Egon Schiele used to say that “everything is living death”. Springtime, with its awakening of living things, fuels my appetite for all things unhealthy, especially unhealthy art.
As time goes by, I find myself liking the work of Egon Schiele more and more, even though – having first been considered incriminatory, and then feted – it is becoming risqué again. There can be no fun without risk. Besides, it’s not only sickly art that can be seen as threatening; life itself is a terribly unwell affair, and it’s impossible to go through it without falling ill from time to time. Schiele, a proponent of unhealthy vitality, would have had plenty to say on the subject.
The year 2018, waking from its winter slumber, promises in our part of the world to be pregnant – heavy, even – with promise. Among the burdens we may be forced to shoulder are the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of Poland regaining independence. This is, of course, a heavenly burden. Yet we carry it through streets lit by flaming torches, skull masks covering our faces and the promise of “death to the enemies of the fatherland” on our lips. Will we have enough strength to remember that in that same unforgettable year of 1918, just as Poland was coming back from the dead, Schiele was in fact dying?
Besides, we’re not only interested in independence. In the centenary year of his passing, there’s plenty to look forward to. Mainly in his native Austria, but also further afield. In May, Tate Liverpool will show his art alongside Francesca Woodman, a cult photographer who specialized in self-portraits and died even younger than Schiele. In November, London’s Royal Academy will exhibit Schiele’s works side by side with those of his mentor, Gustav Klimt. This will be a rather special event, involving two unique figures: the master and his student; the latter surpassing the former, two Viennese “brothers-in-sexoholism”. The event will be shrouded in a double-veil of mourning, seeing as Klimt died in the same year as Schiele.
Fans of the younger artist’s work will therefore have the chance to enjoy seeing it live, but for how long? The question occurred to me in the context of recent controversies involving Balthus. Towards the end of last year, 11,000 New Yorkers demanded the removal of his painting Le rêve de Thérèse from the Metropolitan Museum collections. The person initiating the campaign, 30-year-old Mia Merrill (a Manhattan-based HR specialist), argued that the painting demeans and sexualizes the girl featured in it. By putting it on display, the museum was promoting lustful, paedophilic tendencies. It is hard to disagree with Ms Merrill. Thérèse Dreaming is by no means an innocent dream to have, and you can’t ignore the erotic aura that the painting is imbued with. The titular Thérèse hadn’t yet turned 13 when she posed for Balthus – Humbert H. would have been profoundly moved by the painting. And not only by this one canvas. Balthus’ favourite subject was pre-pubescent girls in suggestive poses (and not always fully clothed). In fact, we could say that it was something of an obsession for him.
The MET refused to remove Balthus’ painting from their walls – the artwork was not held to blame for the artist’s own transgressions. And yet, I do not think that this is the end of the sexual lustration of artists who are no longer with us; it is just the start. 80 years have passed since Thérèse Dreaming was painted. The world’s public has for all this time tolerated the obvious perversion responsible for its creation, along with so many others. Now that we are in the age of #metoo (Mia Merrill also made reference to this most important of last year’s hashtags), norms governing sexual conduct are changing, and for the better. What then, is to be done with art that depicts this kind of non-normative sexuality? I can imagine living without the works of Balthus – he was never particularly precious to me. But what about others? Bellmer, for example? Or Egon Schiele, who shared Balthus’ fascination with erotica portraying girls entering the sexual spring of awakening?
Schiele’s biography is easy enough to confuse with an essay by his compatriot Freud. His life story features an imperial railway station where the young Egon was raised (tellingly, as a young boy he was obsessed with drawing trains). There was the sensually repressed mother; the stationmaster father who caught syphilis from a prostitute and was driven insane. There was also his younger sister Gerti – their father suspected her and Egon of the most heinous perversions. It is true that at this time, the crazed Herr Schiele was suffering from hallucinations. Nevertheless, the 16-year-old Egon ran away from home, taking the 12-year-old Gerti with him. They boarded a train to Trieste and, before being caught, spent a night in a hotel together. The devil only knows what they got up to in there. A few years later, Egon – now the controversial wunderkind of Austrian modernism – travelled around the country with his very young lover and muse Wally Neuzil. Everywhere they went, they were watched by neighbours who were far from pleased to note this young and unconventional pair – they were constantly forced to change address. What’s worse, Schiele liked painting not just Wally, but much younger girls. He was accused of seducing the underage models who frequented his studio. The drawings found there were used as evidence against him in court. Eventually, he was ‘only’ found guilty of creating pornography. The judge who thus referred to Schiele’s artworks had to be blind not to see the genius so clearly apparent in his pencil lines (and the staggering vividness of expression created by the unnaturally enlarged eyes of his figures).
It is a fact that Schiele was obsessed with sexuality and the human body. He presented himself in naked self-portraits showing the artist masturbating, along with his lovers’ (usually far too young) bodies, engaged in coitus. These bodies are spring-like, pale, tinted green, as if they hadn’t seen sunshine in a long while. They are animated by a terrible desire – these are not in any way healthy bodies – but how alive at the same time! Yet when Schiele was young, the public considered his work a little too alive. Austria was perverse, but it did demand appearances be kept up. The trauma of the Great War meant that people were done with prudishness. In 1918, at the age of 28, Schiele was gathering more and more critical appreciation and commercial success. This was when illness got the better of him. He caught the Spanish Flu and died, along with his wife (six months pregnant at the time) and millions of other Europeans.
And the moral of the story? His life seems to be unable to provide us with one. This also seems to be true of his art, though it really does throb with life. Perhaps the only conclusion is that good art sometimes emerges from dubious – sometimes truly disastrous – inclinations. Even if getting a flu jab is always a good idea, it is now rather late in the season. I will take care of it in the autumn; it is spring, and so autumn is just around the corner.
Translated by Marek Kazmierski
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