Portrait of Wally by Egon Schiele

Portrait of Wally by Egon Schiele

My Daily Art Display today is a continuation from yesterday’s life of Egon Schiele so if you have just landed on today’s page, it would be worthwhile for you to look at yesterday’s blog before reading today’s offering.

The story of Egon Schiele’s life in My Daily Art Display yesterday reached 1910 when the artist had reached twenty years of age and was living in Vienna.   He was the complete bohemian, an independent free spirit, and a great draughtsman with little or no care for anyone or anything outside his own close circle.  The following year, Schiele met the seventeen year old artist model, and at one time a model for Gustav Klimt, Valerie Neuzil, whom he nicknamed “Wally”.  He was immediately mesmerised by her youthful beauty and soon she moved in with him and became his lover as well as his model.  Schiele had fallen out of love with Vienna and he and his lover moved to Cesky Krumlov in Southern Bohemia, the birthplace of his mother.  His residency here did not last long as the residents were up in arms with his and his lover’s behaviour and his use of local teenage girls as his nude models.  Reluctantly he moved back to Austria and he and Valerie set up home in Neulengbach, a quiet village in the pastoral, tranquil countryside of Lower Austria, some twenty miles to the west of Vienna. 

This was a mistake on the part of Schiele because although Vienna tolerated his bohemian way of the life, this small village with its retired officers and elderly neighbours, who were always interested in their neighbours’ business, certainly did not.  Schiele’s studio had a small garden attached to it and this became home to many of the local children who sought escape from their mundane lives.  Schiele managed to persuade many of the young girls to pose for him, often naked so that he could indulge in the intimate figure drawings that had become an obsession to him since he lost his childhood interest of sketching trains.   His behaviour and his use of under-age girls as models fell foul of the authorities.  The final straw came when a thirteen year old girl, Tatjana van Mossig, daughter of a retired naval officer ran away from her home and sought refuge at the home of Schiele and his lover “Wally” and although she returned home “unharmed” after a week, her father accused Schiele of kidnapping.  He was arrested by the police on April 13th 1912, for seducing the girl below the age of consent.   The police, when they arrested Schiele, raided his workshop and confiscated many of his drawings which they termed as pornographic.   He came before the judiciary and was sentenced to twenty-four days in prison for exhibiting pornographic material – the original charge of seducing an underage girl having been dropped prior to his trial.  During his time of incarceration, he produced thirteen watercolour drawings that bear witness to his “sufferings”.

Once released it was obvious to Schiele that he had to move away from Neulengbach and he returned to Vienna where he rented a studio which he retained for the rest of his life.  By 1914 Schiele’s financial situation was dire even though he had good reviews for some of his exhibited works and had gained a couple of new patrons.   This same year his favourite sister Gertri marries his friend.  It was at this point that Schiele realises he needed a wife and although he still lived with his lover Valeri “Wally” Neuzil, he resolved to find a more “acceptable” partner.   He intensifies his relationship with two sisters, Adele and Edith Harms whom he had recently encountered and who lived with their middle-class bourgeois Protestant parents across from his studio.  A year later, in 1915 he decided, (in his wisdom?), to marry the more socially-accepted Edith, the younger of the sisters.  However he had not given up his relationship with “Wally” who had always remained faithful to him but was considered by him to be socially inferior in comparison to the Harms’ girls.  He asked her if she would remain his lover.   She was devastated by the turn of events and, not unexpectedly, she would not agree to Schiele’s strategy and she left him.  Schiele and Edith married on June 17th 1915 on the wedding anniversary of his parents. 

World War I intervened and Schiele was called-up to join the army.  He was stationed in Prague and fortunately for him the officers of his corps were so impressed with his artistic talents they allowed him to continue with his art whilst he was involved in non-combative work for the army.   Schiele was never involved in the fighting and managed to keep well away from the Russian Front.  In 1917 he was transferred to the Military Supply Depot in Vienna.  His duties were relatively light and he was able to carry on with his art and continued to regularly exhibit his works in the Austrian capital as well as Zurich, Prague and Dresden.

In February 1918 Gustav Klimt dies and suddenly Egon Schiele is recognised as the leading Austrian artist.  His new status is confirmed by his sell-out exhibition at the Vienna Secession that March.  In June he is transferred to the Army Museum where he is given free rein to pursue his artistic activities.  He becomes financially better off and moves into a larger studio.  Sadly, the Spanish flu epidemic hit Europe, claiming the lives of twenty million people.  Vienna was eventually affected by this devastating epidemic and one of its victims was Schiele’s wife Edith who was six month pregnant.  Sadly, three days later on October 31st 1918, the 28 year-old artist, Egon Schiele, died.

The painting featured in My Daily Art Display is entitled Portrait of Wally and was completed in 1912.  It was bought in 1954 by Rudolf Leopold, a wealthy Austrian art collector, whose collection of more than 5000 works of art were bought by the Austrian government and became part of the collection of the Leopold Museum.  However when an exhibition of Schiele’s works including today’s painting was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1997, this painting was seized on the orders emanating from the New York County District Attorney.  The U.S. customs refused to let the work leave the country after Henry Bondi of Princeton, N.J., filed a claim that said his late aunt, Lea Bondi Jaray, was forced to sell the painting at a vastly reduced price to the Nazis before fleeing Vienna in 1939 to escape to London when Germany annexed Austria. 

