THE 20th century has produced three great draftsmen: Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Egon Schiele. The first two are justly celebrated; the last is only now coming into his own. The reasons for that are fairly clear. Picasso and Matisse lived to ripe old ages, revolutionized 20th-century art, and had a profound influence on thousands of artists during and after their lifetimes.
Schiele, on the other hand, died at the age of 28, had little impact on modernist art and even less on other artists.
True, Schiele had his passionate supporters, and modernist art history has not ignored him. His reputation as a genius is seldom questioned; he is well represented in the world's great museums; and his paintings and drawings are beginning to demand extremely high prices.
Still, compared to Picasso and Matisse and other modern masters, he has, until recently, remained relatively unknown.
Two current events, however, should enhance his reputation. The publication by Abrams of the most complete book on Schiele ever printed, and a major exhibition of 90 of the artist's finest watercolors and drawings at the Galerie St. Etienne here.
``Egone Schiele: The Complete Works'' is both a biography and a catalog raisonn'e of the artist's work in all mediums. Jane Kallir, its author, based her text chiefly on firsthand sources, many of them previously unpublished, including the records of her grandfather, Otto Kallir, who introduced Schiele's work in the United States. Wolfgang G. Fischer, who launched Schiele's art in England, contributed a detailed account of the ups and downs of the artist's posthumous reputation.
The catalog raisonne'e, assembled in collaboration with Hildegard Bachert, was created with the aid of advanced computer programming. It documents and reproduces every surviving work of art produced by Schiele, to the tune of 392 paintings, more than 2,500 watercolors and drawings, 21 sketchbooks, 17 graphics, and 4 sculptures.
The entire book is 688 pages long, has 3,075 illustrations (including 94 in full color), and is packed with as much information about the artist and his time and place as anyone could want.
Best of all, the illustrations, especially those in color, are first-rate, and the text is clear and to the point. In addition to its size, importance, and the thoroughness of the 10 years' research that went into it, ``Egon Schiele: The Complete Works'' makes fascinating reading.
The exhibition is just as fascinating. In addition to a few well-known masterworks on loan from major musuems and private collections, it includes a number of watercolors and drawings (some never before exhibited or reproduced) that were discovered in the course of preparing the book.
The material shown covers the last decade of Schiele's life, beginning with a watercolor of a reclining nude dated 1908 and ending with a gouache of sunflowers executed in 1918, the year of his death. Although nudes predominate, there also are several charming studies of children (including one of a newborn baby), a number of self-portraits and portraits, and a handful of landscapes.
In all cases, however, the subject is of much less importance than the quality of the draftsmanship. Almost without exception, that is superb, and even, at times, awesome.
But then drawing was Schiele's specialty and the basis of his genius. His mother, in fact, claimed that he began to draw when he was 18 months old. What is emy of Fine Arts at the tender age of 16. Three years later, disgusted by the stifling conservatism of that institution, he and several like-minded classmates withdrew to found a artists' protest group.
In 1910, at the age of 20, he began to attract some attention among collectors in Vienna with a unique Expressionist style that was as idiosyncratic as it was effective. Unfortunately, local collectors were too few in number and not wealthy enough to support him; so he turned to the more robust German at scene.
Here again, the results were far from satisfactory. Money difficulties would plague him, in fact, until 1917, when he sold his first painting to the Australian National Gallery, published a portfolio of reproductions, and received a number of portrait commissions.
His death a year later (during the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918, when his wife also died), cut his career off at its virtual beginning. In the words of Jane Kallir, ``We are thus left with a body of work that ... celebrates the process of search and discovery. Perhaps more so than any other artist's, Schiele's oeuvre captures the quintessential adolcescent quest for spiritual and sexual identity. And possibly this is why his work remains forever fresh...., forever open to new interpretations.''
At the Galerie St. Etienne, 24 West 57th Street, through Jan. 12, 1991.