Updated: August 17, 2022
The Arts: Gustav Klimt is the great innovator in the battle between reality and illusion, sex and death. Egon Schiele was an explorer of the inner turmoil of the soul. Together they changed the face of Austrian art, writesEileen Battersby.
It was once the capital of a great empire; its streets remain dominated by mighty public buildings, Baroque palaces and formidable statues of rulers such as Maria Theresa and Emperor Franz Josef. For close on 200 years, all the world looked to Vienna for its culture, sophistication and most emphatically, its music. Mozart had settled there, as Haydn had before him, while the young Beethoven had set off from Bonn at the age of 22, determined to conquer this city of music. He would die here, as would Schubert (who was a native of the city) and Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler.
By the time Gustav Klimt, (the visual equivalent of Mahler and Schoenberg – both fellow Viennese) emerged as the leading artist of the Austrian Secession, Vienna was the fourth largest capital in Europe and still flourishing. But it was all about to change. The Austro-Hungarian monarchy had already begun a decline that became final with the outbreak of the first World War.
In the arts, tradition was being challenged by the modern and it had become the age of the erotic. Vienna was described as “a research station for the end of the world”. The old bourgeois complacencies were being confronted by a new, somewhat sinister languor. Any visitor to the city these days will be immediately aware of the wealth of classical music events on offer, all the leading orchestras and international soloists perform in Vienna, home to the splendid opera house, and there are the enduring twin presences of two beloved composers.
Men and women in 18th-century dress patrol the streets of the Innere Stadt, intent on selling tickets for an evening of Mozart and Strauss. No surprise in that, Mozart’s face appears on everything from T-shirts to chocolate bars, music boxes to note pads. A white statue of Mozart stands in the park of the Hofburg Palace, across the street from the Burg Kino cinema which continues to screenThe Third Man. Johann Strauss, the waltz king, also features, in small souvenir statuettes, holding a violin as if conducting yet another encore ofThe Blue Danubeor his father’s great tune, theRadetzky March. Yet aside from the composers, two other artists are equally omnipresent: Klimt and his young successor-in-waiting, Egon Schiele.
Both painters are represented by reproductions of their work: for Klimt, the merchandisers tend to favour his slightly oriental art nouveau style at its most opulent.The Kiss(1907/8) is everywhere – on coffee-tins and shopping-bags. It depicts an all-powerful male embracing an – unusually for Klimt who painted femmes fatales – passive female. Far more anguished is Schiele, an artist who deals in unrest. This most prolific of painters is more often than not represented by a self-portrait, the genre he most favoured. Together, Klimt and Schiele convey the essential preoccupation of the turn of century, Austrian mind – the dark, psychological obsession with the inner self. Vienna after all, is also the city of Sigmund Freud.
KLIMT IS THEgreat innovator in the battle between reality and illusion; sex and death. He appears to have introduced blatant sexuality through his almost voyeuristic portraits of society ladies who, though appearing in intricately decorated gowns in the finished works, invariably suggest that they had posed without them. HisJudith I(1901) depicts a knowing courtesan possessed of alarming confidence. Yet Klimt, born in Baumgarten, near Vienna, in 1862, the second child of an engraver, was well schooled in the old ways, as well as a variety of other methods and techniques.
Art was his undisputed destiny. By 14, he was already studying at the School of Applied Art in Vienna. Unlike Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, Klimt had been a student of historical painting and had worked as an assistant in Hans Makart’s studio. In time, he even completed commissions such as the stairway of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, which Makart, who died at 44, had been unable to finish.
Klimt worked with his brother, Ernst, who was a year younger and would die in 1892, the same year as their father. Klimt personified the notion of working artist and was invariably photographed in his long, flowing artist’s smock. He looked almost priest-like and in common with Claude Monet, drew inspiration from his romantic, overgrown garden. He actively sought out and embraced the Austrian countryside.
