Egon Schiele's Edgy Sensibilities

Washington exhibit brings to light the Austrian painter's anxious world

TORMENTED, sensual, and introspective: Egon Schiele is sometimes known as the James Dean of art.

More than 70 of Schiele's paintings, watercolors, and drawings are on display at the National Gallery of Art here through May 8. These works represent the prolific career of one of Austria's most famous artists of the early 20th century.

Like the American actor, the Viennese artist's career was intense but brief. He is sometimes seen as a rebel because of his fascination with mortality, sexuality, and identity. Schiele (1890-1918) first attracted an American following in the 1960s - a time of cultural ferment and change similar to the turn-of-the-century Vienna in which he worked. Because so much of his art ``deals with the pains and torments of adolescence,'' Schiele's paintings attracted many young admirers, especially on college campuses, says Jane Kallir, curator of the exhibition.

But ``the real Schiele was a far more complex character,'' than simply a rebel, Ms. Kallir writes. He was ``true at heart to his middle-class roots, but naively convinced that artistic genius guaranteed him immunity from the strictures of conventional propriety.''

Schiele did indeed live outside of some of life's ``strictures.'' Born into a small Austrian town, Schiele felt out-of-place in the traditional school and was asked to withdraw at 16. He then entered the nation's leading art school, Vienna's Academy of Fine Arts. Several years later, he and many of his classmates left the school because of a conflict with one of the academy's conservative teachers and formed an independent group.

Schiele drew attention to himself with his strange clothing and an open relationship with his principal model, Valerie Neuzil. He was jailed for several weeks on charges of public immorality, supposedly for exposing an underage model to indecent pieces of art in his studio.

Throughout his career, Schiele was heavily influenced by the Austrian Expressionist Gustav Klimt. This is most evident in Schiele's earlier oils - which are two-dimensional and heavily decorated. However, Schiele soon developed his own style, most apparent in his works on paper. Over the decade of his adult career, ``every year is different,'' Kallir says. The exhibition is grouped both thematically and chronologically, illustrating Schiele's changing attitudes toward his subjects.

The bulk of the exhibition is Schiele's watercolors and gouaches on paper. The isolated figures on paper seem to float awkwardly in space, and they are more striking than Schiele's works on canvas, which are filled from top to bottom with color. On paper, Schiele uses strong lines with bold but sparing color. Often the effect is disconcerting, such as in his portrait of his younger sister Gerti - nude with orange and red raw-looking skin - or the portrait of fellow artist Max Oppenheimer, green-faced and ghastly.

At first, Schiele portrayed women in his art as mysterious and distant, with faces turned away. He later approaches them more directly, and they are often startlingly nude. Though his portraits of women have at times been considered borderline pornography, Kallir disputes this as a ``gross exaggeration.'' Schiele treats women with more anxiety and curiosity than eroticism, Kallir says.

N the section ``Self and the Search for Meaning,'' probably the most engaging and often revealing portion of the show, Schiele's self-portraits give us a glimpse of his inner life. Constantly searching for resolution of his feelings about mortality - his father died when Schiele was only 14 - the artist sometimes paints himself shadowed by a ``death figure.''

Other self-portraits illustrate Schiele's ambivalent feelings about himself: sometimes proud and self-confident, sometimes shrinking in terror at his own emotions. In one vivid painting, ``Self-Portrait with Hand to Cheek,'' the tired, despondent-looking artist pulls down his lower eyelid, perhaps trying to better see the world around him or to look within himself more clearly.

Schiele's landscapes and still lifes also reflect the artist's vision of himself and the world. Sunflowers were a repeated subject: ``Some are frail and slender, others lush with foliage. The blooms may be single or numerous, in full flower or decay. Regardless, the sunflower is stamped with the indelible mark of imminent doom,'' Kallir writes. Schiele also painted frail solitary trees, reflecting his sense of alienation.

At the time of Schiele's death, his work had become more self-assured and virtuosic. But it is unclear whether he had begun to find inner peace.

``I think we will be forever confused'' about Schiele's feelings at the end of his life, says Hildegard Bachert, co-director (along with Kallir) of Galerie St. Etienne in New York. Although his art now appears as a complete body of work, Schiele was ``frantically working'' and had plans for large allegorical pieces of art, Ms. Bachert says. At age 28, Schiele was considered Austria's leading contemporary artist.

* Because of the difficulty of gathering his art - many pieces are fragile and do not travel well - this is the first show in the United States in 35 years. When the exhibition leaves the National Gallery it will travel to the Indianapolis Museum of Art (June 11 to Aug. 7) and the San Diego Museum of Art (Aug. 27 to Oct. 30).

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