Breaking the Code:
Jane Kallir Deciphers
Egon Schiele’s Images of Women
The story of how Egon’s parents got together was typical for those times. When his father Adolf was 23 he fell in love with twelve-year-old Marie but waited till she was seventeen to marry her. Having contracted syphilis some time before then and refusing to have it treated, Adolf soon gave it to his new wife. Because of complications from her conjugally acquired venereal disease, Egon’s mother suffered three stillbirths before she had her first live baby, Elvira, whose later death probably resulted from the syphilis passed on to her at birth.
By the time Egon was twelve, his ill father’s behavior had become unpredictable and violent, symptoms of his end-stage syphilis. On one occasion, the increasingly erratic man “set fire to all of [his son’s] carefully executed railroad car drawings.”2
“Following a final fit of madness that involved a suicide attempt and the burning of all of the family’s stock certificates,”3 Egon’s father died. The relief that the fourteen-year-old boy must have felt could not have lasted long. The uncle enlisted by his mother to share guardianship of her two minor children (Egon and Gertrude), forbade the talented child from pursuing an art career.
Egon’s school performance had suffered greatly during his father’s decline and, after another couple of years of lackluster grades, the young teenager left school under threat of being held back. In 1906 his mother, against his uncle’s dictates, enrolled Egon in the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, where the rebellious sixteen-year-old who had been drawing independently for many years, collided with the regimentation of its classic academy curriculum, though not before acquiring some useful drawing techniques.To qualify for admission to the Academy, Egon submitted portraits of women he encountered in his day-to-day world: his older sister, his mother and a maid. The style was not unlike Portrait of a Lady in Profile Facing Right (1907), one of his student drawings. At seventeen, Egon drew with the confidence and skill of a master, able to capture subtleties of texture, from the model’s fur wrap to her smooth, young skin.
After two years of butting heads with one professor in particular, Egon stopped regular attendance at the Academy and sought other sources of inspiration. He had plenty to choose from, gravitating toward Gustav Klimt and his fellow Austrian Expressionists, as well as a bevy of other contemporary artists breaking new ground elsewhere in Europe.Fifteen years later another young man with a taste for Expressionism opened the Neue Galerie in Vienna with “the first posthumous Egon Schiele retrospective.”4 During the years that this gallerist, Otto Kallir, maintained his exhibition space, he continued to champion Schiele and his cohorts. When Hitler’s invasion of Austria forced Kallir to emigrate to the United States in 1939, he set up shop in Manhattan, opening the Galerie St. Etienne with Hildegard Bachert.5
When Otto died in 1978, his granddaughter Jane Kallir inherited not just the gallery but also a passion for the art of Austrian and German Expressionists, especially that of Egon Schiele, about whom she has written tomes. The publication of her latest volume, Egon Schiele’s Women , a coffee-table-sized book lavishly illustrated with over 200 high-quality reproductions of the artist’s drawings and paintings, was well timed to coincide with the similarly titled exhibition at Galerie St. Etienne .
In the book and the essay accompanying the exhibit’s checklist, Kallir positions Schiele within the particular milieu that was turn-of-the-twentieth-century Vienna, where Darwin’s theory of evolution, Freud’s uncovering of the unconscious, and women’s new opportunities for participation outside the home (thanks to industrialization) threatened the previously entrenched patriarchy. The backlash unleashed by the established order in reaction to those threats still reverberates down through the decades, blinding investigators in all fields to a reality possible in Viennese (and all other) families that for a while Freud and some colleagues could not ignore.
In 1896, the founder of psychoanalysis presented an earthshaking paper “The Aetiology of Hysteria”6 to an audience of esteemed Viennese doctors, in which he described eighteen case histories of mostly women whose symptoms now fit the criteria for post-traumatic stress and dissociative disorders. “[A]t the bottom of every case of hysteria there are one or more occurrences of premature sexual experiences…[that] belong to the earliest years of childhood,”7 he declared, going on to say that in most cases the aggressor was the father. (Emphasis in original.)
Cowed by the ostracism such blasphemy engendered, Freud soon began backtracking and within a few years had repudiated his original observations. In its place grew his convoluted theory of infant sexuality, part of which entailed the girl child’s lusting after her father and developing sexual fantasies about him, the later repression of which during adolescence accounted for her acute psychological distress. On a parallel track, other doctors had determined that children were, by nature, pathological liars, effectively eliminating the need for adults to pay any attention to reports of childhood sexual assault.