For all his association with the erotic, and use of gold paint, Klimt’s most beautiful works are his drawings and most of all, his wonderful landscapes: influenced by Van Gogh, yet daringly original and often dream-like. Pictures such asThe Swamp(1900) andStill Pond, also known asA Morning By the Pond(1899) express the love Klimt felt for nature. It is difficult to grasp that the painter of the allegoricalDeath and Life(1916) was the same one who wandered in the countryside, creating studies such as hisPine Forest IandII, both painted in 1900, and theBeech Forest I(1902).Farmhouse(1901) suggests to the viewer that the artist had simply approached the building from its rear. On abandoning his gold period, Klimt painted portraits such asLady with Hat and Feather Boa(1909) that confirmed the influence of Toulouse-Lautrec whose work he had first encountered in Paris.
AS EARLY AS 1888, Klimt, already established as an artist, received the Golden Order of Merit from Franz Josef. Despite so much approval, there were others who opposed Klimt’s eroticism. In 1897, he was elected president of the Secession, a group of artists more intent on change itself, and new forms, rather than on propagating any specific style. If it is possible to witness his symbolic philosophy of art at work, it may be in his treatment of theBeethoven Frieze(1902) a 24-metre-long art nouveau work commissioned as part of a celebration of the composer and based on theNinth Symphonyand theOde to Joy. Executed in three parts,Yearning for Happiness,Hostile Forces andHymn to Joy, it was intended by Klimt as a symbolic transposition of the symphony. It caused some delight (Auguste Rodin praised it), and much outrage.
Klimt was a man surrounded by friends and there are many photographs of him joining in group excursions. But this slow, thoughtful painter also preserved a sense of mystery. He never painted a self-portrait and said: “Anyone who wants to know anything about me – as an artist, the only noteworthy aspect – should study my paintings closely and, from them, try to deduce what I am and what I want.”
Still, he was seen as a visionary. Although his portraits of women and his landscapes are so different as to be the work of two different artists, there is a defining link: his belief and feel for colour. The art nouveau style was certainly important to Klimt, if largely as a step towards Expressionism.
By the time Egon Schiele entered the Vienna art scene, Klimt was the revered high priest. There appears to have been no hostility between them. The elder man had been born into an artistic family. Schiele, strange, singular and obsessive, came from very different origins. His German father was a station master, himself the son of a railway engineer. The young Schiele was born in 1890 when Klimt was 28 (the age Schiele would die at)and famous. As a child Schiele drew trains and was sickly, often given to long silences. Early in life he developed a melodramatic streak that became central to his personality.
School was always difficult; drawing was his only talent. His father, who had lost his job due to mental instability, died when Schiele was 14. It was the future artist’s first life trauma and left him dependent on a mother to whom he was never close. Death became his major theme and the loss of his father caused Schiele to look increasingly inwards. Self-portraits became both his retreat and his statement. No other artist has left as many self-portraits. They are studies in states of mind and provide the key to Egon Schiele.
In 1906 he entered the Vienna Academy and showed little talent for townscapes and landscapes. But then classical painting did not attract him. Instead he looked to the innovative work of Klimt and the other former Secession artists, most of whom had left the movement the previous year. In 1908, Schiele, then 18, exhibited for the first time. The following year he was given an exhibition room and showed five portraits. Of the many fascinating aspects of his life is the speed with which he became accepted as an exciting equal by established artists such as Klimt, yet Schiele considered Klimt his master.
Yet, while Klimt surrounded his figures in often abstract decorative shapes,creating an organic effect, Schiele’s angular subjects are expressive, even defiant in their pathos. They appear to predate the work of Lucian Freud. In common with Klimt, there is also a visionary quality about Schiele’s artistic vision. But there is a fundamental difference; it is easy to see the real anguish that often surfaces in Schiele’s studies. Not that this pain is evident in all of his portraits.Seated Woman with Left Leg Drawn Up(1917) possesses a subtle ease. Here is a model content to gaze at the world with a wary curiosity which falls far short of apprehension.
