The current Egon Schiele: Portraits exhibition at the Neue Galerie, running through January 19, 2015, is an instructive and inspiring occasion for those of us fascinated by the role of portraiture in Austrian and German art from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (The gallery knows this, too: a smaller exhibition, Austrian Portraiture in the Early Twentieth Century, with fine work by Klimt, Richard Gerstl, and others, accompanies the Schiele show in the same building.) Like the Met’s Glitter and Doom German Portraits from the 1920s of 2006, it is a unique opportunity to examine the crisis of subjectivity in early Modernism from the idiosyncratic perspective of Vienna from approximately 1890 to 1918.
Perhaps crisis is too strong a word. “Reappropriation” may be more like it. The 125 items in the Schiele exhibition offer a variety of perspectives on bourgeois, erotic, and self-portraiture, powerfully questioning the very basis of subjectivity in fin-de-siecle Vienna — a Vienna, as I wrote recently, permeated with the explorations of Freud in psychology, Schnitzler and Musil in literature, Schoenberg and Webern in music. Portraiture and self-portraiture may well have been one of the earliest forms of visual art, even in the cave paintings at Lascaux. But the recognition of irrationality and the death/eros drive in human consciousness exemplified in Freud, Schnitzler, and Musil — and certainly in Schiele, Klimt, the German Expressionists and the painters of the New Objectivity — rendered this portraiture more of a challenge to the individual spectator, whose grasp on his own status as a subject was called into question.
The oil-on-canvas portraits of Schiele’s patrons and friends portray their subjects detached from their surroundings, alone, and here the sketchy, spidery outlines of the body and richly stylized textures of the flesh offer the first indication of Schiele’s conception of the body and the flesh themselves as its own momento mori (no skulls necessary, as in the portraiture of the Northern Renaissance, to which much portraiture of the entire 1890-1933 period is indebted). More indicative of the challenge to subjectivity, however, are the self-portraits and erotic portraits on paper, amply represented in the Neue Galerie show.
The highly sexualized nude self-portraits are especially evocative of fragility and mortality: the sharp angularity suggested by the thin pencil or charcoal lines is particularly susceptible to breakage, straight lines that seem in their brittleness to allow for little bending. Schiele stares out at the viewer in a challenge to evaluate the self as dangerously fragile — and here, perhaps, the question of subjectivity begins to become particularly acute. The subject’s glare outward into the eyes of the spectator is a challenge not to criticism but to compassion; there are two ways we can respond to this glare, through revulsion or acceptance. We can, instead, ourselves enter into the subjective perspective of the sitter (in this case the artist’s self) and contemplate our own fragility, our own mortality. Perhaps the most important of the tools Schiele used in this work was a full-length mirror, seconded from his family and an invitation to closer self-examination, not only of the face but of the nude body. But this is a painful self-examination, a painful attempt to recognize suffering and mortality.
If we accept the challenge to enter into the subjectivity of the portrait’s subject, we respond with compassion and even erotic excitement rather than disgust. Schiele’s masturbation becomes a temporary denial of mortality, even as the fragility of the body confirms that death is ultimately inescapable. When this compassion is extended to Schiele’s erotically explicit portraits of women, it becomes even more liberating for the spectator’s subjectivity. Far from pornography but intensely erotic, many of these women too stare out shamelessly at the spectator; those who don’t offer up their genitalia shamelessly too. The stockings and shoes the women wear are invitations, too, to compare the textile sensuality of these clothes with the fragile flesh itself. But it’s not an invitation to intercourse as much as an invitation to enter into the perspective and condition of the portrait’s subject, to feel what she feels, to empathize with her condition: again, a temporary denial of mortality for a more glorious celebration of sensuality. At the same time, the body remains the site of the flesh’s fragility: ultimately these are portraits of the tragedy of the limits of sensual experience. Instead of staring back at the subject, we, through the artist’s mediation, enter her challenge and experience, we infuse the portrait with our own subjectivity.
The painters of German Expressionism, and especially those of the New Objectivity, urbanized these alienated figures, placing them within the context of the industrial city, but shared the same concern with subjectivity and eroticism as Schiele and Klimt. Portraiture — especially in its most figurative mode — divorces identity from the face or the body and renders the subject/object distinction particularly problematic. If the body is both subject and object simultaneously in portraiture, the spectator is encouraged to perceive his or her own body in this dual status; and if that’s the case, we can make the compassionate leap from our own status as spectator to the portrait-subject’s status as object for contemplation, and vice versa. It is a particularly liberating project — and, as conservatives protecting the status quo were well aware, a revolutionary project as well.
Certainly Schiele was a victim of these conservatives too: a room of the Neue Galerie exhibition is dedicated to his arrest and imprisonment in Neulengbach in 1912 on morals charges. The stunning paintings he created during his 24-day imprisonment are held by the Albertina museum in Austria but represented here in high-quality reproductions. (This room, accentuated by a recording of Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht, also holds a cast of Schiele’s death mask.) The arrest and imprisonment shook Schiele to the core, and it was then that he began to consider marriage and parenthood — an entry into a bourgeois lifestyle that he had until then resisted. In 1915 he married Edith Harms (whose portrait serves as the signature image for the exhibition), but he never had the chance to see whether he could reconcile his irrational erotic yearnings with bourgeois life — a common theme of literature and art of the period. His last painting, 1918’s poignant Die Familie, depicts a man, a woman, and a child, the nucleus of human community. That same year, however, the six-month-pregnant Edith died after contracting the Spanish flu. Schiele died of the same disease three days later.
Schiele and other portraitists of 1890-1933 did not exhaust the exploration of the social challenges to — and potential redemptive possibilities of — radical subjectivity in art. I see the same dynamics examined in very different ways in the theatre work of Howard Barker and Richard Foreman, for example. (They offer themselves a new expressionism in the form of drama and theatre, their plays as much a kind of portraiture as anything else.) As this exhibition demonstrates, the culture has grown no wiser.