Kallir references a variety of other contemporary writers who likewise endeavored to demonize women’s sexuality. Some believed the female sex’s primal nature–a morass of urges that had to be contained–to be the antithesis of male’s rationality. Others insisted that proper bourgeois women had no interest in sex at all, relegating such desires to the lower classes. One popular belief held that premarital masturbation by women led to neuroses.
By sequestering adolescent upperclass girls, society protected the guarantee of their virginity, if not necessarily the fact of it. Boys like Egon, who were denied sexual access to them until reaching sufficient financial maturity to marry (usually in their mid-twenties) could in the meantime avail themselves of prostitutes. Demand drove supply and Vienna became “the capital of European prostitution,”8 with women of the lower classes filling the many openings created by the myth of the asexual bourgeois female. Within that societal context and his more immediate family environment, Egon traversed his adolescence.
Once the teenager left the Academy, he needed to secure his own models. At home, continuing his habit of using family members as subjects, he turned to his vulnerable younger sister. By the time she was thirteen, Gerti had become her older brother’s favorite model, frequently posing for him in the nude. Commenting on the siblings’ relationship, Kallir described the way the publicly shy artist would bully his sister: “In the morning he was at her bedside, clock in hand, to wake her. At the count of three she had to be up and ready to pose.”9Egon also used his power over Gerti to force her company on train rides around the Austro-Hungarian Empire, perks he enjoyed by virtue of his family’s employment by the railroad. In one of their several trips to Trieste, sixteen-year-old Egon checked into his parents’ honeymoon hotel with twelve-year-old Gerti.10
In connection with that jaunt, Kallir raised the question of incest, defining it vaguely as behavior that “went beyond the realm of what would today be considered permissible, or resulted in any overtly sexual escapades.”11 A four-year age difference and a male’s gender advantage enabled Egon to enjoy a control over something/somebody in his life that had heretofore been unattainable. Whether that included actual sexual contact with Gerti remains unknown, but it’s clear that Egon abused the authority he had over his younger sister for his own gratification. Poor Gerti. One also has to wonder what precious possession she might have lost to the out-of-control father who could destroy his son’s prized drawings and his wife’s major means of financial support.Other sources of models for Schiele included street urchins and prostitutes, and–in exchange for an oil portrait of a gynecologist at a women’s clinic–pregnant women and their babies. Among several of those works on display at the exhibit, Pregnant Woman (1910) stood out for its geometricity and idiosyncratic use of color: the circle of the abdomen contrasts with the right angles of the arms; the green wash of the face and belly complement the red orange of the breasts and arms; and the brown of her stockings relates to that of her hair.
Schiele captured his subject with her arms stretched out to the sides, handless forearms dangling. Her head droops onto her shoulder, her heavy-lidded eyes roll upwards and reveal space under the pupils, suggestive of a trance/hypnotic/drugged state. The artist disappeared the setting, focusing all attention on the exposed woman who might have been premedicated in advance of an examination and now found herself visited by some strange young man with paper and paint.Girls willing to model for some change were easy enough for Schiele to come by in lower-class neighborhoods throughout the city. Part of a series depicting a pair of black-haired girls he hired to pose for him, the pencil drawing Nude Girl with Arms Raised (1910) epitomizes the command that Schiele exercised over his line.
In this sketch, the artist confidently traced the contour of his subject’s body and added marks to sparely indicate nipples, navel, facial features and pubis. By drawing extra lines to darken the eyes and pubic hair, Schiele set them off as brackets for the torso. By having the young girl lift her arms, he assured the viewer visual access to her body. Compositionally, Schiele managed to suggest his model’s thighs, bent knees and lower limbs by discontinuing her legs just short of the bottom edge of the page, and picking them up again at her left ankle and foot.
Because he was only twenty, Schiele’s predilection for young girls as models might seem less jarring than had he been a seasoned artist, but it still highlights the disparity in status between male and female, bourgeois and working class. Kallir makes a case for the artist’s being motivated by both his own natural curiosity about sex (he was still developmentally an adolescent) and his desire to overturn conventional mores by placing women’s sexuality on an equal footing with men’s, thus liberating them at least pictorially.
Kallir also acknowledges the discomfiting nature of most of Schiele’s images of women, including later ones of his lover, his wife and other portrait sitters. Unlike Schiele’s mentor, the older Klimt, whose “numerous meaningful romantic affairs”12 gave him firsthand experience with women’s sexual practices and informed his own erotic drawings, the much younger artist could only draw on his limited exposure: what he had witnessed in his family, any dalliances with models and prostitutes that he might have had, and the prevailing ideas about women gleaned from the misogynistic society in which he lived.
