Austria’s Grotesque Revolutionaries - Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele

A century has passed since the deaths of Austria’s revolutionary artistic duo, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. These artists paved the way for artists who sought to explore the grotesque side of the human body. They promoted the idea that real life could not be portrayed in a perfect sense. Despite being twenty-eight years apart in age, their paths crossed in 1906 when Schiele arrived in Vienna the age of 16, as a child prodigy. Klimt without a doubt became the biggest influence on Schiele’s artistic life and allowed his ideas to flourish into a style that paralleled, if not overtook the works of Klimt himself.

Klimt was a master of intimacy. No different from attitudes of the time, Klimt saw women as a wonder of nature, obsessed with the curves of their bodies and the stretched and distorted positions he made them take. Through this means he aimed to portray, the idea of the development and decline in portraits he painted. Take the sumptuous shot of Female Nude Turned to the Left (1912-13). Klimt’s juxtaposing of delicate and harsher lines begins to tell a story of the woman behind the painting, charging it with emotion and creating a narrative for the viewer to speculate as their eyes dart around the drawing. A naked woman lies asleep, head on the pillow and buttocks pointing outwards towards the audience. In doing so, Klimt immediately creates an air of exposure and fragility. The erratic dance of lines contributes to the uncertainty, nothing is solid or rigid, not a single straight line, no beautifying of the female or any certain focus. A technique best portrayed in pen as a pencil would not mimic the same sharpness and depth as is it demonstrated here. The depiction of taboo subjects is a dramatic shift in the world of art, straying from the academic style that was revered in teaching for centuries. In the drawing, the woman’s head does not even have a complete pillow to lay upon, it is simply the space seeping in and surrounding her. It is this emptiness that Klimt and Schiele want to portray in their works, something that was never seen in Classical ideas Marian Bisanz-Prakken describes this as “psychological boundaries”, creating a link between the actual life of the sitter and the ‘cosmic boundaries’ around her. They reflect each other.

The meeting with Gustav Klimt in 1907 marked the start of Schiele’s presence in Vienna’s art sphere, one that he would thrive in from such an early age. Schiele asked Klimt whether his works demonstrated any skill or talent, in which his mentor replied “Yes. Much too much!”. From here on Schiele raised his artistic vision to new levels. Having exhibited Klimt’s work in the Kunstschau (‘Art Show’) in 1908, Schiele managed to be featured in the following year’s show, all whilst studying at Vienna’s Kunst Akademie. The very same year Schiele also started his own group of contemporaries called the Neukunstgruppe which expressed their works at various art shows in Vienna.

In his early works, Schiele was unable to hire actual models so he had to make do with young prostitutes, street children and even himself. Schiele targeted, those gritty true to life figures who occupied Vienna’s streets, seeing them as were perfect for his vision. Thomas Michelle sums up Schiele perfectly with the idea that “Schiele worked quick and dirty”. His paintings and drawings, like Klimt’s, did not fit in line with the Classical way of thinking and teaching. In Self Nude Portrait in Grey with Open Mouth (1910), the wash of grey over the figure reveals a man that is grimy and would exude a musk of a foul nature. From the heavy eyelid to the emaciated rib cage and missing arm, Schiele bathed in all that was grotesque and filthy in his figures. We get this heightened sense of vulnerability partially due to the uneasy contortions of the figure, as well as the negative space that appears to slowly be closing in on him, revealing the weakness and frailty of Schiele in this undernourished state. There is a closing in on the ever-thinning line around the abdomen, with thicker, darker lines exaggerating the protruding bones from the hips and legs.

Like Klimt, Schiele’s mastery of line is shown in his female portraits. For example, in ‘Mädchen Das Graphische Werk von Egon Schiele’ (1918, published in 1922 after his death),the heavy line on the underside of the woman, adds to the lumbering limp weight, giving off this idea of lifelessness. Similar to Klimt, the drawing presents the exposed and delicate side of people that has never be seen in art. Being a prostitute, one would assume that the woman would be used to hardships and pain. The slump of her neck over the hump is key to creating a depressing and vulnerable feel to the sitter. Schiele was said to never erase any of the marks he made and a modern evaluation of his works confirm this overarching idea of disorder and lack of structure in his subjects lives.

The two Austrians were a flagship for changing the artworld and introducing a new way of looking and presenting the human form. The raw emotion and presentation of their sitters made their contemporaries view art in a new light, whilst elevating the medium of drawing to a next level. It is why, years on after their deaths in 1918, they have been remembered as two prestigious, contemporary artists of the 20th Century. The Royal Academy of Arts London is holding an exhibition in memory of the two that will run until 3rd February 2019.

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