Egon Schiele, “Eduard Kosmack” (1910), black chalk, watercolor, and opaque white, Albertina (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

VIENNA — The Albertina’s astounding retrospective of Egon Schiele’s drawings, selected largely from the museum’s own collection, comes as close to a totalizing experience of this artist’s damned, meteoric vision as we’re likely to get.

Once Vienna’s least-favorite son, Schiele has become the embodiment of the cultural, political, and sexual convulsions that ripped Europe apart in the opening decades of the 20th century — flash points that continue to ignite through the present day. His preternaturally relevant imagery challenges and discomforts the contemporary eye to such an extent that its effect on the viewers of his own time is all but unimaginable, but not undocumented: he was, in fact, thrown in jail over what he chose to depict and whom he allowed to see it.

That’s the simplified version — the actual story, which involved unfounded accusations fomented by the scandalized villagers of Neulengbach, 30 miles due west of Vienna, where Schiele drew nude studies of underaged models and openly consorted with his lover, Walburga (“Wally”) Neuzil, is much more complicated.

After he was cleared of the most serious charges, that of kidnapping and abusing a 13-year-old runaway girl, he was sentenced to three days in prison for, as stated in the complaint, “failing to keep erotic nudes in a sufficiently safe place.” Schiele did not commit an offense by making the drawings; it was his habit of leaving them out in the open, where children were able to see them, that did him in. The authorities confiscated 125 drawings and a burned one in a symbolic gesture that the artist, in his prison diary, called an “auto-da-fé.”

Egon Schiele, “‘Prisoner!’” (April 24, 1912), pencil and watercolor, Albertina

Before serving his sentence, Schiele spent 21 days in jail awaiting trial, and during that time he made his famed prison drawings, several of which are on display — images ranging from matter-of-fact observation to chillingly abject expressionism. But his controversial drawings of children are also included in the exhibition, taking up the better part of a large room and raising crucial questions about shades of exploitation and the limits of candor.

As the gallery’s wall text notes:

Whereas Schiele depicted boys without any attempt at eroticization, he did sexualize his female nudes: the representation of the female body is always erotic and seems to establish a rapport with the observer, as if a secret pact had been struck between the young seductress and the seduced spectator. In these nudes, everything is arranged to achieve the effect that its contemplation was intended to trigger. Defiantly breaking the taboos of the day, these works show the repressed sexuality of children in an openly aggressive manner.

This explanation smacks of an attempt to aestheticize a transgressive act that should be left to its dank, unsettling squirminess. The relativism of “seductress” and “seduced” is too symmetrical; the connection in the drawings is exclusively one of artist and model, with the shrapnel of subterranean desire ricocheting between them. Schiele himself addressed the issue, also on hand as a wall text, far more directly:

Have adults forgotten how corrupt, sexually driven and aroused they were as children? — Have they forgotten how the frightful passion burned and tortured them when they were children? — I have not forgotten, for I have suffered terribly under it.

The characterization of children as “corrupt, sexually driven and aroused” smacks up against contemporary sensibilities with a cold shudder, a shocking assertion that Schiele immediately owns (“I have not forgotten”). His drawings of prepubescent and adolescent boys and girls, made concurrently with the emergence of Sigmund Freud’s theories of psychosexual development, are clear-eyed if perturbing reflections of an artist being ruthlessly honest with himself.

The show begins with a charcoal self-portrait from 1906, before Schiele started his studies at Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts, and it quickly becomes evident that he had nailed down his razor-edge approach to pencil drawing by the time he was 20.

Egon Schiele, “Nude Girl with Folded Arms” (1910), black chalk and watercolor, Albertina

The figure, nude and clothed, dominates his aesthetic with an almost aberrant single-mindedness, with raw sex coming in as a close second. The painfully elongated, explicitly frontal “Nude Girl with Folded Arms” from 1910 is one early declaration of intent, while another, tamer work from the same year — a portrait of the Viennese publisher Eduard Kosmack, who once embarked on a failed attempt to produce a portfolio of Schiele’s erotic drawings — features the brushed white outline that the artist used occasionally throughout his career to isolate the figure from the ground.

Schiele worked quick and dirty. A close examination of his surfaces reveals no erasures, and his many stylistic quirks, such as the lacerating strokes denoting musculature and the squiggles indicative of body hair, are less observational details than they are notational shorthand for the artist’s overriding attraction to/repulsion from the animalistic nature of the human body. For the most part, his nudes are rank, bristly, and bruised, animated corpses whose life force emanates from their genitals.

The greatness of Schiele’s art lies in his drawings and not in his paintings, which are frequently overworked, overwrought, and laden with allegory — a reversal of material expectations more suited to the early 2000s than the early 1900s. The spontaneous interactions between the sitter and the artist are recorded with unsurpassable immediacy. There is no hesitation and no going back.

