After rave reviews and lines that wrapped around the block, Neue Galerie has given its Egon Schiele show a reprieve and extended its run until April 20. The exhibit, with an exclusive focus on the artist’s portraiture, is the first of its kind at a major U.S. museum.
Curator Alessandra Comini, who wrote her doctoral thesis at Columbia on the Austrian Expressionist’s portraits, has gathered some 125 drawings, paintings and sculptures on the third floor of the museum, a showcase for German and Austrian art. The works, most on paper with just 11 oil paintings, are organized thematically, with the music of Arnold Schoenberg wafting in the background.
Born in 1890 in a suburb of Vienna, Schiele was a rebel painter, “the James Dean of his age,” the audio tour states about the artist, who bore a striking physical resemblance to Dean (both died in their 20s). After only three years at Vienna’s conservative Academy of Fine Arts–where he precociously enrolled at age 16–Schiele and several fellow iconoclasts broke free and formed the Neukunstgruppe (New Art Group).
A protégé of the Vienna Secession’s Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), whom he idolized, Schiele made his mark in the age of Freud, Webern, Hoffmann, Loos, and Wittgenstein. His emotionally complex, psychosexually charged images, with their brilliant line, unconventional use of color and depictions of masturbation, lesbian couples and lewd behavior, set the art world on fire and got him arrested and briefly incarcerated in 1912 on a charge of public immorality.
His edgy, angular style softened in the aftermath of his imprisonment, but the exhibit is rife with paintings and drawings of elongated, emaciated, trippy figures resembling Mick Jagger (“Self-Portrait with Arm Twisted Above Head,” 1910) or Frankenstein’s monster (“Self-Portrait, Head,” 1910). The many portraits of the artist himself, an egotist and a dandy with great hair (“Self-Portrait with Peacock Waistcoat, Standing,” 1911), are a testament to his fondness for self-reference and exhibitionism—though it is true that the practice saved him the cost of hiring models.
The self-portraits, many in the nude and quite provocative, are grouped in a room alongside the Eros and Lovers sections, and together form the exhibit’s hot-button core. But with all the X-rated material on display in this gallery, it is a tame, rather bland portrait of Schiele’s wife Edith that steals the show.
And it is not just because it is a large oil painting in a room full of modest-sized, albeit very explicit, works on paper. Edith Harms, the respectable, middle-class girl whom Schiele married in 1915 after discarding his longtime model and live-in lover “Wally”, charms with her ruffled collar and prim, finely delineated striped dress, a garment that conjures up visions of Joseph’s coat of many colors. Set against an off-white void, Schiele’s wife looks doll-like and awkward, rather like a marionette waiting to be manipulated.
Edith and her family hated the painting, with her sister Adele protesting, “Why did he have to show her looking so dumb?” But the portrait with the vapid expression is considered one of Schiele’s finest.
Another masterful female likeness painted in the early stages of his career, “Portrait of Gerti Schiele” (1909), is displayed in the room devoted to family and fellow artists. A gold-bronzed, decorative tribute to his youngest sister, it presents yet another figure in an existential, empty space, this one silver-toned. The work is eerily reminiscent of Klimt’s iconic, golden portrait “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” (1907), currently residing on the 2nd floor and the subject of a new show opening at Neue Galerie on April 2, timed to coincide with the upcoming film, “Woman in Gold,” starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds. Not surprisingly, Schiele’s emulation of the master in his early years inspired the moniker “the silver Klimt.”
The adjacent gallery is filled with portraits of sitters and patrons and includes an especially endearing painting of a young boy in striped shirt and rumpled trousers (“Standing Boy in Striped Shirt,” 1910). A small side room, from which the Schoenberg emanates, is given over to his time in prison, with reproductions of the agonized watercolors Schiele completed while serving his 24-day sentence.
After Edith became pregnant in 1918, Schiele painted the mellow trio, “The Family,” with a naked mother and father sheltering a small child. (Alas, the picture could not stay until April and has been returned to its lender.) But six months into her pregnancy, Edith contracted the Spanish flu and died. Schiele perished three days later of the same malady—on the same day as his wife’s funeral, October 31, 1918.
He was only 28, a prodigy, with a career that lasted just a decade. But he is now heralded as one of the greatest artists of the last century for pushing the envelope and advancing the cause of modernism.
Make that rebel with a cause.