By whatever route, Schiele arrived at a unique graphic form, especially evident in his figurative work. Kallir, in her opening night gallery talk, observed the care with which the artist constructed each piece. Every element, including his signature, was precisely placed on the sheet so that negative space would be part of the overall composition and there would be spatial balance in relationship to the surrounding edges of the page.13Schiele’s singular sense of composition is evident in Girl with Black Hair (1911), where concentric arcs emanate from an ambiguous area that might be a view of pubic hair through a slit in an undergarment of some sort or simply the artist’s perception of a woman’s genitals. They radiate upwards from there, encompassing the lower and upper perimeter’s of the model’s skirt and big black hair.
Schiele left out his model’s arms except for a sliver of her right one–the shape of which echoes that of the dark and light areas that define the skirt–and amputated her legs below the knees. Typical of his drawings of that period, the eyes lack pupils, only hinted at here by a grey-green wash. Although his composition targets her sex, and her facial expression could be read as aroused (parted red lips and vacant gaze), something about the absence of limbs and oddness of her crotch repels rather than attracts.Not all of Schiele’s depictions of females oozed sexuality. The same year he was churning out titillating images, he was also applying his prodigious drawing skills to other portrayals of women. In one, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (1911), he used pencil on tan paper that was either dark at the time or has since darkened, making it difficult to see even in the well-lighted gallery.
To the grown Schiele, his mother still loomed large, much like she did when he was small. He positioned the almost-fifty-year-old widow considerably above eye level so that she looks down her nose at the viewer (and artist), and crowded her onto the page, letting the upper edge clip off the very top of her coiffure.
With sensitively rendered lines, Schiele economically indicated his subject’s form, bearing down more with his pencil when outlining the head and hair. The shadowy reflections on the glasses, which give the eyes a skeletal quality, and the corpselike way the hands rest on the chest combine to create a sepulchral mood.Despite the rapidity with which Schiele executed his works on paper, the marks and their placement indicate careful deliberation prior to execution. The effect of the pencil lines in Lady with Hat and Coat (1911) differs from that in the sketch of his mother, the face of which lacks the youthful smoothness found in that of the younger woman.
In depicting the model in Lady with Hat and Coat, Schiele outsized her head, eliminated her limbs except for a slight indication of arms and, with a line that retraces itself (quite different from the sure way he traced the clothing in Portrait of the Artist’s Mother), outlined her dress. Her head and torso seem to belong to two different women, creating tension between them.
Here again Schiele called attention to the face, this time by framing it with the brim of a hat and delicately smudging pencil around the eyes, the most alluring parts of the portrait. A few dark lines form the pupils and reserve the tone of the paper for their highlights. With shading and a couple of marks above the proper right nostril, a nose appears. The only other filled-in area is the carefully drawn mouth that, with the eyes and brows, contributes to the overall intensity with which the subject stares in the general direction of her observer.
Schiele, along with the other Expressionists, challenged the traditional passivity of the female model, giving her an active role in relationship to her audience and/or herself. In an age when peeling away surfaces in the quest for new knowledge brought breakthroughs in many of the sciences, including the development of psychoanalysis, Schiele and his cohorts sought to express the unconscious in visual form.Schiele’s choices of subject, medium and style reflected his determination to include in his work pieces of himself as well as a deeper truth about his subjects. In The Red Host (1911) he let it all hang out. A realistically rendered portrait of his penis, maintained erect by the obliging woman who grasps it tightly at its base, invites the viewer to reflect on–among other mysteries–how he managed to pose and draw at the same time.
The erection points to the man’s head–tilted all the way to his right–and to his face, with its slightly parted lips and heavy-lidded eyes, one of which rolls upwards to his left while the other looks straight ahead (to the mirror? to the viewer?). The expression, which could be one of sexual arousal, seems more unhappy than orgasmic.
While the man is covered from the waist up (and ankles down), the woman’s body is exposed; cut off below the navel, she’s been robbed of her own organ of pleasure. Her face, with red wash around the eyes and on her cheek bones, looks less flushed from pleasure than from physical exertion–like Atlas holding up the world.
Already 21 when he painted this watercolor, Schiele revealed a sexual angst that had its roots in the repressive culture in which he lived and the chaotic home in which he was raised, watching his syphilitic father go mad and die from a sexually transmitted disease. Surely Schiele must have feared the same fate would befall him. The conflict between the young man’s own natural desires and the anxiety and shame attached to sexuality impacted not just his artistic production but also his relationships with women.The same year that he painted The Red Host, Schiele hired Wally Neuzil to model for him. Four years younger than Schiele (same as Gerti), Wally soon became his lover and muse, and later his assistant.
