His candid and erotic nudes shocked Vienna, and his untimely death left him unregarded for 50 years. But his portraits reveal a top-ranking draughtsman and bold and sensual artist
In 1964, the publishers Methuen brought out a hefty and authoritativeDictionary of Modern Painting – I still have my dog-eared copy. The book started with "Apollinaire" and ended with "Zandomeneghi" and was a highly respectable work of scholarship compiled by some 30 renowned specialists, the latest word on 100 years of art history. But, intriguingly, there is no entry for Egon Schiele. Klimt has an entry, of course, and so does Schiele's exact contemporary, Oskar Kokoschka, and so does the Vienna Secession movement, in which Schiele was a significant figure. Yet the only mention of the artist's name occurs in the page on Klimt where it is noted that: "Klimt was much admired by E Schiele." What this reference to E Schiele might have meant to anyone in 1964 is something of a mystery.
In June 2011, at Sotheby's, London, a fairly good 1914 Egon Schiele townscape, Häuser mit bunter Wäsche (Vorstadt II), went under the hammer. It was bought, anonymously, for £24.7m. Even by the crazy standards of today's art market this staggering re-evaluation of an artist's worth takes some beating, rivalling Van Gogh's dizzying ascent. The trajectory of Schiele's posthumous reputation from almost total anonymity to ubiquitous global fame, with a price tag to match, occurred in the space of 50 years.
Less than 50, in fact, when one considers the details. I can remember Schiele suddenly arriving on the scene in the early 1970s, when I was at university. Almost at once you could buy postcard reproductions of his works everywhere; posters were available of the newly familiar paintings and drawings. I bought a small pocket-sized monograph that fleshed out the details of his short, tormented life. Who was this artist we'd never heard about?
Schiele's rediscovery was almost singlehandedly the work of Rudolf Leopold (1925-2010), an ophthalmologist from Vienna who, in the years following the second world war, started buying up every Schiele painting and drawing he could find – for very modest sums of money. Leopold was not a rich man, just uncannily prescient. He loved the work of the Vienna Secession and in particular Schiele. Fairly speedily, Leopold came to possess the largest collection of Schiele works in the world. And then in 1972, he issued a catalogue raisonné and the global boom in the artist began and has never stopped. Gratifyingly, the Austrian government recognised Leopold's heroic obsession and built him a gallery in the Museumsquartier in Vienna. It is one of the world's great art galleries and the key destination for those who wish to see Schiele's work.
It's hard to explain, nonetheless, the void of silence that Schiele and his reputation fell into, in the decades after his death, aged just 28, in 1918. He was well known, not to say notorious, in Viennese artistic circles in the early years of the 20th century and his prodigious gifts as an artist were widely recognised. The explanation may be a simple consequence of his early death (caused by the Spanish flu pandemic) or the subsequent fame of Klimt, Kokoschka and others overshadowing his reputation. It is a bizarre period of neglect because, in many ways, Schiele and his work best reflect that astonishing period of sociocultural history when, over the last years of the 19th century, and leading up to the outbreak of war in 1914, Vienna was the world's most fascinating city.
This compact, beautiful, bourgeois, capital was the cynosure of many currents of modernism. If one begins to list the artists – Schiele, Klimt, Kokoschka; then the musicians – Mahler, Schönberg, Berg, Webern – one is already marvelling. Throw in the architects and designers – Otto Wagner, Adolf Loos – and the writers – Joseph Roth, Robert Musil, Karl Kraus, Rilke (and Kafka close at hand in Prague) – and the brew seems almost too rich. But also in Vienna before the first world war were – some resident, some passing through – those malign and unhinged empire builders Adolf Hitler, Trotsky and Stalin. Add a garnish of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Sigmund Freud and one begins to understand why the city of Vienna itself, during those early years of the century, was regarded as a gesamtkunstwerk, a "total work of art". There was nowhere like it on the planet. I don't think such a rich congruence of ideas, of politics, of art, literature, music and revolutionary thinking has been repeated in recent centuries. Perhaps only Renaissance Florence runs Vienna close.
