In the autumn of 1994, I made a trip to see an Egon Schiele retrospective at the San Diego Museum of Art; it was a rare opportunity to view a sizable body of his work without going to his native Austria. The previous comprehensive solo show to come to the United States took place in 1960, so I was very much looking forward to seeing this one.
Schiele became one of my favorite artists when, in my teens, I discovered his work through my studies of turn-of-the-century Vienna. The art of Gustav Klimt had piqued my interest in the subject, which I found as fascinating as sixties Swinging London or seventies Max’s/Mercer Arts Center/CBGB NYC. Vienna at that time was a hotbed of activity in many areas, including, most importantly for me, the visual arts. Austrian Expressionism, even its rawest examples, had a grace not present in its German counterpart, thus it was more aligned with my sensibility. This approach was due to the influence of Klimt and the Secession group, which emphasized design, ornamentation, and a cross-pollination among disciplines.
The Schiele exhibition was comprised of perhaps a dozen paintings and over sixty works on paper – drawings, gouaches, and watercolors. Although Schiele was an accomplished and ambitious painter, more notably he was one of the twentieth century’s preeminent draftsmen, and that is where the strength of his oeuvre lies. Untethered from the need to make a statement, his works on paper are more direct and immediate in their expression. With the actual work, one can see what a confident hand Schiele had – next to no erasing and very little redrawing is evident; his surety was staggering. His quality of line gave the whole an elegant framework while his use of color and masterful sense of composition, especially in the employment of negative space, heightened the intensity of his psychologically and sexually charged imagery. In the years since I saw this show, my appreciation of Schiele’s paintings and drawings has not waned; if anything, it has grown – especially for his later, more naturalistic output.
Schiele had only a little over a decade to produce his life’s work. The influenza pandemic of 1918 killed over twenty million people worldwide; Egon Schiele died on October 31, three days after Edith, his pregnant wife, succumbed to the same disease. He was twenty-eight years old.