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Life Arts

Egon Schiele: Portraits at Neue Galerie

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In 1963, Dr. Alessandra Comini saw a small exhibit of Austrian Expressionists. It was her first time viewing the work of Egon Schiele. She described it as "an apocalypse that changed my life." It put Comini on a path to becoming one of the foremost scholars on Schiele and his oeuvre. Now, at the Neue Galerie through January 2015, Comini has organized an exhibition of Schiele portraits. Roughly 125 drawings, paintings, and sculptures comprise the show.

I had the opportunity to interview Comini on-site at the Neue Galerie, and learned the back story of her journey. Comini related the impact of first seeing the artist's work. She said of Schiele, "I never saw anybody so frank. He had a searing drawing style. In his content, there was a baring of his soul."

Comini reached out to Schiele's sisters by mail, and they responded to her inquiries within two weeks. Traveling to Austria, empowered by her fluency in German, she visited the village of Neulengbach where Schiele had been imprisoned in April 1912. Imprinted in her mind, Comini had a visual image of the drawings Schiele had made of his cell during his days of incarceration. Comini sought out the small room with the carved initials of MH, which had belonged to a previous prisoner. She recognized the hallway from drawings of a standing mop and bucket.

Although there were efforts to deter Comini from entering the District Courthouse, which housed the former prison, she slipped in after being turned away. Following a set of stairs down into the cellar, she located Cell #2, where Schiele had been. Everything was identical to Schiele's imagery, except for a wooden beam that had begun to sag. Comini was the first person to locate and visit Schiele's jail cell, and she documented the moment with "an old rolleiflex camera."

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Comini views Schiele's imprisonment as a turning point in both his art and his development as a person. He had been arrested on charges of kidnapping and raping a minor. Schiele was cleared of those allegations, but found guilt of "immorality for public display of indecent imagery."

During those days of imprisonment, Schiele did his first self-portraits without a mirror. Comini stated that he went from "agony to empathy--maturing."

Central to Comini's conception of the exhibition is a room devoted to recreating Schiele's prison experience. Presented is documentation of the physical space where Schiele was locked up, works on paper, and a small sculpture of a head he made out of bread. Comini specifically chose a composition by Arnold Schöenberg to be the auditory component of the room's experience. Schöenberg was part of Schiele's circle of creatives and intellectuals in Vienna, and would be a subject of a portrait in 1917.

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(Image by Neue Gallerie)   Permission   Details   DMCA

Portrait of the Composer Arnold Schönberg, 1917
Watercolor, gouache, and black crayon

Rather than present the works chronologically, Comini chose to hang the show delineating them by categories. The six groups are: Family and Academy; Fellow Artists; Sitters and Patrons; Lovers; Eros; Self-Portraits and Allegorical Self-Portraits.

Upon entering the exhibit, there is a large photo of Schiele. To the right, a long hallway with Schiele's personal and artistic timeline leads directly to an open view of his painting, Portrait of the Artist's Wife, Standing.

Schiele was born in 1890, in a suburb of Vienna. At the age of sixteen, he was accepted at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, where he was the youngest student enrolled. In 1907, he began a lifetime friendship with Gustav Klimt, who would mentor and influence him. The following year Schiele was included in his first group show, where his images were seen by the collector Heinrich Benesch, who became a patron and friend.

Klimt invited Schiele to exhibit four paintings at the 1909 "Internationale Kunstschau." A dissatisfaction with the old guard led Schiele and other artists to form what they termed Neukunstaruppe--the "New Art Group." At this time, Schiele met the art critic Arthur Roessler, who evolved into a friend, subject, patron, and biographer. Roessler would publish an article on Schiele's first solo exhibit in Vienna.

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By the age of twenty, Schiele had found his voice and personal style. He largely concentrated on self-portraits, which he posed for in front of his mother's full-length mirror.

The first ten works in the "Family and Academy" room testify to Schiele's ability as a classical draftsman. Comini suggested that three of the works in this grouping "encapsulated" Schiele's career. Portrait of Gerti Schiele is clearly indebted to the impact of Klimt, specifically in the richly patterned areas of the subject's dress.

His 1916 watercolor, gouache, and pencil on paper portrait of his father-in-law, Johann Harms, bear the signature markings and iconography that would become identified with Schiele. Specifically, the focus on the hands, knuckles accentuated with sienna and touches of blue--motifs that are repeated in the face.

It is in the oil painting of Harms that a post-prison darkened palette is reflected, with what Comini called "a milder environment."

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Marcia G. Yerman is a writer, activist, artist and curator based in New York City. Her articles--profiles, interviews, reporting and essays--focus on women's issues, the environment, human rights, the arts and culture. Her writing has been (more...)

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