AMONG HIS MOSTbeautiful works is an oil,Sunflower(1909/10), withered and somewhat Christ-like, highlighting his spiritual preoccupations,Autumn Trees I(1911) which offers a variation of theCrucifixionand the laterSunflowers(1917), a coloured drawing, in which the flowers appear tossed by a breeze, their foliage bright and green. HisFour Trees, from the same year, shows signs of Klimt’s influence. But Schiele’s true landscape would remain the human face and body. Ironically he did paint a Crucifixion scene in 1907, yet it is somehow not as graphic as theAutumn Trees Ipainting.
“You draw better than I do,” Klimt is reported to have told Schiele in 1910 when the older artist not only agreed to exchange work with Schiele; he also bought some of his drawings. Conventional perspective held little interest for Schiele and the more one looks at his work, the more one begins to appreciate his brooding state of mind as well as his daunting originality. Confident of his art, yet unsettled, Schiele, something of dandy who enjoyed fine clothes, was a difficult, often manic character and took many risks, frequently offending the moral conventions of his society rich in ambivalent attitudes. His habit of drawing young models, often children, caused alarm. In 1912 he was arrested at Neulengbach and his drawings were confiscated. Charges were dropped, but Schiele did serve a three-day prison sentence because the drawings were considered indecent. As had Klimt, Schiele also looked briefly towards Van Gogh, and the famous comparison has been made between their respective studies of their bedrooms.
AS EARLY AS1913, Schiele, still only 23, was made a member of the Federation of Austrian Artists and exhibited at a number of important shows. His art became an uncompromising exploration of the inner turmoil of the soul. Instead of eroticism, he looked to the psychological.
From 1910 onwards he had been living in Krumau in southern Bohemia with Wally Neuzil, one of his models who travelled with him. Having met two middle-class sisters, the Harms, Schiele became alert to new social possibilities. The theme of two women entered his work. It was as if he was trying to reconcile his growing interest in one of the sisters. He ended his relationship with Wally and married Edith Harms in June 1915. By then, war had broken out and some four days after his wedding, Schiele was called up. Initially he was based in Prague, and was then transferred to Lower Austria, and was eventually posted closer to Vienna.
His output decreased during this period. Yet by 1917 he was working in the Army Museum in Vienna, and had resumed painting, completingMother and Two Children IIIwhich he had begun in 1917. A new hope appeared to enter his work. His palette became warmer. On February 6th 1918, Gustav Klimt, aged 55, died of a stroke. For Schiele, the death was monumental: he had lost a master whose presence had become more important than his influence, it had also left him as the leading figure in Austrian art. He completedThe Family, this group painting suggests a greater contentment had entered the artist’s life, a belief confirmed by thePortrait of Edith Schiele, Sitting, in which his wife sits on a chair, her wide skirt enveloping her. There were many other works, including a chalk drawing of composer Anton Webern, another Viennese genius.
In the Vienna Secession show held in the following month Schiele exhibited 50 works, most of which were sold. His position was assured. Within months, Edith was pregnant. But in late October, she became ill and died on the 28th. Schiele also contracted Spanish influenza and died three days after her, on Halloween. He was 28 years old.
• The largest Schiele collection in the world is held at the Leopold Museum, Vienna, which also holds some important Klimt work. Seewww.leopoldmuseum.org/english/
Read all about it
Gustav Klimt: Landscapes(2006), edited by Stephan Koja (Prestel, €20.80)
In addition to the insightful thematic essays, this valuable book brings together many fascinating photographs which place this reclusive, if at times sociable, artist in the context of his world. Central stage are the wonderful landscapes, all known examples of which are reproduced. Often experimental and always beautiful, Klimt’s
landscapes are original and imaginative and a dramatic contrast to his Viennese society portraits and opulent romantic works.
The Art of Egon Schiele, by Erwin Mitsch (Phaidon, Oxford, 1975)
At the time of its first publication, Mitsch had already spent more than 30 years as a curator at Vienna’s Albertina Museum and knew the world that had produced Schiele. The scholarship is graced by perception and humanity. The text is astute while the work is well presented in good quality plates.
Schiele, Portfolio Collection series
An informative, and informed, introductory essay is well matched by full-page reproductions of selected Schiele drawings, watercolours and paintings.