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The Hovering Presence of Egon Schiele

By Michael Huey / June 21, 1989

THINKING back on the factors that shaped his career as a landscape painter, Leopold Hauer wrote this tribute to Egon Schiele in 1962: ``[I learned from him] ... the pure construction of a work of art, he opened the door for me to see the decorative effect of nature....'' Through this figurative ``opening of a door,'' Schiele beckoned not only Hauer, but entire generations of Austrian painters to follow him through it. No contemporary Austrian artist can imagine himself outside the sphere of Schiele's influence - and all must come to terms with his hovering presence.

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During his brief lifetime (1890-1918) Schiele ``constructed'' paintings that now seem quintessentially Austrian in character - though at the time they were far removed from the qualities of discretion and detachment that the turn-of-the-century Viennese prized.

The young protagonist in a Hugo von Hofmannsthal play from that period makes this point extremely clear through his admiration of his sophisticated uncle Hans Karl: ``...he knows nothing more elegant than the manner in which you handle people, the great airs, the distance you show everyone....''

Schiele punctured this sort of serenity with his startlingly direct portraits and landscapes. Ultimately, they came as a welcome relief to a society that ignored (in the age of Freud) the turbulence under its superficially ordered exterior.

Schiele understood this conflict in the Viennese psyche. He understood the people who sat for him. Sometimes he saw things of which they themselves were unaware. It is said that Arnold Schoenberg was dissatisfied with the portrait Schiele painted of him - he was rather heavy at the time and Schiele had painted a man quite thin. Many years later, however, Schoenberg grew to look like the man in Schiele's painting.

Today, one sees Schiele's influence everywhere in Austria. From familiar shapes in the vivid contemporary abstractions of the artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser to recurring colors and themes in the work of Leopold Hauer. I do not suggest that these artists (or any artist, for that matter) have inherited the place that was Schiele's; but both have worked with the legacy he left behind and taken it in new and interesting directions.

The connection of Hauer to Schiele is a particularly fascinating one, for they were contemporaries of sorts - even though Hauer outlived Schiele by some 60 years. By a curious twist, their lives were also momentarily brought together.

Hauer was born just six years after Schiele, in 1896. He decided to become an artist at the age of 14, in 1910.

In 1910 Schiele was already 20. He had completed two brief and stormy years at Vienna's Academy of Fine Arts. The Secessionists - Vienna's turn-of-the-century avant-garde - had set up shop right behind the academy in an exotic Jugendstil building. They lured Schiele away from the traditional bourgeois education, and he quickly established himself as a member of the trio of Expressionists that included Richard Gerstl and Oskar Kokoschka. Schiele's works from this period include the well-known portraits of Eduard Kosmak, as well as two poignant ones of his sister, Gerti.

Around this time Schiele came into direct contact with the Hauer family by drawing a series of sketches of Leopold's father, Franz.

In Vienna there is a unique connection between the Lokal (a kind of restaurant-tavern) and the arts. Franz Hauer owned the popular Lokal Griechenbeisl in the city's first district. The Griechenbeisl was a hangout for many of the artists of the time, including Schiele.