Schiele was born in 1890 in Tulln, a small town on the Danube about 20 miles west of Vienna. His father was a stationmaster who, significantly, died of tertiary syphilis when Schiele was 14. The boy showed a talent for drawing and in 1906 secured a place in Vienna's highly prestigious Akademie der Bildenden Künst (an institution that would reject the application of another would-be local artist, Hitler, twice, a little later).
A precociously gifted student, Schiele soon attracted the attention of Gustav Klimt, the pre-eminent artist of the Secession movement – an artistic revolution that covered many art forms, all driven by the basic aim of rejecting Beaux-Arts classicism and stuffy Salon mediocrity. By the age of 20, Schiele was being recognised as the heir to Klimt and indeed Klimt's early influence on Schiele's graphic style is very obvious and understandable.
Schiele's work was already expressionistic and daring, taking Klimt's safely decorative eroticism a bold leap further with his figurative distortions, mannered elongations and sexual frankness. He was swiftly attracting notoriety with his explicit nude studies. Reportedly, the emperor himself, Franz Joseph, commented when confronted by a life-sized Schiele nude: "That is absolutely hideous!" In 1910, a selection of Schiele's drawings was removed from an exhibition because of their "obscene nature".
This notoriety drove Schiele from Vienna to the small town of Krumau, where he lived with one of Klimt's former models, Valerie "Wally" Neuzil. Wally became a favourite subject. But being an uncompromising modern artist living in a small provincial town is a risky business, and the locals were outraged when Schiele was seen drawing a naked Wally in the garden of the house he was renting. He left Krumau for another small town, Neulengbach, where he used local children as studies for his drawings. One of these children, a 13-year-old girl, ran away from home and sought refuge in Schiele's studio. Police raided the house and arrested Schiele, charging him with kidnapping, statutory rape and public immorality. The first two charges were dropped but Schiele was convicted of the third as the police had found a large quantity of "obscene" drawings and alleged that the children he used as models would have seen these.
He was sent to prison, where he served a sentence of 24 days, an experience that traumatised him. Schiele returned to Vienna where he lived in some poverty, even though he continued to exhibit. The outbreak of the first world war saw the beginning of his relationship with Edith Harms – Wally, faithful but working class, was rejected. Schiele married Edith before he was called up and drafted into the Austrian army in 1915. He never saw combat and spent most of his military service as a guard in prisoner-of-war camps. In his off-duty hours, he continued to paint and draw and new dealers began to take more interest in his work.
In 1918, Klimt died at the age of 55 and Schiele was generally perceived to be his natural successor in the world of Viennese painting. And, finally, financial success appeared to be following artistic recognition – his last exhibition was sold out. The triumph was shortlived, however. In October 1918, a month before the end of the war, Edith Schiele, six-months pregnant with their first child, died of Spanish influenza. Schiele, having also contracted the virus, lasted another three days before dying early in the morning of 31 October.
Such is the familiarity with Schiele's paintings and drawings these days that it requires something of a thought experiment to imagine the visceral shock that a first viewing of them would have generated. The famousSeated Male Nude (1910) is a case in point. Probably a self-portrait, it is a gaunt, life-sized full-frontal nude with a skin-tone of bilious marshy green and orange nipples and one baleful, red, staring eye. The effect is all the more stylised and otherworldy as Schiele has left off the nude's feet; the shins end in abrupt stumps. The resulting painting is as disturbing and powerful as a Francis Bacon or a Lucien Freud. One wonders what the good burghers of Vienna must have made of this in 1910. Recoil, feigned outrage – secret fascination?
The social hypocrisy of Austro-Hungarian Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century was the same as existed in Victorian London. Repressive cultures and public prohibitions stimulate an underworld that is the inverse, sexually and behaviourally, of the values and attitudes enshrined in the public face of these societies. Schiele found himself surrounded and attacked by this social climate and his work is, among many other things, an effort to strip away the lies and surface pretences at large in the city in which he lived.
To a degree this explains the charged and explicit eroticism of much of his work – though it should be noted that Schiele also painted landscapes throughout his working life. But he returned again and again to the posed naked figure, male and female – the ultimate test and validation, so the critic Robert Hughes has stated, of any artist's merit and painterly ability. Yet there is an undeniable near-pornographic intensity in many of Schiele's drawings and they clearly acted as a sexual stimulus for him as he also made many self-portrait studies of himself in the act of masturbation. He was one of the most photographed artists, creating poses that even today have an astonishing contemporary feel.
