Anyone who takes a lingering look at the work of Egon Schiele can’t help but be impressed. A brief, bright star in Austrian art (he died in a flu epidemic in 1918, age 28), his drawings, his painted drawings, and his drawn paintings are electrifying. Depraved subject matter aside, his is a line to behold.
Egon’s markers move slowly and intelligently, often nervously toward description. His form-follows-function lines are an education. An understanding of anatomy is combined with the sensibility of Art Nouveau. Bones morph, flesh purples and becomes visceral. Line holds colour in place. Expression is often understated — blank-faced or stunned lovers stare from their trysts. Children, like dolls, are caught in a nutcracker trance. Where Egon could have been sentimental, or go into the kind of detail that he would have no trouble performing, he resists — some eyes and mouths are mere smudges. At other times, particularly in self-portraits, the subject grimaces or looks out into the world with a life-condemning sneer. It was a time for the extreme pose, the angled arm, the provocative leg, the terror of pointlessness and the boredom of love. Behind academic knowledge there was the vital lisp of idiosyncrasy.
Mere facility does not an artist make. Just because you can do something does not always mean you ought to do it. Egon left out, understated or embellished what he felt like embellishing. Like the senior artist and definer of the form, Gustav Klimt, (who died the same year) he was not afraid of decoration. The curls and angles of the natural landscape were the great teachers. But unlike Klimt’s surface opulence and gold leaf, Egon’s brilliance simply rides on line. His facility was natural but practiced. In his life-drawing he exercised and then perfected his confidence. He hated art school and left prematurely (The Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna) but it was in these classes that his capability grew. Some would call his an extreme talent. Apart from that he learned how to draw lines.
PS: “At present, I am mainly observing the physical motion of mountains, water, trees and flowers. One is everywhere reminded of similar movements in the human body, of similar impulses of joy and suffering in plants.” (Egon Schiele to Franz Hauer) “I am so rich that I must give myself away.” (Egon Schiele, 1890-1918)
Esoterica: In Austria and Germany Art Nouveau was known as “Jugendstil” — after a magazine called “Die Jugend” (Youth). The term “Liberty” as used for Art Nouveau in Italy came from the popular store in London, England. The “Maison de l’Art Nouveau,” from which the movement took its name, was an interior-decorator gallery that opened in Paris in 1896.
This letter was originally published as “A wonderful line” on December 9, 2003.
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“A line is a dot that went for a walk.” (Paul Klee)