The passage of time tends to either confirm the supposed transgressions of historical figures, or absolve them thereof. But Egon Schiele, whose centenary is being celebrated at museums across the world, presents a particular lens through which to think about the line between art and exploitation.
Egon Schiele first began hosting teenage girls at his studio in Neulengbach, Austria, around 1910. About thirty miles from Vienna, he had a small painting studio with a garden out back. Boys and girls, often from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds, would come spend time there with him and his model-slash-lover Walburga Neuzil, whom he called Wally. Schiele was only twenty at the time. Wally was seventeen. The age of consent in Austria was fourteen (as it is today), and their relationship wasn’t much of a scandal. What was a scandal was Schiele’s painting the children and teenagers who came by his studio and, as would be written in his arrest warrant two years later, his “failing to keep erotic nudes in a sufficiently safe place”—that is, exposing these young people to his supposedly pornographic paintings and drawings.
In April 1912, Schiele was arrested and accused of “seducing” Tatjana Georgette Anna von Mossig. Mossig, a thirteen-year-old girl from Neulengbach whose father was an esteemed naval officer, had asked Schiele and Neuzil to take her to Vienna to live with her grandmother. Like many young people, she wanted to escape her provincial town. The artist and his lover agreed to take her, but once they got to Vienna, Mossig had a change of heart and wanted to return home. The next day, Schiele and Neuzil dutifully returned her. In the meantime, however, her father had gone to the police and filed charges of kidnapping and statutory rape against Schiele. That the young man was an artist—and one who depicted younger women—helped fuel the father’s suspicions. A third charge was leveled, too: public immorality for exposing young people to his art.
When the police came to arrest Schiele, they took around 125 of his drawings, classifying them as “degenerate”; as a symbolic gesture, a judge burned one of them in court. In total, Schiele would spend only twenty-four days in prison after the first two charges—kidnapping and statutory rape—were dropped, but the charges of degeneracy stuck, as they have stuck to his legacy.
Time has a way of either absolving or confirming the alleged transgressions of historical figures. Schiele, however, remains a particular enigma given the opposing interpretations of his art. Was he exploiting young people by depicting them pornographically, or was he questioning the nature of desire and adolescence without inflicting any harm?
Working at precisely the time that fin-de-siècle decadence and excess was giving way to prewar conservatism, Schiele found that degeneracy would become a key term in his damnation. Degeneracy, of course, was also the term that the Nazis would use to describe so much of modern art, from works by Vincent van Gogh to Paul Klee to Edvard Munch. “Degenerate races,” “degenerate sexualities”—any kind of aberration from white, heterosexual, “traditional” values and identities had already begun to be condemned by Austrian high society by the time Schiele began working. In 1905, Sigmund Freud was already trying to counter this idea as it entered the zeitgeist, writing in his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, “It may well be asked whether an attribution of ‘degeneracy’ is of any value or adds anything to our knowledge.” Freud’s implication was that accusations of degeneracy were mere political tools and had no legitimate substance. Through this lens, Schiele’s arrest in 1912 can perhaps be seen as a political statement in a changing culture more than anything else.
But while this social shift from decadence to conservatism caught Schiele in its wake, his art was exceptionally racy, even by today’s standards. Nudity is nudity, and yet when it is handled with the beautiful lines, sickly colors, and emotional evocation that Schiele achieved, it is clear to most viewers that it is also art, not pornography. Still, his apparent interest in prepubescent girls in particular gives his work a darker quality for which it is now known.
One of his favored ways of painting or drawing a model was to have her lie on a mattress on the floor. He would ascend a ladder or a step stool and depict her from above. Jane Kallir, an art dealer and curator who oversaw Schiele’s recent catalogue raisonné, argues that this method gave agency to his models.
“By omitting any surrounding detail from his drawings and frequently giving recumbent figures a vertical reading, he created a profound sense of spatial dislocation,” Kallir writes. “The resulting tension between the subject and the edge of the picture plane calls into question the ability of the latter to contain the former. Even by today’s standards, these drawings grant women an uncommon degree of sexual agency.” Kallir admits that Schiele was not “what you would call a feminist,” but then again, few men in early twentieth-century Vienna were. She also wonders whether his female models could have been empowered by his hypersexual depictions. “Is that sexuality truly a kind of superpower,” she asks, “or does feminine allure inevitably entail capitulation to the patriarchy?”
EGON SCHIELE. RECLINING NUDE GIRL IN STRIPED SMOCK, 1911. (PICTURE: © KUNSTHANDEL GIESE & SCHWEIGER, VIENNE)
By capturing a moment in which both artist and model contend with bubbling sexual tension—these undressed girls coming of age; Schiele staring literally straight down at them—his pictures were not only a stylistic revelation but a social one as well. As Hugh Hefner started Playboy after reading about Alfred Kinsey’s report that found Americans thought about and had far more sex than “traditional society” seemed to claim, so Schiele had put the underlying decadence of Viennese society on unnerving display.
And yet Schiele’s staunchest defenders tend to omit that many of the models he painted were not exactly “women” but teenage girls. In Nude Girls Reclining (1911), for instance, Schiele drew two girls, who are probably in their early teens, if not younger. One of them looks outward at the viewer while the other looks down with a blush. Their bodies are drawn sharply; their hair flows downward. It looks pornographic, as if the viewer is being invited to take sexual pleasure in these girls’ bashfulness. But there was more going on.
ÉDOUARD MANET, LUNCHEON IN THE STUDIO, 1868
At the time, the conception and artistic depiction of adolescence was undergoing a significant shift. In the Middle Ages, adults were often painted playing children’s games; children were frequently depicted in adult outfits. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that a more contemporary concept of childhood emerged, and children were shown mostly as children, as in Édouard Manet’s Luncheon in the Studio (1868). Although even in this painting the sixteen-year-old boy in the foreground sports a tie, sweater, and straw hat, as would befit a middle-aged gentleman. It really wasn’t until 1895, when Munch finished painting Puberty, in which he shows a young, naked girl covering her genitalia with crossed arms, that an adolescent was first depicted as adolescents tend to be shown now: vulnerable and undergoing “the pain of transition,” as the historian John Neubauer writes in his excellent Fin-de-Siècle Culture of Adolescence.
For their part, Schiele’s depictions of adolescence seem to stem directly from Munch’s sensibilities, which were also picked up by Die Brücke, meaning “The Bridge,” a group composed of a smattering of German Expressionists, including Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Otto Müller, and Emil Nolde. The key difference, however, between Schiele’s depiction of adolescence and that of Munch and Die Brücke is that, as Neubauer writes, “the Brücke artists portray sexuality using the face, whereas Schiele displays it at its very seat”—that is, he showed his figures’ sexual organs. Schiele was not coy.