Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele

Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele

By Christian Kile

It is fitting that the work of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele — two artists who have come to define twentieth century Vienna before the Anschluss and who both died in 1918, the year that marked the end of the first world war and the demise of the Habsburg Empire — are being shown together in a current exhibition at the Royal Academy.

While they were fortunate to practise their art in Franz-Josef’s Vienna, where artists enjoyed great social prestige, there is no doubt that the popularity of their work in the 21st century supersedes the high regard they attained in their lifetime.

Their continuing appeal lies in their mastery of drawing and their focus on and depiction of women. So the RA exhibition, Drawings from the Albertina Museum, on these aspects of their work is welcome.

Klimt and Schiele’s draughtsmanship has saved them from the disdain meted out to much twentieth century art for being yet another example of the “the naked Emperor”: their figurative drawings whether nude, erotic or otherwise, demonstrate that they did not abandon established representation to the point where it becomes too uncomfortable, or inaccessible for a general audience.

That is not to say that the artists avoided controversy. When Klimt formed and became president of a new movement known as the Secession in 1897 he forfeited his reputation as an establishment painter.

Such was the adverse reaction to Klimt’s painting, Philosophy in conservative Viennese society that he repaid the advance he had received and took back the work. No matter that the French awarded him the gold medal for Philosophy when it was shown at 1900 World Fair in Paris!

Medicine created an even greater stir. The naked woman at the top of the picture was far removed from the traditional 19th century academic portrait. Her pose is one of total abandonment and a sketch for the figure shows how Klimt’s fine draughtsmanship achieved this: the subtle shading draws the viewer’s eye to the woman’s groin and her pubic hair.


Gustav Klimt, Medicine, 1900-1907, Oil on Canvas

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Gustav Klimt, Two Studies of a Standing Nude, 1897-1898, black chalk on paper, Albertina Museum, Vienna

What increased public outrage towards the painting was the disquieting vulnerability of the figure; completely exposed, unsupported and leaning backwards, on the verge of falling. It differs from Klimt’s preliminary drawings of the nude, which shows the model either leaning against something or lying down.

They are typical of his sketches of women: drawn in outline, he uses formal techniques, such as perspective, foreshortening and distortion that draw the viewers’ gaze to the genitalia, buttocks and breasts. They result in drawings that reveal a sexual freedom and eroticism familiar to western society today — but a world away from the repressed society of the early 1900s in which he moved.

Equally scandalous was Klimt’s depiction of female self-confident sexual awareness. In his final drawing for lust, Nuda Veritas (1902), this is conveyed in the woman’s upright stance and luxuriant hair, and was loudly decried by one profoundly shocked aristocratic patron and collector as “hideous.”


Gustav Klimt, Final drawing for ‘’Nuda Veritas’, 1898, black chalk, pencil and Indian ink on paper

However, what was once reviled now appeals in the 21st century.  “Klimt had created from Viennese women an ideal female type: modern, with a boyish figure”, observed his contemporary Berta Zuckerkandl in her memoir, I Witnessed Fifty Years of World History.

“They had a mysterious fascination; although the word ‘vamp’ was still unknown he drew women with the fascination of a Greta Garbo or a Marlene Dietrich long before they actually existed.”

The women in Klimt’s drawings are often beautiful, sometimes angular and androgynous. They are usually long-haired and long-legged, and in their nudity exude a self-assurance and power borne out of their explicit sexual allure.

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Gustav Klimt, Semi-Nude Lying Down, 1914, blue pencil on paper, Historisches Museum, Vienna

However, it is worth pointing out here that unlike his drawings, which are unashamedly erotic and peaceful and dreamy, Klimt’s paintings of women arouse mixed feelings because of their ambiguity: I have heard them described as being in a trance or even dead.

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Gustav Klimt, Woman seated with Open Thighs, 1916, pencil and chalk on paper, private collection

His overwhelmingly famous painting The Kiss is of a kneeling woman being kissed. Yet, consider the ambiguous nature of the couple’s relationship: there has been much speculation about whether there is tension between them — is her averted face a sign of resistance? Is her hand clasping his or could she be trying to remove it?

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Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, 1907-1908, oil paint and gold leaf on canvas, Belvedere Museum, Vienna

Egon Schiele is also well known for his portrait of an embrace Death and the Maiden. While Klimt, represents the transitional period at the end of the 19th century, Egon Schiele belongs in the early 20th century and his work represents the beginnings of expressionism – the art of anxiety.

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Egon Schiele, Death and the Maiden, 1915, oil on canvas, Belvedere Museum, Vienna

Klimt’s paintings often portray an inner tension that reflects the ominous atmosphere that marked the end of the fin de siècle that George Clare describes so well in his book Last Waltz in Vienna.  The artist was aware of a horror about to descend, but was reticent in acknowledging it and any feelings were internalised.

