Egon Schiele and the Cult of the Self

A sampling of the breakthrough artist Egon Schiele’s wrenching self-portraits and an eclectic selection of 12 others to follow.

Entering through a glass door at the foot of the stairs, the visitor is surrounded by a sea of self-portraits by Egon Schiele. Dated from 1910 to 1916, these studies opening Schiele and His Legacy at the Albertina Modern are witness to his relentless exploration of his raw inner world and the tormented times of his generation in pencil, watercolor and charcoal. Without any central piece, the visitor may choose where to begin – most likely with one of the well-known works or perhaps the provocative right orange coat in Self-Portrait in Orange Jacket (1913).

After having turned his back on what he saw as the corset of academic training, Schiele created an uncontested style at a very young age. And while certainly not the first to paint unforgiving self-portraits, or nudes or the mentally ill, nor the first to use the doppelgänger motif, his unique style has earned him a place among the Olympians of modern art history.

Egon Schiele, Selbstbildnis mit herabgezogenem Augenlid. Albertina Modern.

One outstanding example, Seated Couple (1915), shows the half-naked Schiele sitting between the legs of his clothed wife Edith, leaning back against her. She is holding him, trying to comfort him. This impression is intensified by her green coat and grey stockings which frame and stabilize the scene. Schiele, on the other hand, seems to explode from within. With his upper body drowning in an oversized shirt, his arms and legs unnaturally and painfully twisted, the scene can be read as a battlefield of the mind, his targeted use of chalk and watercolors serving as a magnifying glass.

Schiele’s art at its best is theatrical. Here, the two are hopelessly and desperately lost in each other’s arms, with eyes deadened through suffering, already anticipating what is to come. They both died of the Spanish flu in 1918. Schiele was 28 years old.

In his often-startling self-portraits, Schiele captures the mental state of an entire generation, like a seismograph staring down the abyss of a post-Habsburg future. In fact, his larger-than-life self-portraits excavate and capture his inner demons and alienation better than any photograph. Like an intimidated observer, a small photograph of Schiele was discretely positioned in a silent corner of the room.

The tradition of self-portraiture

Most historians trace the tradition to the 16th century and Albrecht Dürer, who is widely considered the first self-portraitist in European art history. Strictly speaking, unsigned self-portraits existed earlier, but Dürer was among the first Renaissance artists to rise above the status of craftsman, bringing new-found self-confidence to his work. He and Rembrandt a century later, who alone, according to the exhibit, also produced self-portraits that could be seen as “statements about an artist’s innermost nature, character, and state of mind.”

And in fact, one weakness of the exhibition is the exclusion of other legends such as Caravaggio, Velasquez, Goya or Rubens, whose explorations of self-portraiture also opened bolted doors for future generations.

To contradict another wall text, Schiele was not the first artist to “radically annul the canon” of the academy. Among others, Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch had broken away from tradition decades earlier. Why the omissions? Far more interesting, surely, to look beyond the Austrian view of art history and put Schiele’s achievements in context.

Color storms, bananas and guns

The next three rooms accommodate the works of 12 later artists. In addition to Austrians Günther Brus, Valie Export, Elke Silvia Krystufek, Maria Lassnig, Karin Mack, Arnulf Rainer, Eva Schlegl and Erwin Wurm, the show included works by Americans Jim Dine and Cindy Sherman, Bulgarian Adriana Czernin and German Georg Baselitz.

Maria Lassnig, Camera Cannibale, 1998. Albertina Wien, Essl Collection.

While the second room is dedicated to Arnulf Rainer’s over-paintings, face farces and body poses, the third and fourth rooms are crowded with works by the others, hung in  seemingly random order, with some of Rainer’s works interrupting the presentation of the other artists.

Erwin Wurm’s Artist of the year 2007 shows him in street clothes with bananas in his mouth, between his legs and under his armpits – a decision hard to justify. Given the strength of other works, it is questionable whether it deserves this central position.

On the back of the same wall is Valie Export’s iconic black and white photograph Action Pants: Genital Panic (1969). Here, the feminist icon sits self-confidently on a chair legs apart wearing trousers that expose her crotch and holding a gun in her hands – a classic male power pose that intends to unmask the male perspective on female sexuality.

The wall texts tell a fuller story, but apart from introductory texts, the further explanations are in German only, leaving foreign visitors struggling with Google translator as they tried to make sense of the show.

High time for new shores

In the last room, the work Flying (2003) by multimedia artist Elke Silvia Krystufek stands out. A mixture of painting, collage and montage, the right side of the canvas is dominated by a bare-breasted self-portrait, while on the left, a cut-out photograph of her head in an afro-wig with her face painted black and her body completely disguised by a green tunic – a combination posing pressing questions of (gender) identity, cultural appropriation and racism. One of the most powerful pieces in the show, it unmasks what – despite various announcements and promises – is painfully missing, namely diversity and new perspectives.

Georg Baselitz, Ohne Titel 16. 2016. Albertina Wien.

Last but not least, Georg Baselitz also stands out with his claim that all art is a form of self-portrait because “everything you perceive is a reflection of yourself.”  The artist, who made art history by turning his motifs upside down, exposes the limited perception of self-portraiture as shown in this exhibition.  

After walking the rooms multiple times, the question of what Schiele’s legacy exactly is remains unanswered. Limited as it was, however, to the Albertina’s collection, it could have also started off with any modern self-portraitist. In the centuries of self-portraiture, Schiele is only one of many groundbreaking artists.

In addition, the spatial division and placement inhibits dialogue. The result is a collection of islands of self-portraiture.

In the history of art, self-portraits have long revealed the artists’ darkest hours and grandest victories. With hindsight, they also serve as rearview mirrors on their times, opening doors to the past while also teaching the viewer to shift perspectives in the present. For this alone, they deserve a front seat in art history.

Through Jan 23, Albertina Modern. 1., Karlsplatz 5. albertina.at

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