William Boyd “Egon Schiele: a graphic virtuoso rescued from the wilderness” http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/oct/10/egon-schiele-graphic-virtuoso-vienna-nudes
It's hard to explain, nonetheless, the void of silence that Schiele and his reputation fell into, in the decades after his death, aged just 28, in 1918. He was well known, not to say notorious, in Viennese artistic circles in the early years of the 20th century and his prodigious gifts as an artist were widely recognised. The explanation may be a simple consequence of his early death (caused by the Spanish flu pandemic) or the subsequent fame of Klimt, Kokoschka and others overshadowing his reputation. It is a bizarre period of neglect because, in many ways, Schiele and his work best reflect that astonishing period of sociocultural history when, over the last years of the 19th century, and leading up to the outbreak of war in 1914, Vienna was the world's most fascinating city.
Less than 50, in fact, when one considers the details. I can remember Schiele suddenly arriving on the scene in the early 1970s, when I was at university. Almost at once you could buy postcard reproductions of his works everywhere; posters were available of the newly familiar paintings and drawings. I bought a small pocket-sized monograph that fleshed out the details of his short, tormented life. Who was this artist we'd never heard about?
Schiele's rediscovery was almost singlehandedly the work of Rudolf Leopold (1925-2010), an ophthalmologist from Vienna who, in the years following the second world war, started buying up every Schiele painting and drawing he could find – for very modest sums of money. Leopold was not a rich man, just uncannily prescient. He loved the work of the Vienna Secession and in particular Schiele. Fairly speedily, Leopold came to possess the largest collection of Schiele works in the world. And then in 1972, he issued a catalogue raisonné and the global boom in the artist began and has never stopped. Gratifyingly, the Austrian government recognised Leopold's heroic obsession and built him a gallery in the Museumsquartier in Vienna. It is one of the world's great art galleries and the key destination for those who wish to see Schiele's work.
This compact, beautiful, bourgeois, capital was the cynosure of many currents of modernism. If one begins to list the artists – Schiele, Klimt, Kokoschka; then the musicians – Mahler, Schönberg, Berg, Webern – one is already marvelling. Throw in the architects and designers – Otto Wagner, Adolf Loos – and the writers – Joseph Roth, Robert Musil, Karl Kraus, Rilke (and Kafka close at hand in Prague) – and the brew seems almost too rich. But also in Vienna before the first world war were – some resident, some passing through – those malign and unhinged empire builders Adolf Hitler, Trotsky and Stalin*4. Add a garnish of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Sigmund Freud and one begins to understand why the city of Vienna itself, during those early years of the century, was regarded as a gesamtkunstwerk, a "total work of art". There was nowhere like it on the planet. I don't think such a rich congruence of ideas, of politics, of art, literature, music and revolutionary thinking has been repeated in recent centuries. Perhaps only Renaissance Florence runs Vienna close.
(…) The famous Seated Male Nude (1910)*5 is a case in point. Probably a self-portrait, it is a gaunt, life-sized full-frontal nude with a skin-tone of bilious marshy green and orange nipples and one baleful, red, staring eye. The effect is all the more stylised and otherworldy as Schiele has left off the nude's feet; the shins end in abrupt stumps. The resulting painting is as disturbing and powerful as a Francis Bacon*6 or a Lucien Freud*7. One wonders what the good burghers of Vienna must have made of this in 1910. Recoil, feigned outrage – secret fascination?
The social hypocrisy of Austro-Hungarian Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century was the same as existed in Victorian London. Repressive cultures and public prohibitions stimulate an underworld that is the inverse, sexually and behaviourally, of the values and attitudes enshrined in the public face of these societies. Schiele found himself surrounded and attacked by this social climate and his work is, among many other things, an effort to strip away the lies and surface pretences at large in the city in which he lived.
To a degree this explains the charged and explicit eroticism of much of his work – though it should be noted that Schiele also painted landscapes throughout his working life. But he returned again and again to the posed naked figure, male and female – the ultimate test and validation, so the critic Robert Hughes*8 has stated, of any artist's merit and painterly ability. Yet there is an undeniable near-pornographic intensity in many of Schiele's drawings and they clearly acted as a sexual stimulus for him as he also made many self-portrait studies of himself in the act of masturbation. He was one of the most photographed artists, creating poses that even today have an astonishing contemporary feel.
A great self-portraitist, a superb colourist, a daring manipulator of composition and possessed of a subversive and challenging vision of his art – all these epithets apply and combine to make Schiele one of the most significant European artists of the 20th century. However, in my opinion, what lifts him truly into the first rank are his astonishing powers as a draughtsman. Schiele can be spoken of in the same terms as other phenomenal draughtsmen – Rembrandt, Ingres, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Picasso, Klee, Sutherland and, in our own time, Michael Andrews and David Hockney. I believe that that you can't be a truly great painter if you're not an excellent draughtsman. And yet hugely famous and successful artists who draw as well, or as badly, as a 10-year-old are everywhere acclaimed, particularly in the post-second world war era. You can tell relatively easily from an examination of their work that there is something fundamentally lacking. Jackson Pollock, to name but one giant of modernism, is a pre-eminent example – he was a shockingly inept draughtsman – but there are dozens of others.
It's an important point. One of the key aspects of being able to draw is that it teaches you to see, as Hockney has observed in a recent interview; what's more, drawing from life teaches you to see in minute and particular detail. Schiele was superabundantly gifted in that regard.
William Boyd “Drawing from Life” http://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/features/drawing-from-life-0914
Like all great artists who die very young, Schiele's premature death makes one wonder what might have happened had he lived longer – and ponder what direction his artistic course might have taken. Long productive lives are not necessarily a boon to artists – think of Kokoschka or André Derain, for example. It's another intriguing thought experiment: if Schiele had lived to be 70, and died, say, in the 1960s (Kokoschka died in 1980, aged 93), then perhaps his paintings would not be selling for millions of pounds today and we would not be discussing him in the way we are. The intensity and the brilliance of those last 10 years or so of his short life, early in the 20th century, are his real legacy. The work he made still has tremendous power and reveals the magnificent generosity of his gifts as an artist.
*4:See Andy Walker “1913: When Hitler, Trotsky, Tito, Freud and Stalin all lived in the same place” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21859771 Mentioned in http://d.hatena.ne.jp/sumita-m/20130418/1366252254
*7:Lucian? See also http://d.hatena.ne.jp/sumita-m/20080623/1214195486 http://d.hatena.ne.jp/sumita-m/20110727/1311733814 http://d.hatena.ne.jp/sumita-m/20110922/1316617708 http://d.hatena.ne.jp/sumita-m/20130313/1363188574