Egon Schiele, “Portrait of Gerti Schiele” (1909), oil, silver, gold-bronze paint, and pencil on canvas (collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase and partial gift of the Lauder family, 1982, and Private Collection, digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY) (click to enlarge)

Schiele’s mentor, Gustav Klimt, set out to debunk this tradition by upending the conservatism of the Vienna art establishment — but his attempts were less than fruitful. The Vienna Secession, a movement Klimt headed in 1897, aimed to liberate Vienna’s cutting-edge artists from their stuffy and blue-blooded patrons, but it ended up in commercial thrall to a new set of backers: the nouveau-riche of the industrial revolution, whose tastes were hardly consistent with the pure art Klimt had envisioned. For his part, Klimt’s own portraits deviate only trivially from the tradition he hoped to undermine. His work rejects straightforward realism, but it reaffirms the role of the portrait as a badge of social standing. Paintings like “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” (1907) are an exercise in idle flattery: their sitters are subsumed by busy, ornamental backgrounds, appearing not as figures in their own right so much as continuations of the fussy tableaux that engulf and ultimately overwhelm them. Paintings like “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” and “Portrait of Fritza Riedler” (1906) cement Klimt’s status as a social portraitist, catering to an elite clientele and peddling a promise of originality that his paintings did not often fulfill.

Egon Schiele, “Reclining Woman with Green Stockings” (1917), gouache and black crayon on paper (Private Collection, Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York)

In contrast, Schiele was prey to no such financial ambitions and no such conciliatory impulses. Independent to a fault, the student surpassed his teacher to create the striking, turbulent portraits on display in Egon Schiele: Portraits. In Klimt’s paintings, as in most earlier portraits, the sitter bleeds both thematically and visually into her surroundings — but human motion takes dramatic precedence in Schiele’s works, and the arrangement of the exhibition seems to track this evolution. Viewers begin downstairs in the Neue Galerie’s permanent collection, amid heavy furniture and cumbersome period pieces. The room where Adele Bloch-Bauer’s portrait hangs is arranged like a lavish living room. But upstairs, the walls are conspicuously bare — but for Schiele’s emaciated figures. The ascent is suitably jarring.

Egon Schiele, “Portrait of Dr. Erwin von Graff” (1910) oil, gouache, and charcoal on canvas (Private Collection)

The Neue Galerie presents Schiele’s paintings without the usual frame of reference and explanation — and Schiele’s paintings present us with fragmented, free-floating figures removed from their usual contexts. The 1910 painting, “Self-Portrait, Head,” features a head without the comforting complement of a body. Stripped of background, Schiele’s early works are stark and minimalist, putting us into joltingly direct contact with contorted subjects who are painfully raw and exposed. The skeletal figures in “Seated Male Nude (Self-Portrait)” and “Self-Portrait with Arm Twisted Above Head” (1910) attest to his commitment to exteriorizing the human interior. In viewing them, we get the deeply intimate sense of reaching inside of their subjects — and, in a 1911 letter to friend and patron Oskar Reichel, Schiele entreats his audience to look into (hineinschauen), rather than at (daraufsehen), his paintings.

Egon Schiele, “Portrait of an Old Man (Johann Harms)” (1916), oil with wax on canvas (The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, photo credit: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation / Art Resource, NY)

Though Schiele’s later efforts begin to incorporate more background, his subjects continue to stand in opposition to their environments, struggling to disentangle themselves from their surroundings. The subject, for Schiele, is a point of differentiation: a starkly white face against an oppressive black backdrop, a lone hand emerging from a heavy mantel. Often, Schiele’s backgrounds are more disorienting than they are contextualizing. In “Erich Lederer in front of a Window” (1912), for instance, the sitter is afloat in a wash of color. The backdrop seems to emanate from the central figure, rather than the other way around. In the 1917 masterpiece, “Portrait of an Old Man (Johann Harms),” Schiele pits the central figure against a black background. The portrait’s subject is danger of being swallowed by the darkness — and yet the viewer is in no danger of mistaking him for it. He seems on the verge of collapse, a tiny human figure struggling against the immensity of a hostile and overbearing backdrop. This is a fearful painting, but it does not surrender to its environment. Schiele and his creations are defiantly individual to the last.

Often, Schiele’s subjects are explicitly insulated from their backgrounds by a sort of buffer. In “Portrait of Eduard Kosmack, with Raised Left Hand” (1910) and “Self-Portrait with Red Eye” (1910), Schiele surrounds his sitters with white paint that seems to provide a layer of dynamic estrangement, as if the human form is a flash, a rupture. These are images of separation — from their painted backgrounds, from society, and from each other. Even Schiele’s groups or communities seem pointedly isolated. Despite its warm title, “Couple” (1909) depicts a dour pair looking away from one another: the man’s eyes are covered by a hood, and the woman stands beneath him, enveloped in a dark, amorphous garment, hidden from us and her partner. “Friendship” (1913) is similarly pessimistic. The painting shows two figures locked in an embrace — but the palate is cold and grey, and the subjects are not facing each other.

Egon Schiele, “The Family (Squatting Couple)” (1918), oil on canvas (Belvedere, Vienna)

These paintings make up two of the many pairings that appear in Schiele’s oeuvre, which abounds with mirrorings and double portraits. As Lori Felton notes in her superb essay in the exhibition catalogue, the idea of doubles or doppelgängers was very much in the air in early 20th century Vienna, where both Sigmund Freud and the lesser-known psychoanalyst Otto Rank had popularized the notion. For Freud, the doppelgänger allowed for productive self-scrutiny: it was alien enough to allow for critical distance, yet familiar enough to allow for recognition. Implicitly paired with its subject, the portrait is a double in its own right, entreating us to turn our gaze on ourselves. Schiele’s doublings demands that we traverse the distance between the fluid self and the static image, entering into an interactive dialogue with a painting that calls its own subject into question. This logic extends even to Schiele’s “single” portraits, which represent bizarre and baroque alternatives to their subject’s “real” appearances.

While traditional portraiture maintains that the way we look is reflective of who we are — that the self is just an extension of a social presentation — Schiele’s work rejects the idea of an internal/external correspondence. Instead, his portraits highlight the tension between the self and the image, rising to the impossible challenge of capturing the space between the two.

Egon Schiele: Portraits continues at the Neue Galerie (1048 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 19, 2015.

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Becca Rothfeld

Becca Rothfeld is assistant literary editor of The New Republic and a contributor to The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Daily News’ literary blog, The Baffler, and...