The connection they shared is evident in Wally in Red Blouse with Raised Knees (1913). Wally insists on watching the man who renders her form on paper, straining against the pose he has set for her. To make visual contact with him, she must fight against her lowered head, raise her eyelids and force her pupils to their far right corners, yet she insists on doing it. Her furrowed-brow expression of pique and unsmiling mouth challenge her demanding partner, who paints her as the dynamic woman he sees.
Wally’s unusual position (torso and upper legs at a right angle, as if seated) brings to mind Kallir’s observation that Schiele was known to pose his models in a vertical position then flip the paper and sign his name in its new horizontal orientation, or vice versa.14 Wally in Red Blouse with Raised Knees makes sense either way.
In addition to playing these compositional games, Schiele masterfully deployed color to convey emotions. The dominant orange-red of this watercolor with its touches of red on the sleeves of Wally’s blouse, and the golden brown of her hair that repeats the tone of her shoes/slippers, combine to deliver a feeling of warmth. With an outline and wash fill, Schiele convincingly established the sheerness of her bloomers and in similar fashion used a solid orange-red on the garters, which relates them to the blouse and, by contrasting them to the orange wash of the stockings, implies their transparency.
Had Egon and Wally lived in another time and place, they could have rode off into the sunset together. But when Schiele found himself reaching the age where he could choose a wife, he looked across the street rather than in his studio in search of appropriate marriage material. Despite his rebellious spirit, he remained a product of his era, though the subsequent difficulty with which he let go of Wally showed he was not without some heartache at having to discard her.
To properly court Edith and her older sister Adele, attractive and available young women living nearby, he enlisted Wally as a chaperone. Ultimately choosing the flirtatious Edith, Schiele wed her in 1915, then three days later was called up for service in the army. In a familiar scenario, Egon dragged his unhappy wife along with him to wherever he was stationed.
Unlike Wally, Edith wasn’t interested in shedding her clothes whenever her husband felt like drawing or painting her in the nude, although on the few occasions when she did succumb to his demands, she posed in the same sexually provocative manner as did his other models. None of those works appeared in the exhibit but a couple are in the book.In Woman Holding Flower (Edith Schiele) (1915), the artist portrayed his wife gently holding the stem of a wilted flower, leaning into the picture from the left with her body swaying in a reverse S curve. Anxious, retraced lines define the contours of her textured jacket but surer ones denote her expressive hands. Her eyes, out of convergence and with lowered lids, fall short of direct confrontation with the viewer. Wearing a striped dress that reappears in many of Schiele’s pictures of her, Edith takes a far more active stance in Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Standing, with Hands on Hips (1915). In this drawing, her eyes open wide and stare straight ahead. Her lowered brows and thin, drawn-back lips signal annoyance; the upright posture and hands on hips announce her impatience. Schiele demonstrates his talent for conveying attitude while Edith obliges with plenty of it. The rag-doll-like appearance, enhanced by button eyes,15 of the couple in Embrace (Egon and Edith Schiele) (1916) belong to a style Schiele developed a few years earlier and increasingly employed in his figurative work. As he matured, he also showed interest in three-dimensionality, able to convincingly suggest solidity with just a few lines.
In Embrace, the ambiguous lines marking where the artist’s arms and hands find the woman he holds barely define the action in that area. A three-pronged extension of what might be his left arm could be a hand, but a superimposed darker mark directs the eye to a position more consonant with the embrace of the drawing’s title. The woman, Edith, rests her chin on a right hand, which can’t comfortably be hers and clasps her legs from under the knees with her right hand, barely indicated by a continuous line that goes on to create a wrist.
Schiele drew quickly but each line carried thoughtful intent. The closely spaced parallel lines of his forehead repeat in a patch of Edith’s hairline, in her ear/earring, the hand immediately under it, her three fingers, and the pattern on her skirt, linking them graphically. With his head, the man’s arms form an equilateral triangle that subsumes within it the woman’s head and upper body, enveloping her in a symbiotic embrace.
Despite the ferocity with which Schiele attempted to hang on to Edith, they were often separated by military orders that took him away from Vienna. Although in the beginning she had joined him as he was moved from one isolated outpost to another, she reached her limit and ultimately stayed behind in the city.