Egon Schiele, “Seated Nude Girl” (1910), pencil, chalk, watercolor, and gouache, Albertina

The humility and relative incompleteness of these works (there is almost never a background behind the figure) are decidedly unheroic at a time when art was gearing up to revolutionize the world. In light of Gustav Klimt’s glittering decadence and Kazimir Malevich’s seismic Suprematism, Schiele’s art is unapologetically human. It is also highly complex.

The nudes may be what first catch our attention, but Schiele was also an extraordinarily perceptive portraitist who was able to exchange his ravenous carnality for an atmosphere of sympathy, calm, and mutual respect. That does not preclude sensuality (I would nominate his 1914 drawing of Friederike Maria Beer, with its caressing contours and limpid eyes, as the most beautiful portrait of the early 20th century), but it is a sensuality that is almost heartbreakingly sublimated.

One unanticipated aspect of Schiele’s personality is his devotion to the spartan life and transcendental teachings of Francis of Assisi. In 1911, Schiele planned an allegorical cycle dedicated to Francis and his sister Clara, and was able to finish three paintings before his legal troubles began in 1912. The exhibition includes four drawings from 1913 evidently intended to continue the series: “Devotion”; “Redemption”; “Two Men”; and “The Truth Has Been Unveiled.”

These works constitute a rare instance of Schiele injecting a narrative into his drawings. Still, they are of a piece with the rest of his oeuvre, depicting semi-nude men in rough shirts or cloaks but no trousers. The two men of “Two Men” are naked from the waist down and holding each other in an unmistakably homosexual embrace.

Egon Schiele, “Nude Self-Portrait, Grimacing” (1910), pencil, charcoal, and gouache, Albertina

Any dissonance between the spiritual and the sexual does not seem to have occurred to Schiele: one was a manifestation of the other, for good or ill. In an essay written for the exhibition’s lavish catalogue, Johann Thomas Ambrózy argues for an ethical reading of Schiele’s work, positing that his stylistic details “unexpectedly prove to be linked to ethical themes”:

For example, it appears there are more than aesthetic reasons for the extremely enhanced expressivity in the composition of many of his depictions of bodies, especially in works on paper from the years 1913-14, where the skin is covered with downright disgusting spots of paint evocative of decomposition and putrefaction. Indeed these depictions actually seem to be inspired by a specific image of leprosy in an ethical context: a book with legends about Saint Francis of Assisi and his followers, from which Schiele culled a number of ideas for his allegorical works on paper, includes an illustration featuring a leper tended to by Francis, which likely inspired Schiele to his “leprous” style.

Schiele, according to one of the exhibition’s wall texts, “regarded Francis as an antagonist of materialism. He interprets the monastic asceticism of the saint as a criticism of the luxury in the Fin de Siècle in Vienna. […] Schiele shared many traits with Francis of Assisi: his religious love of nature, his love of freedom, his contempt of money, and his kindness.”

The entrenched contrariness that Schiele demonstrated toward his times could have turned him in the public imagination into an archetypal starving artist, flaming out young and appreciated only after his death. The exquisite nastiness of his art can probably be thanked for saving him from becoming a cliché, the Viennese Vincent van Gogh.

The truth of the matter is that he achieved a modicum of commercial success in the last year of his life, which ended with the 1918 Spanish influenza, the epidemic that first took his mentor Gustav Klimt and then his pregnant wife, Edith, two weeks before his own death. But the drawings in the final room of the exhibition seem to have run out of steam — beautiful and accomplished, as in the portraits of the young sisters Maria and Eva Steiner, but also conservative and respectable.

It’s astonishing to consider that most of the work covered by the show was done in a mere eight years. Schiele thrived on conflict, much of it internal, tearing through his anxieties and rages with a visceral abandon — nowhere more tellingly than in “Nude Self-Portrait, Grimacing” from 1910, the earliest stage of his career.

In this blistering, grotesquely distorted image, the artist twists his arms and buckles his body as if he were Gregor Samsa, in the tale Franz Kafka would publish five years later, on the verge of changing into a bug. His hair is transformed into dark, licking flames, his genitals resemble a vulva, and his eyes are shut tightly behind ivory-white eyelids. A close inspection discovers that the lids were once wide-open pupils that Schiele scraped off.

In the whirlwind of his short life, Schiele became the character we encounter every morning in the mirror: moral and ethical, wanton and perverse, self-loathing and repugnant, sensual and free. He burned himself out along with others in his wake; it would be hard to find a more careworn face than the one in Edith Schiele’s delicately drained portrait of 1917.

The moment that stability and success appeared within his grasp was the moment he died. His last words, recorded on the gallery wall, were “Der Krieg ist aus — und ich muss geh’n” (“The war is over — and I must go”).

Egon Schiele continues at the Albertina (Albertinaplatz 1, Vienna, Austria) through June 18.

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.