Art · Mind The Gap!

Egon Schiele: What Was He Thinking?

Egon Schiele's portrait of Edith, who he married in 1915.
Egon Schiele’s portrait of Edith, who he married in 1915.
Gemeentemuseum den Haag.

In 1915 Egon Schiele married a respectable middle-class girl called Edith Harms. Shortly after the wedding, he reported for military service. Schiele’s usual treatment of women he painted was to have them in semi-erotic poses. But here, he painted Edith as if she were a child’s doll. Fully clothed and without any gesture that suggests she has any life: he has depicted her as if she were only a doll with a porcelain face and hands. In being heavier than the cotton of the soft body of a doll, the porcelain hands have stretched her arms. Her feet have no floor, she is a doll that can be picked up and hung on the wall from a nail without any more ado.

Is this Schiele’s idea of his perfect woman? Someone that waits for his interest, and at all other times hangs, lifeless, from a nail in the wall?

Schiele The Radical.

It must be added that Egon Schiele was as an expressionist, a radical. Unlike the gentle almost two-dimensional works of Gustav Klimt (1), Schiele’s drawings showed a power of self-expression that was truly shocking. His drawings were pornographic not only in content but in the suggestive poses he gave his women. To a mild mannered society, these drawings were shocking enough to find Schiele in prison. A judge would say it was all his fault. Yet outside the courthouse door you would find a prostitute waiting for you, offering any comer with all he could desire. Pre-war Vienna was a place of distinction between a correct society and that which lay beneath it – albeit not on the industrial scale of Victorian era London. Egon Schiele was making a statement where Klimt was merely painting.

Edith’s Point Of View.

Edith had a very real love for Egon, if a woman was prepared to accept the rigours of being married to a penniless artist, it would be easy to love someone with such an angry passion. In a young man, such courageous statements as were made by Schiele implied that there was more to it than just art. Self expression as a quality is something that affects the whole human being, the artistic element is but the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. The truest art expresses an inner urge that makes the spine resonate like a tubular bell.

Indeed, it was this aspect of art that attracted me to Brian, for he had been a jazz trombonist. Whilst an amateur, he’d played with some of the best bands of his day, such as Gerry Mulligan and George Chisholm. He also stepped in as a very worthy understudy for the unapproachable genius of Bob Brookmeyer. But that was back in the sixties, and since that time he’d let his attitude slip somewhat. Turning metal on a lathe day after day does not do much for one’s creative abilities. I discovered how this affected his ability to form a relationship.

For Edith it was not the union she had hoped for. She sapoke of Egon in her diary, writing, “he won’t share any of his thoughts with me. He leaves me standing on the sidelines and refuses to allow me any part in the conception and growth of any idea.”

However, another male-dominated area of Schiele’s life took centre stage between them. The army. In 1915, Austro-Hungary was at war and artists were treated in the way that any large, bureaucratic institution treated people: as a number. Schiele became another body to fill a pair of boots. War does strange things to a man’s ability to imagine and when many men think the same, if someone should think differently, he will quickly find himself cast out. If you have become a number, you aren’t expected to express anything more than that. You are just there, and if the number is told to do this or go there, it will do that and go where it’s told.

Edith was told to follow Schiele wherever he went. It seems that Schiele was able to express himself by using her as he himself was used by those immediately his senior. It is my experience that people who willingly do as they’re told will, when given the opportunity, order others about with equal disregard. Schiele, it seems was no exception – and concomitant to this means that at some point his ability to express himself will run up against the impossible. The unimaginable. Something happens for him that has no possible explanation, and the only way to solve that particular riddle is to avoid it. One avoiding tactic is shown by the fact that he accepted the orders of someone who had legal power over him.

Edith was left alone and increasingly lonely, for she was not at home where she knew people in whom she could confide. Yes, there were people around her, but did she, at that tender age, have the capacities that I only developed in my mid forties? It was a different time, a different age, but even so, knowing whom one might trust with one’s innermost hurts is something one needs decades to establish. Knowing whom one might trust in a strange situation is given to few, and those in whom it is lacking will find themselves desperately lonely. The person they would find an honest and confidential ear might be sitting right next to Edith. That’s not the problem. The problem is how to find out in the weeks or months that she would be languishing in a distant and very foreign town.

Meanwhile, Schiele had the opposite problem. There is no need to trust if one is forced together like a herd of cattle and is driven this way and that by an unseen hand at headquarters. Such trust can be found in the army, but it can only develop through time, by learning the strengths and weaknesses of one’s fellow men. In a society that lauds only strength and faultlessness, finding out a person’s weaknesses can only be done by accident or through mistakes. That takes time, but the result is what the army calls an élite. A group of men so hardened by battle and so sure of their fellows that they have a very real advantage over a group of men who were thrown together by circumstance.

It is the role of the artist to depict the qualities of the things they see. The immediate and compelling effect of Gainsborough’s half finished depiction of Christ being taken from the cross shows just how clear Gainsborough’s eye was (2). Had he been conscripted, he would have made a good officer in that he would have known the characters of the men under him. Depicting the tilt of a person’s head requires a very great deal more than mere draughting skills. You have to be able to see through that person’s own eyes if one is to depict the way they look at the world.

It was something that at the time Egon Schiele did not possess. Nor would three years in the army do anything to forward that, at least from the little that was demanded of him by the army. Being in a close group of men would bring him experiences he would not otherwise gain, the problem here is that it is all too easy to be repelled by them. That in itself leads to abstract thoughts and a preference for depicting the abstract and notional rather than the reality that surrounds one.

The Nude Woman As An Eternal Motif.

Egon Schiele's skinny and distorted depiction of a young woman in a blue dress, 1911 Gemeentemuseum Den Haag.
Egon Schiele’s skinny and distorted depiction of a young woman in a blue dress, 1911
Gemeentemuseum Den Haag.

With his depiction of Edith as a dolly, this process was already under way. His depiction of her is very different from the naughty nudes of Peter Paul Rubens. These latter are the epitome of the archetype of the female as the bearer of fecundity. Schiele’s nudes, however much they are erotic, lack that element that truly stirs a man’s desire, that almost suctional element of the woman’s creative form. His depiction of Edith has stripped her of everything a woman was, is or ever will be. Even a grandmother long past the age of child-bearing can offer a child something that a man cannot. In making Edith a pale, porcelain-faced doll, Egon Schiele all but forbad Edith from expressing this.

It must be stated that this isn’t Edith’s fault. Whatever she was or might have become, she was a woman. A living, breathing human being with the natural instincts that make women into mothers at the appropriate time. What was it that Egon Schiele feared in this? Was it his own ability to fertilize a woman? After all, he was sexually prolific.

Whatever the reason, it sufficed for him to depict his women without that which makes the female part of humanity’s future.


(1) Gustav Klimt was the subject of my last post.

(2) You can find out what I thought about Thomas Gainsborough’s depiction of Christ here: Thomas Gainsborough And The Essence Of True Feeling.


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