“Everything is dead while it lives.“ Wiener Moderne, Neuritic Novels and the Expressionist Egon Schiele

12 June 1890, the expressionist painter Egon Schiele was born in Tulln in Austria.

“Everything is dead while it lives.“ (Egon Schiele)

"...figures like a cloud of dust resembling this earth and seeking to grow, but forced to collapse impotently." - Egon Schiele: "Tod und Mädchen" (Death and the Maiden, 1915)

"Fin de siecle," murmured Lord Henry. "Fin du globe," answered his hostess. "I wish it were fin du globe," said Dorian with a sigh. "Life is a great disappointment.", Oscar Wilde had his circle of decadents trade barbs and witticisms on the edge of the abyss towards the end of long 19th century over existential despair in 1890. The good people of Vienna were about to go one better by then. Some ten years later, in the voltage field of the cosmopolitan capital of a dying empire and its anachronistic structures, delicacy, moribund sensuousness sense and neurotic sensibility exploded into the rampant growth of all art forms of the “Wiener Moderne”, the Viennese Modern Age. It was a Golden Age, or at least a gilded one, with gold foil covering decay and Angst and the artistic sublimation of life’s great disappointments. A world counteracted by the establishment with well understood Wagnerianisms, misunderstood Nietzsche, too bright uniforms and sabre rattling. A world of coffeehouse literati and neuritic novels, “Nervenroman”, Hofmannsthal, Schnitzler, Trakl at the Café Griensteidl and Café Central, the music of Bruckner and Mahler, the overripe flowers of Art Nouveau with Klimt as its somewhat unsavoury high priest and Sigmund the Great and his students sleuthing the psychic life with a metaphoric magnifying glass. Oscar Kokoschka already depressed the dying “Jugendstil” into more expressive lines, distorting form into a radically subjective effect. And between the two, Klimt and Kokoschka, a young, wild, nervous man, having just arrived from the back of beyond in the glittering capital, began to make a name for himself, Egon Schiele.

"The picture must radiate light, the bodies have their own light
which they consume to live: they burn, they are not lit from outside"
- Egon Schiele "Weiblicher Akt" (Female Act, 1910)

ground was prepared for a new generation of artists who took it personal and transformed their own experience and surroundings into works of art like the Impressionists did a generation before. Admittedly, under rather different auspices. It was the next step beyond the processing of classical and historical allegories with an erotic note, ensembles still recognisable and intelligible by the public, into something more individual, far less accessible. Schiele’s early work was heavily influenced especially by Klimt with even stronger erotic overtones. Along with the visualised Nervenroman, though, far less eye-pleasing and appealing than anything Klimt had ever done. Fascinated by Eros and Thanatos without being overburdened by scholarly bookishness, Schiele’s females contort, tangle and twist, seemingly made up from nerves, looking half-starved, or muscles alone, not always with complete limbs, with eyes straight from a Hofmannsthal play, either dead, deadly sensuous or completely bewildered. He promptly served a prison sentence, for producing pornography, since court couldn’t prove the accusation of him having seduced minors. He moved his sujet into more remote and darker imagery afterwards, still in his early twenties, he lived the Vie de la Boheme, always bordering on revisiting the clink for allegedly painting and drawing smut and his lifestyle, of course. And then the world was turned into something far worse than the moribund visions of the fin de siècle had envisioned on 1 August 1914 and the catastrophe of the 20th century began in earnest.

"Art cannot be modern, art is timeless." - Egon Schiele "Tote Stadt III" (Dead City III, 1911)

outbreak of the Great War changed everything. Again. While he was allowed to drop out of the Austrian Army due to his poor health pretty soon, necessity, attrition and hardship sharpened the somewhat poetic fascination with decay and death society and artists already had in the pre-war years into the real thing. Schiele’s work ripened during this years, technically as well as in terms of his topics, ironically returning to the more archetypically shaped images Klimt might have chosen ten years before. But death is omnipresent, bodies rearing up in spasmodic contortions, in defiance and despair, bodies cling to each other, rather in exasperation than making love and even the rows of houses Schiele depicted look like a painted ossuary. He was a painting, threatening moralist, in a sense, as a Viennese newspaper put it back then, his visions of vice truly having nothing tempting to offer, nothing seductive, he indulges himself in the colours of decay. The early-ripened, overripe Schiele died at the age of the 28 in Vienna during the major flu epidemic that swept across Europe in autumn 1918, just a few days after his wife Edith, 6 months pregnant, succumbed to the disease that cost the lives of millions just after the hecatombs of the Great War. Schiele remains one of the foremost representative visual artists of “Wiener Moderne” and pre-war Expressionism and became increasingly popular since the second half of the 20th century, when another fin de siècle was snored away, somehow, and one had to live on memories of the gilded age of the “Wiener Moderne”.

"To Confine the Artist is a Crime, It Means Murdering Unborn Life." -
 Egon Schiele "Liebespaar - Selbstdarstellung mit Wally"
(Lovers - Self-Portrait With Wally, c. 1915)

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