The Hovering Presence of Egon Schiele

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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.

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....''

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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.

Franz Hauer so thoroughly enjoyed his contact with these artists that he eventually devoted himself to collecting. He became one of the most important and influential patrons of the arts in Vienna. His son wrote: ``Our home was the meeting place of many artists, and not a day passed without a few young painters there as guests.'' Franz Hauer bought their paintings and supported a number of them on study trips abroad. He was a patron to Egger-Lienz, Schiele, Kokoschka, Sterrer, and Faistauer.

In 1918 Schiele died at the age of 28. That same year Hauer began his studies at the academy.

With only Kokoschka still alive, the era of the great Viennese Expressionists passed, but they had irreversibly changed the course of painting in Austria. Hauer's developing style tells the story. Paintings like ``Steyr'' (a cityscape) and ``The Watermills near Jajce'' quote Schiele in selection of subject and composition, color and tone.

Consider Hauer's 1964 painting ``Sunflowers'' and Schiele's 1909 ``Sunflower.'' The similarly calligraphic designs of the plant leaves and the undulating rhythms they create recall nothing so much as Schiele's ``decorative effect of nature.''

Each painting portrays the commonplace - emotionally charged by the subtle and muted tones of Lower Austria, the area around Vienna characterized by fields and vineyards.

It is, in the end, Hauer's palette that echoes Schiele. Always Hauer preferred ochers and umbers, the quiet intensities of tone-in-tone. The Viennese art critic Arthur Roessler visited Hauer's first exhibition (at Otto Kallir's Neue Galerie in Vienna in 1927) and said: ``...the deep, glowing colors [are] not born of light, but rather they have bloomed from the darkness, grown forth from the many-hued longing for light that eternally pervades the darkness of the universe....''

These are also found in the deep, sometimes disturbing colors of Schiele's land- and cityscapes, as well as the later allegories.

Hauer's sunflowers connect with Schiele's and achieve their drama by posing as abstract, skeletal human figures. In a like fashion, Schiele's single sunflower is reminiscent in its slouching gesture (in mirror image) to the nude self-portrait he painted in the same year.

But if the sunflower paintings are similar, they also have their differences. Hauer's sunflowers respond to their environment by reflecting the colors of the sky and the ground. The texture of the sky is the same as the texture in the face of the central flower. In fact, the sky and the background might well be an enormous abstraction of the flower itself: the sky and the face of the flower; the distant trees and the flower's dark edge; the foreground and one of the flower's neutral petals.

The face of Schiele's flower absorbs its environment, rather than reflecting it, and its isolation says something very different about both the painter and the time in which it was painted.

A footnote to the Schiele/Hauer story is that in 1960, under the influence of Hauer, a gallery for new artists was opened in the Lokal Griechenbeisl, where Schiele made his sketches of Franz Hauer while still a young and struggling artist, many years before.

The two artists shared an affinity for light, color, and line. Schiele and Hauer were not ships that passed in the night. Hauer most certainly was rocked by Schiele's wake. In tribute the two sunflower paintings now seem to acknowledge each other from an ever-narrowing distance: a statement made in 1909, an answer echoing back loud and clear from 1964.

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