In 1917 with the help of an influential art dealer, Schiele was able to permanently return to Vienna to much lighter military duties, allowing him to devote more time to his career. Despite the cloud of war that continued to hover, he found supporters and a market for his work. The improved finances from his sudden success allowed him to hire professional models and with growing acceptance by the bourgeoisie and with his own maturation, his style evolved into a more traditional realism. The antithesis of his earlier adolescent work, the nudes from the period 1917-18 are his best known, most coveted and least radical.16In one of the more sexually explicit works on the gallery walls, Reclining Woman (1918) demonstrates Schiele’s gravitating toward a more conventional depiction of bodies. Using shading as well as his characteristic line, he continued to delight and confuse the viewer with such touches as the lady’s right thumb disappearing into a line related to the collar of her shirt. While her torso hasn’t been allocated enough space for its full volume, the artist has tricked the viewer’s eye into believing in its full existence.
All parts of the model have been equally developed, with her face getting as much attention as her crotch, the dark shaded hair of which parallels that of her tresses. By fixing her gaze on something of great interest off to her right, she disengages herself from the activity of her body, which seductively displays its privates to anyone present.Despite the solidity with which Schiele constructed the figure in Reclining Woman with Green Stockings (1917), she remains an exercise in rhythmic design. An S curve begins with her face, continues down her right upper arm to its elbow, slides over onto her right buttock, descends to her right thigh and sweeps along her stockinged leg to her shoe. The lower part of her right arm–which disappears beneath her left calf–emerges at the wrist and hand, and points upward to form a continuous contour with her torso. It then loops back around via her camisole strap to her face, directing the eye to the bent arm that supports her weight, the angle of which parallels that of the hooked leg.
The model, who makes eye contact with the viewer, exists nowhere in space. Yet the manner in which the weight of her body rests on her left elbow and the calf of her left leg flattens as though pressing down against something, strongly implies a floor and by extension, a horizon line. Schiele has engaged the viewer as an active participant in completing the construction of his composition.
As his renown spread, Schiele began to get portrait commissions from women, where in the past they had come mostly from men. One of several sketches he did of the Steiner family, Portrait of a Woman (Lilly Steiner) (1918), doesn’t spare the subject from the artist’s piercing gaze. Steiner’s lowered lids and brows coupled with her pursed lips give the appearance of anger. Here again Schiele positions one eye looking straight ahead and the other fixed on something to her left, effectively creating movement in an otherwise static, two-dimensional image.
With just a few lines depicting his sitter’s shoulders and the sleeves of her garment, Schiele leads the observer to imagine her upper body and arms. Ever conscious of the overall design, he has posted his signature at the base of Steiner’s left sleeve, just below its lowest lacy curl.
Throughout his artistic life, Schiele never gave up his fascination with women’s identity as sexual beings. Even as his younger, idiosyncratic linear style gave way to a more evolved volumetric one, he continued to churn out paintings and drawings of nudes exposing themselves. Fewer of those were on view at Galerie St. Etienne but the reader of the book, Egon Schiele’s Women, from which this exhibit was drawn, will find many tantalizing examples of the shameless ways in which this artist could position a model.
With the death of Gustav Klimt in February of 1918, Schiele moved into his former mentor’s spot as leading artist of Austria. For Egon and Edith, life was good. With prosperity they were able to live well; the artist could rent a larger studio. When his wife became pregnant early in 1918 with their first child, Schiele was inspired to meditate artistically on mothers and babies.
Beginning in the winter of 1918, a worldwide flu pandemic began a devastation that lasted several years, took the lives of upwards of fifty million people, and sickened many others. In October, Edith succumbed to it and just a few days later on October 31st Egon, already ill, followed her. The passing of this brilliant artist who, at 28, had barely entered his prime, left the world a little dimmer and robbed it of the promise of the boy who had always wanted to draw.
1 Unless otherwise indicated, all biographical information comes from Jane Kallir, Egon Schiele’s Women (New York: Prestel Publishing), 2012.
2 Alessandra Comini, Egon Schiele (New York: George Braziller, Inc.), 1976, 11.
3 Kallir, Egon Schiele’s Women, 39.
4 “A Brief History of the Galerie St. Etienne.” Fields of Study / About. Galerie St. Etienne website, accessed November 18, 2012. http://www.gseart.com/.
6 Sigmund Freud, “The Aetiology of Hysteria,” trans. James Strachey, in The Assault on Truth by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (New York: Viking Penguin, 1984).
7 Ibid, 271.
8 Kallir, Egon Schiele’s Women, 83.
9 Ibid, 54.
10 Comini, Egon Schiele, 11.
11 Kallir, Egon Schiele’s Women, 77.
12 Eric R. Kandel, The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present (New York: Random House, 2012), 91.
13 Jane Kallir, Gallery Talk, October 23, 2012.
Egon Schiele’s Women
The Galerie St. Etienne 
24 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019
Egon Schiele’s Women  by Jane Kallir
Available at the gallery and online.