VIENNA — In the first room of what is billed as Egon Schiele: The Jubilee Show at the Leopold Museum, there is a large painting called “The Hermits” (1912), in which two life-size, dark-robed men, one undoubtedly Schiele, the other possibly Gustav Klimt, stand one in front of the other, with the Klimt figure apparently embracing Schiele from behind.
The wall label quotes Schiele as saying that the canvas represented “‘a mourning world’ into which he painted the ‘bodies of empathic beings,’ a work that ‘could only stem from intimacy.’” The label concludes with the curious statement that the second figure “could possibly be Klimt; however, it could also be a memorial to Schiele’s father.”
Curious because the second figure, to my eye at least, so resembles Klimt — especially given the evidence of a nearby pencil and gouache portrait of the older artist, done the following year (“Gustav Klimt in Blue Smock,” 1913), which matches the figure’s facial bone structure, hair, and beard — that to bring up Schiele’s father feels like a deflection. But it would also complicate the painting’s emotional charge enormously.
The artist’s father, Adolf, was a stationmaster for the Austrian State Railways until mental illness forced him into early retirement. He harbored suspicions that his son and daughter, Gerti, were guilty of incest, and died, possibly of syphilis, in 1905, when he was 54 and Egon was 15. The positioning of the two men in “The Hermits” is anything if not homoerotic, with Schiele casting himself as the primary love-object, while Gustav/Adolf rests his head, eyes closed, lips puckered, on his shoulder. A case can be made, possibly, that the younger man is assisting a sick or enfeebled older man to seek medical attention or to complete an arduous journey. And yet the temples of both men are crowned with floral garlands, a unifying gesture that suggests nuptials more than filial devotion.
Welcome to the mundi sexualem of Egon Schiele, where the First Cause — the God of Aristotle and Aquinas — is Unbound Desire. The jubilee celebrated by The Jubilee Show is the 100th anniversary of Schiele’s death at the age of 28 — not something to be especially jubilant about — from the Spanish flu of 1918, the same pandemic that claimed the life of Klimt, Schiele’s friend, mentor, and Virgil into Vienna’s elite art circles.
Coming a year after the epic Schiele drawing show at Vienna’s Albertina Museum, one short subway stop away, it was hard to imagine what else the Leopold would have to offer, but the results are surprising. For one, the Leopold retrospective, which emphasizes paintings, takes the opposite curatorial tack from the Albertina exhibition, which was arranged chronologically, allowing for an in-depth study of Schiele’s development from his teenage years through the glimmer of success he enjoyed right before his death.
The Jubilee Show is organized thematically, under nine occasionally overlapping categories: The Self; The Ego; Mother; Spirituality; The Naked Woman; The Transformation of the Female Image; Landscapes; Cityscapes; and Portraits. These multiple lenses shift the focus from form to content, roaming beyond the notoriety of Schiele’s variously aroused naked bodies, but never too far from their overripe potency.
Overall, the tone of the show is dark and dense, but in a cognitively dissonant fleet-footed way — another reason why the retrospective is so surprising. Last year, many of the same paintings were on display as part of the Leopold’s permanent collection, but compared to the lacerating immediacy of the hundreds of drawings at the Albertina, they appeared overworked and overwrought, heavy as lead and dead on arrival.
But through judicious selection and juxtaposition, The Jubilee Show escapes that trap, and the paintings feel more open and less oppressive — a sensation signaled by another, similarly scaled canvas in the exhibition’s first room, “Levitation (‘The Blind,’ II)” (1915), which depicts two men wearing dun-colored smocks but no pants or shoes, floating high above a hilly landscape.
And yet (and there always seems to be an ‘and yet’ with this artist), Schiele’s way of painting is to smack everything in the composition flat against the picture plane, so that the floaters above and the earth below are united despite the work’s purported evocation of flight. The heavens, no matter how high, are still caked with mud.
And so it goes, it seems, with any subject Schiele touches, nowhere more pointedly than in the pictures falling under the headings “Spirituality” and “Mother.” Schiele, in his extreme self-pitying self-regard — this is an exhibition, after all, with separate categories for “The Self” and “The Ego” (the former, according to their respective wall labels, referring to the “body language” of the self-portraits, while the latter focuses on the “fiction of identity”) — approaches spirituality as a hybrid of narcissism and carnality, with a haloed “Self-Portrait as a Saint. Study for ‘Encounter’” (1913) on one wall, and “Cardinal and Nun (‘Caress’)” (1912), a portrayal of predation a century ahead of its time, on another.
Elsewhere in the room, there are graphic images of nude men and women, including a self-portrait as a “preacher,” wearing nothing but a blue-green shirt (“Preacher [Nude Self-Portrait with Blue-Green Shirt],” 1913), as well as premonitions of mortality, such as “Self-Seer II (Death and Man)” (1911). And, not to let it go unmentioned, a completely anomalous Crucifixion scene, “Calvary” (1912).
The selection grouped under “Mother” is immeasurably more complicated. If Schiele deeply mourned the loss of his father even after watching him descend into madness (“I don’t know whether there’s anyone else who remembers my noble father with such sadness,” he wrote in 1913 to his brother-in-law), his relationship with his mother was something else again. He once described her in a letter to his friend and future biographer, the art critic Arthur Roessler, as “a very strange woman [who] doesn’t understand me in the least and doesn’t love me much, either.” (Both quotes are from Egon Schiele by Frank Whitford, Oxford University Press, 1981.)
The introductory text in the room dedicated to “Mother” asserts that “Schiele had a deeply ambivalent relationship with his mother Marie Schiele. Despite their strong bond and Marie Schiele’s great affection for her only son […] she would also demand financial assistance from Schiele and urge him to step into the role of his father, who died prematurely.”
The Oedipal overtones of that statement, along with curatorial choices leaning toward the rankly sexual, including two of the most dissolute images ever to leave the artist’s hand, “Woman in Black (Sleeping Woman)” (1911) and “Masturbating Woman in Black Coat” (1911), lend the gallery a decidedly creepy air.
Moreover, there is a dead mother (“Dead Mother,” 1910), a blind mother (“Blind Mother,” 1914), and a mother grasping a terrified child (“Mother and Child,” 1912). There is also the most horrific baby picture you’ll ever see, “Newborn with Bent Knees” (1910), in which the infant seems to collapse like a crumpled rag, its body folded over as if in prayer, its forearms and oversized hands rendered purple and skeletal.
Nothing for Schiele was sacred: not the human body, not love, sex, or death, not mothers or babies. His legacy and Klimt’s may be intertwined historically, but it’s evident from their hometown’s commemorations who holds the cards. Later this month, Klimt will be honored with a full-scale retrospective (at the Leopold, but with little more than half the runtime), while Schiele has been awarded two within 12 months.
The difference is obvious: Klimt suffused his pictures with the heady, aphrodisiac perfume of fin de siècle Vienna, while Schiele scraped the era’s fecal underside. The institutional shift in the latter’s favor takes nothing away from Klimt’s extravagant pleasures — his bejeweled gilt and vaporous flesh will remain emblems of the age — and yet it’s reassuring to note that history can be on the side of the raw.
Egon Schiele: The Jubilee Show continues at the Leopold Museum (MuseumsQuartier, Vienna) through November 4.