Bo­hemian rhap­sody

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Art -

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

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