VIENNA — Two exhibitions, like firework tails, are wrapping up last year’s centenary marking the death of Egon Schiele. One is outward-looking and the other is inward-facing. Both are worth a look.
EGON SCHIELE: The Jubilee Show RELOADED at the Leopold Museum is a reboot of the same exhibition I reviewed last year, which distinguished itself from the pack of Schiele commemorations by apportioning the artist’s prodigious output across nine porous categories: The Self; The Ego; Mother and Children; Spirituality; The Naked Woman; The Transformation of the Female Image; Landscapes; Cityscapes; and Portraits.
While much of the original installation remains intact, a good amount of wall and floor space has been dedicated to contemporary art deemed relevant to the theme of each room. Some seem inspired, some feel strained, and some you wish weren’t there.
Rudolf Polanszky’s two large pieces in the exhibition’s opening room seem less attached to its theme, “The Self,” than to the specifics of two of Schiele’s more enigmatic paintings. The dual panels of “Morphochrome Topisms / Black Series No. 2” (1990), Polanszky’s charred-looking diptych, mirror the two robed figures in Schiele’s “The Hermits” (1912), which depicts the artist and possibly his mentor (and fellow death-date honoree), Gustav Klimt.
The connection between the old and new works is a line written by Schiele about “Hermits” in a letter to a collector: “I see these two figures as a cloud of dust reminiscent of this earth, which seeks to gather but must break down feebly.” A wall panel written by Diethard Leopold, co-curator of the exhibition and co-founder of the museum, attempts to connect the carbon-dark earth tones of Polanszky’s mixed-media diptych to Schiele’s commentary by referencing Joni Mitchell’s invocation of “stardust” in her 1970 song “Woodstock.”
On the other side of the room, Schiele’s “Levitation (‘The Blind,’ II)” (1915), an image of two half-dressed men floating above a landscape, is paired with Polanszky’s “Hypertransformation Twin-Sculpture” (2008), an abstract construction in which a transparent, boat-like form encases a chunk of translucent, green-tinged glass or plastic while perched on a high steel stand.
The irony is that Schiele’s composition, even with its meshing of foreground and background inside the two-dimensional picture plane, feels upwardly moving, while the transparent and translucent sculpture appears to press down heavily on the stand’s thin steel rods, forever unable to break free and drift away.
Less literal, more intuitive are the pairings of Jürgen Klauke’s presciently transgressive photographs with “The Ego” and Louise Bourgeois’s sculpture and drawings with “Mother and Children.” Klauke’s 13-part photo-work, “Self-Performance” (1972–73), features the androgynously handsome artist wearing home-made, hyper-sexualized vulvas and phallic breasts, making him a true child of Schiele’s omnisexual ethos.
Bourgeois’s “Arch of Hysteria” (2000), a cloth sculpture of a female figure suspended in midair, levitates more convincingly and, backed up by a full wall of mammary-laden drawings, connects more viscerally with Schiele’s work than Polanszky’s abstractions.
In a wall text, the exhibition’s other co-curator, Verena Gamper, sums up the essential connection between Schiele and Bourgeois: “For both artists, motherhood as the archetypal image of the most intimate bond and traumatic separation is strongly interwoven with an approximation of sexuality and death, the mainspring of life.”
The quavering line drawings of Chloe Piene, presented as a contemporary take on “The Naked Woman,” make her the most direct heir to Schiele’s manner and approach, while the splintery architectural wall sculptures of Tadashi Kawamata in the “Cityscapes” section feel uncomfortably close to the teetering structures depicted in Schiele’s paintings, literalizing them in a way that seems more illustrational than allusive.
And then there are the misfires. Elisabeth von Samsonow’s sculptural tableau, “GEO ORACLE” (2018), with its Cycladic-inspired imagery and irritating audio, draws upon Schiele’s interest in ancient art history and in Theosophy, which asserted “the divine unity of all living beings,” as Gamper notes in a wall text. But the installation feels as if it is grasping at straws: its attempt to knit Schiele’s oeuvre into the warm blanket of cosmic consciousness seems out of sync with his precision and earthiness.
Maximilian Prüfer’s contribution to the “Landscapes” room, a triptych called “Crow: Traces of larvae and flies around a crow” (2015), is an example of the artist’s technique of creating an image (which he calls “Naturantypie”) from the trails of insects crawling their way around a sheet of paper. This is all well and good, and relatable enough to Schiele’s adjacent “Landscape with Ravens” (1911), but its unrelievedly dark and, despite its slithery origins, polite-looking surface feels so centered on its own processes that it seems divorced from, and even a drag on, the painter’s work.
Sarah Lucas, on the other hand, comes off as the most misbehaving of Schiele’s offspring, and consequently the closest to his heart. Her crazily caricatured “Tracey” (2018), all legs and breasts, planted in a rolling office chair and wearing only black stockings and red shoes, possesses every bit of the frankness, cheek, and congenital insolence of Schiele’s revolutionary nudes.
