A century after Egon Schiele’s death at the age of 28, his visceral works sell for millions. Why are we so obsessed with him, asks Mark Hudson
Fashions in art change faster than a traffic light, but the allure of the beautiful yet doomed young artist never wanes. Of such figures, none remains more edgily romantic than Egon Schiele, the proverbially tormented Austrian expressionist who died in 1918, aged just 28, having completed barely a decade’s work.
Schiele painted many things in his brief career – churches, boats, flowers, trees – but he tends to be thought of solely in relation to his figure paintings and drawings. In them, men and women, naked or provocatively half-dressed, are seen in writhing, tortured postures. They possess an anguished, self-destructive sensuality that is unmistakable and, for many, impossible to resist.
Schiele belonged to the belle époque world of early 20th century Vienna: the city of Gustav Klimt and Sigmund Freud, where neurosis was an even more fashionable accoutrement than it is today. But rather than passing the time in elegant cafés, Schiele’s twisting, stylised figures – his most notorious images are of himself and his various female lovers – inhabit a world of blank spaces and dingy rooms. Erotically obsessed bohemian outsiders, they exist in a state of bombed-out sexual fervour, without money, status or care for respectability, heading willingly, it seems, along the road to oblivion. At least, that is the story that has built-up around these still-controversial images.
In truth, of course, Schiele had no more intended to succumb to Spanish flu than Keats had to cave in to consumption, or Shelley to pop his clogs in a rather ridiculous boating accident. Yet Schiele’s death has been retrospectively construed as a kind of quasi-suicide, a mythical embrace of death that has helped make him one of the world’s most enduringly popular, collectible and expensive artists.
A “rare cityscape” painted in 1914 sold for £24.7 million at auction in 2011; his collectors and devotees have included David Bowie and Madonna; and there’s a continual international round of Schiele exhibitions, with shows in Britain most recently at the National Gallery in 2013 and the Courtauld in 2014. This month, Taschen presents a monumental volume of every image he ever painted, Egon Schiele: The Complete Paintings 1909-1918.
As a tale of abject tragedy, Schiele’s life can hardly be topped. He spent the most calamitous of all wars undramatically guarding Russian prisoners, then died shortly before the Armistice in the Spanish flu pandemic, which killed more people than the war itself, just three days after his heavily pregnant wife Edith. His art, however, isn’t quite the essay in unmediated feeling it might first appear. His aesthetic is “located”, as the book’s editor Tobias G Natter observes in his introduction, “between expression, performative staging and a search for physical identity”. Of these, the “expression”, naturally, we take for granted: the idea that Schiele, like his idol Vincent van Gogh, is getting the untrammelled contents of his soul on to canvas, with no thought for the human cost. That word “performative”, however, may give us pause for thought,
Tortured soul or canny operator?: Self-portrait with Chinese Lantern Plant, top, and Cardinal and Nun, both 1912
Sister act: Kneeling Girl in Orange Dress, 1910, was posed by Schiele’s younger sibling, Gertrude