Not so Schiele: whatever horror was coming was inevitable and had to be explicitly confronted. Consequently, his work reflects an understandably tortured and anxious psyche. Self-portraits abound: he is at his most subversive as the Cardinal lover and agonized as St. Sebastian. On the other hand Klimt, steadfastly avoided self-portraits, saying that if anyone wanted to know him, they had only to study his work.

Self Portrait as St. Sebastian

Egon Schiele, Self-Portrait as St. Sebastian, pencil on paper, 1914, Private collection

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Egon Schiele, Hands, black crayon on paper, 1917, Wien Museum, Vienna

We routinely find in Schiele’s drawings of the female nude a blend of realism and distortion, and a kind of spatial dislocation that conveys a sense of disorientation. This has been interpreted as Schiele’s attempt to check raging sexual forces, not because he wants to deny or conceal these — the opposite in fact — for he is credited with being one of the only male artists to attribute female sexuality with its true power.


Egon Schiele, Seated Female Semi-Nude, 1914, pencil on paper, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Throughout his artistic career he was preoccupied with the themes of mortality, procreation and artistic transcendence, ultimately believing that only art could conquer death.


Egon Schiele, Mother and Child, 1910, pencil, watercolour and gouache, Neue Galerie New York

Klimt was the most important artist in Austria when Schiele, 28 years his junior, met him at the 1908 Kuntschau (art show), a watershed moment in the history of the turn-of-the century Viennese avant-garde. The younger man, inspired by Klimt’s 16 paintings on show, took on board the master’s style and made it into something of his own.

A year later, Klimt invited him to take part in the second Kuntschau and Schiele, who was boldly calling himself the ‘Silver Klimt’, submitted three portraits. All three contain Klimt-like ornamentation but already Schiele had done away with the abstract background favoured by Klimt, and set his figures in a void, accentuating their vulnerability.

Aged just 20, he was precocious and prolific. Like Klimt, portraits of women were the major stimulus. From 1910 onwards he produced nearly 3000 drawings and watercolours, and hundreds of oils, mainly of nudes – works for which he is renowned.

Schiele briefly produced drypoint prints – where an image is incised into a plate with a hard-pointed, sharp metal or diamond ‘needle.’ But he found the medium too time consuming when compared to drawing. For unlike Klimt, whose income derived entirely from his painting, Schiele earned most of his living from his drawings.

He had initially believed, as some of his expressionist contemporaries did, that patrons should think themselves lucky for being allowed to share in the artist’s vision, and that dealers were corrupt profiteers. Unfortunately, his sense of entitlement was misplaced and his paintings did not easily attract buyers.

In 1912 he asked Klimt for financial help, who introduced him to one of his own patrons, industrialist August Lederer. Schiele’s relationship with the family, particularly Lederer’s son Erich, who became an avid collector of his drawings and watercolours, helped him professionally, personally and artistically to mature.

Both Klimt and Schiele have escaped the fate of having private lives that overshadow and adversely affect attitudes to their work.

In the older artist’s case, the sheer ‘blockbuster’ appeal of his work ensures this, as well as the prices some of his paintings can command: his 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer sold for £73m in 2008, causing experts and the press to wonder how a Klimt could outsell a van Gogh or be more valuable than a Rembrandt. However, nowadays it is common to find twentieth century art dominating the market.

Also, mystery surrounds Klimt’s private life. We know very little about him — what we have is merely hearsay. On one hand he has been described as an unmarried lover, who has slept with all his models and fathered 14 children, and on the other hand, a confirmed bachelor and hypochondriac living in the suburbs and leading a bourgeois life! He steadfastly avoided self-portraits, saying that if anyone wanted to know him, they had only to study his work.

Schiele, on the other hand, broke prevailing social taboos. Police raided his studio in 1912 because he used underage models, destitute street children, and he was tried and jailed for a morality offence. Throughout the ordeal, he was supported by his first major muse, 17-year-old Wally Neuzil, who brought him art supplies and fresh fruit. The fact that Schiele cohabited openly with her also caused offence to the people in the neighbourhood where they lived.

Nonetheless, his paintings of children have avoided censure unlike a painting of a young girl by Balthus, Thérèse Dreaming (1938), which last year was accused of “romanticising the sexualisation of a child.” An online petition demanded its removal from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was refused.

One can only think that Schiele’s charisma and mastery of the human form, accomplished in 12 years, before his early death at the age of 28 in the flu epidemic of 1918 trump everything.

Klimt and Schiele are connected not only by their consummate draughtsmanship and the time in which they lived but also by their artistic conviction, encapsulated by the Secession movement’s motto: ‘To each age its art, to art its freedom.’


The RA Exhibition opened on 4th November 2018 and runs until 3rd February 2019


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