Touchingly, the exhibition closes with Fiona Tan’s two-channel video installation, “The Changeling” (2006), in a darkened room off its “Portraits” gallery. Tan’s work, which features projections on opposite walls of vintage yearbook-style photographs of Japanese schoolgirls, each dissolving into the next, is layered with a recorded female voice that is “superimposed on [a] single portrait like a narrative carpet,” according to curator Gamper’s wall text.
This voice “assumes different roles: that of the girl’s mother, the grandmother and of the girl herself.” In a leap that feels entirely instinctual and utterly right, Tan’s non-Western imagery underscores the attenuated Euro-centrism of Schiele’s sharply etched portraits, while teasing out the influence exerted by Vincent van Gogh’s Japonisme. It is a universality that has nothing to do with cosmic consciousness, instead encompassing “a meditation,” as Gamper describes it in the wall text, “on the search for the self in the other, on the corrosive power of time, on childhood, memory, and loss.”
Van Gogh is also a presence in Egon Schiele: The Making of a Collection at the Belvedere Museum, where Schiele engages directly with his fellow artiste maudit in “Sunflowers” (1911), a dank and overgrown riff of Vincent’s classic series. The contrast between the sunflowers of van Gogh and Schiele, despite the use of virtually the same colors, speaks to the abyss between the light and air of Arles and the moldy gloom of prewar Vienna.
The exhibition is an institutional self-study of sorts, in which the Belvedere examines its relationship with Schiele and the 15 paintings, one sculpture, and two color drawings housed in its collection, along with two long-term loans, while engaging in a forensic investigation of the techniques that went into the making of the works themselves.
The two color drawings, both portraits — one of his wife, Edith, done in gouache and crayon (1917), and the other of a Russian prisoner of war, in gouache and pencil (1915) — were purchased in 1917 directly from the artist. Since then, a number of pieces have gone in and out of the collection. The most significant transaction involved three paintings, including the later legally disputed “Portrait of Wally Nuezil” (1912) and the scandalous “Cardinal and Nun (Caress)” (1912), which were swapped in 1954 for four works owned by Rudolf Leopold (whose collection would become the Leopold Museum): Schiele’s “Portrait of Herbert Reiner (Reiner Boy)” (1910); one landscape each by Gustav Klimt and Rudolf Ribarz; and a Renaissance-era Bavarian sculpture.
All of Schiele’s drawings held by the Belvedere, other than the two gouaches mentioned above, were transferred to the Albertina when the art historian Hans Tietze, tasked with reorganizing Austria’s institutional collections after World War I, decreed that the latter museum would become the country’s center for the graphic arts. And in 2006, a mild landscape in oil on cardboard from 1907 was restituted to the heirs of the original owner.
In 2017, the paintings housed by the Belvedere, including one on extended loan, “City on the Blue River II” (1911), were subjected to technical analysis, and some of the results, as demonstrated in wall displays and via a downloadable app, are fascinating, especially “Facade of a House (Windows)” (1914) and a 1917/18 portrait of Edith.
X-rays of “Facade of a House (Windows)” reveal that Schiele had painted over the left corner of the building and extended the facade across the entire picture plane, transforming a typical cityscape into an exercise in flatness that you would find in the work of Lois Dodd or Catherine Murphy.
In the portrait of Edith, the artist’s wife is seated against a dark, mottled background with her hands clasped over the arm of her chair. Studies have found that Edith originally wore a brown blouse and quilted skirt, but shortly before the painting entered the Belvedere’s collection (purchased through the dealer Gustav Nebehay in 1918), Schiele gave her a once-over, turning the blouse blue and the skirt white. Rumors have persisted over the years about why the artist made the upgrade from earth tones to royal blue, but no reason has been verified.
The show’s catalogue, edited by Stella Rollig, Artistic Director and CEO of the Belvedere, and Kerstin Jesse, curator of the exhibition, is a detailed compendium of the historical and technical research undergirding the display, with chapters devoted to the analysis of each painting in the collection.
The exhibition, like the others commemorating the artist’s centenary here and elsewhere, is consistently marked by the ever-morphing strangeness of Schiele’s vision, from the gnarly, oversized hands belonging to the five-year-old Herbert Reiner, to the hyper-stylized symmetry of “Portrait of Edward Kosmack” (1910), to the harrowing embrace of “Death and Maiden (Man and Girl)” (1915).
It’s a body of work that can often feel self-enclosed, sunless, and dense. But Schiele also consistently surprises, and the expansive landscape “Four Trees” (1917) is a miracle of light: its depiction of a red sun suspended amid gossamer clouds glimmers with the translucency of a stained glass window — an unsurpassable image that’s miles apart from the Freudian horror show of his most lurid work. It’s a Schiele you can bask in.
EGON SCHIELE: The Jubilee Show RELOADED continues at the Leopold Museum (MuseumsQuartier, Vienna) through March 10.
Egon Schiele: The Making of a Collection continues at the Belvedere Museum (Prinz Eugen-Straße 27, Vienna) through February 17.