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 perhaps unfairly 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?”
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.
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.
During this brief period from about 1895 to 1920, adolescence was viewed as a period of transition in a way that came to be representative of the Austro-German political climate at large. Schiele took the provocative depiction of vulnerability that was voguish at the time a step further by depicting some of his figures exposed. But his fundamental conception of adolescence was—like Die Brücke—intrinsically linked to politics. In Schiele’s time, adolescence was, in many ways, only beginning to be conceived of as a fundamentally different stage than adulthood. It is the quintessential error of the armchair historian to assume a contemporary mindset necessarily applies to the past. And here, an understanding of that fallacy is vital in determining what was the thematic exploration of a new life stage and what was exploitation.
Schiele’s popular quick, single-take drawings, like Nude Girls Reclining, weren’t merely passive vessels for the male gaze. His nude models—often depicted as staring out at the viewer with a mix of sensuality and trepidation—are indeed a locus of tension. But rather than be simply pornographic, his works require the viewer to question his or her desires much as the artist questioned his own. “Have adults forgotten how corrupt, sexually driven and aroused they were as children?” Schiele once wrote. “Have they forgotten how the frightful passion burned and tortured them when they were children? I have not forgotten, for I have suffered terribly under it.” He died when he was still quite young, in 1918, at age twenty-eight, of the Spanish flu. His last words, allegedly, were Der Krieg ist aus, und ich muss geh’n: “The war is over, and I must go.”
We all have our demons, our tensions, our underlying destructiveness. Schiele used his in his art in order to criticize what he saw as an exceptionally hypocritical society, overtaken by a new movement that cast sexuality as immoral, deviant, and degenerate. From this perspective and the way in which he considered adolescence not only in political terms but as a fundamentally new life stage to be explored, Schiele’s work, paradoxically, is perhaps more morally justifiable than the historical context in which he lived.
However, in the past few years in particular, museums that exhibit Schiele’s art have generally felt compelled to include revised placards or wall texts that warn of the controversy around his personal life. A wall text at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for instance, which had a dual exhibition of Schiele and his mentor, Gustav Klimt, earlier this year, read: “Recently, Schiele has been mentioned in the context of sexual misconduct by artists, of the present and the past. This stems in part from specific charges (ultimately dropped as unfounded) of kidnapping and molestation.” At a Schiele retrospective at the Albertina Museum in Vienna that ended in June of last year, the curator explained that viewers are meant to feel slightly disturbed by the works, as this is part of their power to subvert; they’re meant to make one think about one’s own desires and relationships to social taboos. “Whereas Schiele depicted boys without any attempt at eroticization, he did sexualize his female nudes,” one wall text reads.
The representation of the female body is always erotic and seems to establish a rapport with the observer, as if a secret pact had been struck between the young seductress and the seduced spectator. In these nudes, everything is arranged to achieve the effect that its contemplation was intended to trigger. Defiantly breaking the taboos of the day, these works show the repressed sexuality of children in an openly aggressive manner.
This year marks the centenary of Schiele’s death. I made my way to two European shows on Schiele. The first was at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. The show, arranged by Suzanne Pagé (the museum’s artistic director) and Dieter Buchhart (the curator), contains over a hundred of Schiele’s works and runs concurrent with a Jean-Michel Basquiat retrospective. Pagé and Buchhart do not apologize for Schiele. The focus of the show is on his style, not on accusations against his personhood. The exhibition is arranged chronologically, and the wall text encourages us to think about how his use of lines shifted throughout his career.
Another recently opened Schiele exhibition, at the Leopold Museum in Vienna, goes further. Rather than apologize for the controversy, the show implicitly defends the artist’s treatment of women. One wall text reads:
Schiele showed women to be more than just projections for passions by assigning them diverse roles, allowing them to sound out their own inner lives and presenting sexuality with the greatest possible frankness. His renderings of women are characterized by the quest for truth.
The text also claims that the models depicted “are aware of their own feelings,” underscoring the sense of agency referred to by Kallir. Schiele’s works at the Leopold exhibition are juxtaposed with those of contemporary feminist artists like Louise Bourgeois and Sarah Lucas in what seems to be an attempt to contextualize his work as, perhaps surprisingly, a kind of early feminism. Schiele’s art, writes Verena Gamper, the director of the Egon Schiele Documentation Center at the Leopold, held up “motherhood as the archetypal image of the most intimate bond.” “Traumatic separation,” she adds, “is strongly interwoven with an approximation of sexuality and death, the mainsprings of life.”
Other important defenses of Schiele have been aggressively mounted. Late last year, in anticipation of the centenary of Schiele’s death, the Viennese tourist board launched a series of advertisements on Facebook and on billboards across Cologne, Hamburg, London, and New York in which the artist’s nude portraits were censored with phrases that condemn the censorship. (On Facebook, and in all of the aforementioned cities except New York, nudity is forbidden in advertisements even if it’s in paintings or drawings. Only one uncensored nude Schiele mural has made it into the public world: on Spring and Lafayette Streets in New York.) On one billboard, which shows Schiele’s Girl with Orange Stockings (1914), the phrase “Sorry, 100 years old, but still too daring today” is written across the girl’s private parts, hiding them. On others, the hashtag #DerKunstihreFreiheit— “ToArtItsFreedom”—is written above the work, with a bar censoring the girls’ genitalia.
In the 1964 Jacobellis v. Ohio case, which ruled on the line between art and obscenity (specifically in regard to the Louis Malle film The Lovers), Justice Potter Stewart famously stated of pornography, “I know it when I see it.” Although a number of Schiele’s works are sexually explicit, with figures’ legs and vaginas spread, they are not strictly pornographic. This does not absolve them of their potentially exploitative nature, but it does serve to make the discussion more complex.
It is a hyper-narrow view to see his works as solely about sexuality, as these current exhibitions have done well to mention. In Eros (1911), for instance, Schiele draws a self-portrait in which he is hunched over, looking ill, with his swollen, red penis taking up much of the frame. It is an intentional reference to his supposed degeneracy. The real decrepitude, he seems to say, is not in his art but in the world. Schiele’s works reflected his time, and to censor him is to ignore both history and the devious desires we all have. By putting these dark longings out in the open, Schiele helped zap them of their power.
Perhaps not every work of art that touches on morally objectionable subjects is itself objectionable. Humbert Humbert’s morality is not Lolita’s morality. One can depict something horrid without endorsing the horror. Art is a way of contending with life, even, or especially, in its shadiest corners. If we cannot face ourselves in art, then we cannot face ourselves at all—and that is a prospect far more dangerous than any drawing.
Cody Delistraty is a writer and critic in Paris.