A great self-portraitist, a superb colourist, a daring manipulator of composition and possessed of a subversive and challenging vision of his art – all these epithets apply and combine to make Schiele one of the most significant European artists of the 20th century. However, in my opinion, what lifts him truly into the first rank are his astonishing powers as a draughtsman. Schiele can be spoken of in the same terms as other phenomenal draughtsmen – Rembrandt, Ingres, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Picasso, Klee, Sutherland and, in our own time, Michael Andrews and David Hockney. I believe that that you can't be a truly great painter if you're not an excellent draughtsman. And yet hugely famous and successful artists who draw as well, or as badly, as a 10-year-old are everywhere acclaimed, particularly in the post-second world war era. You can tell relatively easily from an examination of their work that there is something fundamentally lacking. Jackson Pollock, to name but one giant of modernism, is a pre-eminent example – he was a shockingly inept draughtsman – but there are dozens of others.
It's an important point. One of the key aspects of being able to draw is that it teaches you to see, as Hockney has observed in a recent interview; what's more, drawing from life teaches you to see in minute and particular detail. Schiele was superabundantly gifted in that regard.
It's a matter of cultural shame in this country that none of our great public art galleries has any significant work by Schiele. Clearly, the various curators took their eye off the ball and by the time the 1970s came round, and everyone was suddenly talking about him, it was far too late and the works were far too expensive. Consequently, if you want to see Schiele's work, you have to go to Vienna or wait until an exhibition is mounted in London. And they do arrive, luckily, from time to time. Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude opens soon at the Courtauld; three years ago, the Richard Nagy Gallery in Bond Street, London, had a large and superb exhibition of Schiele's drawings.
I was fortunate enough to see this show and spend some hours contemplating the works on display. The key aspect of Schiele's drawings is the confident emphasis of the line. I studied these drawings at the closest possible range – my eyes a few centimetres from the paper surface. There is no evidence of the preliminary tentative mark, of the initial hesitant touch of the pencil or crayon that would allow the artist to get his bearings and select the position for the first expressive line. And the line is drawn with real pressure – whether crayon, pencil or charcoal – hard, dark and jagged. It's very different from Klimt's wispy, sketchy delineation. You can clearly see the speed and assurance of Schiele's execution, the uninhibited flow of the hand, denoting – in a few quick seconds of activity – tumbling curls of hair or crumpled fabric, or the fluid confluence of flank and hip and thigh. It is, above all else, a display of unparalleled graphic virtuosity.
The same could be said of Schiele's use of composition, of "framing" in the cinematic sense. Heads and arms are left outside the drawing surface, cut off by the paper's edge. The figures are placed high in the paper's rectangle or dramatically to one side, the blank space of the undrawn-on surface as much a key to the overall composition as the drawn figure itself. This has the effect of making the figurative drawing more abstract, paradoxically, neutralising the shock effect of the splayed limbs, the proffered genitalia, the immediate sexual context of artist and model.
Also, as a matter of artistic practice, Schiele would add colour to these drawings afterwards. The effect of this is to further de-eroticise the image, however explicit. Flat blocks of watercolour or scumbled guache counterpose the three-dimensionality of the drawing. If there is an initial urge to stimulate erotically, it becomes defused or dissipated by the semi-abstraction of the juxtaposed colour. In all the explicitly sexual poses xthat he draws, Schiele introduces this element: time and again one senses him looking for the artistic dividend after the primal sensual motivation, searching for the way to make these intensely personal studio drawings function more properly as works of art.
Like all great artists who die very young, Schiele's premature death makes one wonder what might have happened had he lived longer – and ponder what direction his artistic course might have taken. Long productive lives are not necessarily a boon to artists – think of Kokoschka or André Derain, for example. It's another intriguing thought experiment: if Schiele had lived to be 70, and died, say, in the 1960s (Kokoschka died in 1980, aged 93), then perhaps his paintings would not be selling for millions of pounds today and we would not be discussing him in the way we are. The intensity and the brilliance of those last 10 years or so of his short life, early in the 20th century, are his real legacy. The work he made still has tremendous power and reveals the magnificent generosity of his gifts as an artist.
• Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude is at the Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, London, WC2R 0RN from 23 October