6. Egon Schiele’s gaze, and his models

My Dr. Robert Forrest – MD FRCS (Plast) – is a discerning soul, a cosmetic surgeon with a finical aesthetic sense, and some very precise tastes in everything from suits and antiques to single malt whisky. As such, everything that’s present in his apartment is there for a reason. And on his bedroom wall is Egon Schiele’s Semi-Nude Girl Reclining (left; 1911, gouache, watercolour, and pencil with white heightening.)
It so happens I’ve seen this painting for myself at the magnificent Albertina Museum in Vienna, which offers especially splendid representation of art from around 1900. I was on my honeymoon, as it happens – a blissful time, and thus especially good for contemplating art that in less contented moments could be rather disturbing.
In my great ignorance, until then, I had thought of Schiele as rather a pale shadow of his idol Gustav Klimt (a fellow alumnus of Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts, who duly became one of Schiele’s major supporters.) I needed to see a great swathe of his work, superbly curated and in the right setting, in order to appreciate his genius. The body was Schiele’s subject, almost exclusively, and his style – the slender/angular limbs, the whip-thin serpentine torsos, the challenging elfin faces and of course the unabashed sexual anatomy – seems both highly classical and inimitably his.
Of course, in art history Schiele’s name also spells Danger. His biography speaks of a youthful semi-incestuous relationship with his sister and, in his early twenties, a month spent in jail for ‘public immorality’ after he and his then-muse Wally Neuzil made his studio in Neulengbach, west of Vienna, a lightning-rod for the teenage girls of the town.
I knew that much in Vienna – was unaware, however, that Schiele and his pregnant wife Edith were claimed by the great influenza pandemic of 1918. One can only wonder what might have been.
That danger in Schiele’s tastes is well conveyed in the short clip below from near the start of Herbert Vesely’s 1980 film Egon Schiele: Excess and Punishment. The clip also says something of the extraordinary look – the gaze – his models seemed to show him in turn. Its content is not graphic/explicit but also not, as they say, for Minors.

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