Member of Leopold Museum staff with returned painting (2010)

The litigation brought by Henry Bondi lasted twelve years and was finally settled in 2010 when the Leopold Museum of Vienna agreed to pay 19 million US dollars to the estate of Lea Bondi Jaray who died in 1969 and her nephew Henry who brought the litigation had also passed away.

Woman with Homunculus by Egon Schiele

Woman with Homunculus by Egon Schiele (1910)

The best laid plans of mice and men….. etc etc.   I had intended to travel to London yesterday and visit a couple of art galleries including the Queens Gallery to see the Dutch Landscape exhibition but because of a certain visitor by the name of Mr Obama the Buckingham Palace Gallery was closed to the public.   However I did go to the National Gallery to see The American Experiment, a small exhibition of paintings by the Ashcan School of painters which was small but made for excellent viewing.   More about that later in the week.

Richard Nagy Gallery exhibition

As I had time on my hand I decided to visit the Richard Nagy private gallery in Old Bond Street and have a look at an Egon Schiele exhibition.  I am not sure what I expected to find at this display but the weekend newspapers gave it a “Must not miss” tag so I had high hopes.   They were not wrong.  It is a small but excellent exhibition and you should really try and visit it before it closes on  June 30th.  I remember when I visited Vienna at the end of last year; the three beloved artists of that country were Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele.  This exhibition had more than forty paintings and drawings by Schiele which had not been previously seen together in a UK gallery and which of course is just the tip of his iceberg as he has more than four thousand works attributed to him. 

I intend to look at the life of Schiele over the next two days and see if I can offer you examples of his work, which are not likely to offend my readers.  I am not sure one can shy away from the word “pornographic” by clouding it with the word “art” but then it is a matter of opinion.  You will be able to look at his more risqué works on the internet and then decide for yourself.  It is up to each individual to decide when  art crosses the line from being erotic and sensual to becoming pornographic.

Egon Schiele was born in 1890 in the small Austrian town of Tulln, which lies on the River Danube, just outside Vienna.  He was the first and only surviving son of  Adolph and Marie Schiele.   His mother Marie came from Krumau (now Cesky Krumlov) in Bohemia and his father Adolph, an Austrian, was a station master for the State railways.  Schiele had two sisters, Melanie who was four years older than him and Gertrude who was four years his junior.   They all lived with their parents in an apartment above the Tulln train station which was also the place of work for their father.  Egon went to the local school and soon developed a love for art. His parents hoping he would be university-material enrolled him at the age of eleven as a boarder at the Krems Realgymnasium some twenty-five miles from their home.   Although his father had hoped he would use his artistic skills coupled with his seeming love of trains to become a railway engineer,  it was not to be.  His father lost patience with young Egon when he fell behind in his academic studies due to his fixation on art and at one point his father destroyed his sketch books.

In 1904 Adolph was taken ill having contracted syphilis.   He had to leave his job and that year he died.  It was a prolonged and painful death, with its sickness and eventual insanity and it affected Egon badly. Ten years later he wrote to a friend recalling this harrowing time.  In the letter he wrote:

“… I don’t know whether there is anyone else at all who remembers by noble father with such sadness.  I don’t know who else is able to understand why I visit those places where my father used to be and where I can feel the pain…….Why do I paint graves and many similar things?   Because this continues to live in me….”

Later, his sister, Melanie, would assert that her brother’s promiscuity was a challenge to the “Gods” to inflict him with the same disease which had killed his father.  The death of the main breadwinner caused the family financial hardship and Egon’s mother had to turn to Egon’s uncle, Leopold Czihaczek for help.  He eventually became joint guardian of the boy.

Egon attended the School of Arts and Crafts in Vienna which was the old alma mater of Klimt.  Schiele excelled at this school, so much so, that in 1906, he transferred to Vienna’s Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, the more traditional route for aspiring artists.  It was around this time that he met and was mentored by Gustav Klimt who appreciated the young Schiele’s talent.  Klimt even bought some of Schiele’s works as well as swapping some of his own work with that of the young would-be painter.  Schiele owed a lot to Klimt who put him in touch with potential buyers and Schiele held his first exhibition at the age of 18.  A year later in 1909 he left the Academy disillusioned with its teaching style and artistic constraints.  He joined a group of like-minded painters to form the Neukunstgruppe, (New Art Group).

Although Schiele had benefited immensely from what he learnt and who he met at the Academy he had felt artistically constrained and once away from the establishment he began to delve into not just the human form but also human sexuality.  It was this aspect of his paintings and drawings which was to engender controversy.  His critics described some of his works which focused on death and sex as grotesque and pornographic.  His portraits, often of nudes were painted in a realist manner and that was what probably upset some of his detractors.  Schiele took part in the International Jagdausstellung in Vienna in 1910 and he showed his life-sized, seated female nude.  Allegedly when Emperor Franz Joseph saw it he turned away muttering “This is absolutely hideous”

The Egon Schiele painting I am featuring in My Daily Art Display was painted by him in 1910 and is entitled Woman With Homonculus.  A homunculus being a scale model of a human body and refers to the seated figure to the right of the woman which tries to cling to her.  This is undoubtedly an erotic painting of a woman with her back to us, wearing only a pair of black stockings.   She has twisted her upper torso around to look over her shoulder at us in a coquettish fashion.  The reddening with rouge of the tip of her left breast and nipple can just be seen and it is this “just be seen” look which tantalises the viewer.   It is most certainly a pose and a look of a seductress and I believe she is wondering what we make of her body –  but I am sure she already knows the answer.

Tomorrow I will complete the life story of Schiele and show you a few more of his paintings and sketches.