In Hermann Hesse’s short story “The Painter,” a young artist experiences the pain of having his works shunned. Because his paintings are so unpopular, the artist becomes reclusive. He decides to stop depicting love, heroes, and celebrations in beautiful pictures that give pleasure to others. Instead, he begins painting discomfiting pictures that express his desire to “turn to nothing and sink, die, and be reborn.”
His friends become concerned with how quietly and strangely he begins speaking, how much more he is withdrawing into himself, and how much less interest he is taking in “what was lovely and important for other people.” People worry that he is going insane. But when they actually catch a glimpse of his new paintings, they discover a “spectacular genius, to be sure, an eccentric, but one who was blessed by God.” Critics pen enthusiastic reviews of his new style, and what they especially love are his incredible series of self-portraits: “We may place them,” they write, “alongside the master-pieces of psychological portrait art.”
Hesse’s dark fairy tale was most likely not written about the Austrian Expressionist Egon Schiele, but it just as well could have been. Schiele’s art can be disturbing to look at today—and it would have been all the more so for early-20th-century Viennese. Yet eventually—and mostly posthumously, for he died at 28—his paintings were appreciated for what they are: the work of a strange, idiosyncratic, eccentric genius.
Like the majority of the great painters who preceded him, Egon Schiele (1890-1918) began his artistic career by painting traditional landscapes before moving on to paint the human figure. He attracted controversy for his sexually explicit paintings of young women and men, but even those perturbing works were not the paintings with which he would stake his legacy. His idiosyncratic painterly genius was not fully revealed until he began to explore his own tormented consciousness in a series of shocking self-portraits.
They are shocking not only for how they portray the human figure, but for how they portray the human psyche. Legend has it that Isaac Luria, the great 16th-century Kabbalist, could look into a person’s face and see the sins upon the person’s soul. In this regard, Schiele was the Kabbalist of 20th-century painters. To look into his portraits, he once said, is “to look inside.” Schiele’s self-portraits not only portray his anxious psyche, they allow us to peer inside Schiele’s agonized spirit and give us a glimpse of his morbid soul.
Schiele was a disciple of Gustav Klimt, the Neue Galerie’s patron artistic saint; but whereas Klimt’s figures are idealized and almost unrealistically beautiful, Schiele’s grotesque figures—despite some clear stylistic affinities with his mentor—could not be more different.
By the 19th century, painting oneself as one really looks—“warts and all”—was no longer a revolutionary development in Western art. Schiele’s decidedly nonidealized self-portraits are unmistakably rooted in the tradition of Rembrandt and van Gogh. Even some of the Roman emperors, for a brief stretch of time after Augustus, preferred their busts to be sculpted in a nonhagiographic fashion. But whereas Rembrandt depicted his own physical flaws—deep wrinkles, tired eyes, sagging eyelids, all the thousand natural signs of age that many self-portraitists prior to Rembrandt sought to conceal—Schiele shocked (and still shocks) viewers in his unforgivingly unfavorable depiction of his own psyche.
Schiele’s brilliant yet unsettling style of portraiture is the solo act of this exhibition. The Neue Galerie has billed it as the first exhibition in an American museum to focus exclusively on Schiele’s portraits, and exclusive focus is precisely what is necessary to take in these difficult yet necessary images—over 100 in all, encompassing paintings, sketches, and sculpture. The show charts Schiele’s development from young Viennese artist who arrived on the fin de siècle art scene with the verve of an arriviste to slightly older avant-garde Austrian Expressionist who bristled at Victorian moralism and broke with painterly conventions.
The show also highlights Schiele’s portraits of family members, fellow artists, patrons, and lovers. But it is in his self-portraits that Schiele’s singular style of psychological art is most readily on display. His view of himself is of a person who is deeply, profoundly, irredeemably flawed: His hands are gnarled, his body is emaciated, his limbs are painfully contorted, his eyes are shriveled and withdrawing into the shadowy sockets of his crepuscular skull.