Egon Schiele – problematic and compelling

[Death and the Maiden]

I didn’t purposefully set out to research and imitate Schiele, but he’s kind of crept up on me, and I’ve now used his work in life drawing sheets, watched a documentary on his work and life, spent time thinking about that, and now often try to think of his lines when drawing to encourage myself to use more a confident and bolder line (wiggly it may be, 100% accuracy be damned).

Schiele’s vs mine

So I guess now is a good time to document some of my thoughts on him. The more I look at his style and work, the more I find inspiration or things I appreciate and resonate with (I should maybe be concerned by that):

(cf this to those Marquets).

For starters, his use of colour, specifically red tones mostly, is wildly striking to me. It’s more than just red on places that you would think would be red – like lips etc – but also flashes of colour on knuckles, elbows, knees. It makes everyone look cold or flushed or both, makes the energy of the work really explosive. It’s partly that that makes me think that sometimes when we class all his work as ‘erotic’ we aren’t leaving enough room for that to just be his style, and it’s in the eye of the viewer that the work becomes sexual. (That’s not to say that he didn’t definitely make a lot of sexual work, often working to the market of saleable erotica.)

As an extension to the point about colour, he himself was aware of how important and violently energetic a role colour played for him. After being imprisoned (because he had drawn young children (younger than the early 1900s Vienna age of consent of 14) naked and arguably erotically, and because he had allowed children into his studio where there was sexual art on the walls ie he exposed them to pornography) for a while, he wrote about the excruciating experience of being in prison surrounded by an endless monotony of grey. And about how a single orange that his girlfriend Wally brought to him in prison was very important to him.

– that importance of the orange chimes with me too. Oranges as such a vivid thing – colour, texture, smell – and a source of energy. Cf the memory of Dimitris eating whole oranges while bounding around the room to lecture.

The discourse and disagreement on how to understand to what extent Schiele behaved problematically, and how to frame the power dynamics between artist and nude.

  • A scholar in the documentary noting that Schiele thought that artists did things that other people couldn’t, and thinking that because he was an artist he would be able to get away with eg having kids in his studio
  • Does artist need nude or nude need artist more? Whose economic survival depends on who? The nude needs to get paid by the artist but the artist needs the nude in order to make work and money
  • So should we default to noticing the implicit power dynamic between male artist and female (young, often lower class, often sex worker or close to*) nude
  • The age old issue of is there sexual autonomy for the nude here, or is it just a voyeurism
  • Some academics like to point out that Schiele’s nudes gaze back at the viewer (which isn’t even actually consistently true I found once working through some online archives, but even if it were) and use that to suggest that they are given space to have sexual autonomy by him. I’m not sold. A nude drawn staring at the viewer is still one drawn, her gaze is still being seen through the prism of the artist, still being created for the viewer. Her gaze’s presence or absence is primarily about the art and viewer, not her. Maybe it’s slightly better for her, or more accurately it maybe reflects better on the artist that he doesn’t want all his nudes to be submissive, but it being her autonomy is a long shot.
  • There’s an argument that Schiele draws himself and male nudes as much and as erotically as female nudes, so he’s practicing equality. Another long shot. Drawing yourself is a very different power dynamic to subjecting someone else to your gaze and image-capturing. Even if your economic survival depends on your drawings of yourself, and you have to subject yourself to selling your image (admittedly not an ideal situation), there’s a different level of necessary consent here than having to sell the rights to visual interpretation of your body to someone else (as a nude model does). Also, because of the power dynamics in society being skewed in men’s favour, it’s a different power scenario for a male nude to take off his clothes for a male artist to draw him than it is for a female nude to do so.
  • (a self portrait)
Self portrait – multiplicity of self!!!!!


Schiele definitely was not afraid of making sexual art, was definitely interested in portraying it (and responded to his uncle cutting him off financially and emotionally because of his erotic work by making more erotic work and selling it on the pornographic market – which was large in 1900s Vienna). He said “he who denies sex is a lowly person who smears in a filthy way his own parents, who have begotten him”. He wasn’t interested in upholding sexual taboos.

But I also feel like it would be doing him a disservice to imply that all the passion in his work is sexual, or that he was primarily only motivated by that. “I want light. I want to see the sun and bask in the drenched blues and greens of the valleys of evening… I want to kiss the flowers of the moss… I should like to see the sun rise again, the soil as it breathes and shimmers” – maybe he was not always trying to be erotic even when it seems like it, maybe he just was very vivid and tactile. Or maybe that’s just how I want to interpret him, because I can relate to that.

*”there are very close lines between prostitution and posing for artists” – BBC documentary ‘Egon Schiele: Dangerous Desires’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s