Egon Schiele and the Art of Going Insane
Here is something that I have learned, or perhaps merely remembered, from my time staring at canvases: some art can be a form of torture.
So there is this painting, which you are maybe familiar with entitled, Seated Woman with Legs Drawn Up. Austrian artist and Gustav Klimt protégé, Egon Schiele painted it in 1917, two years after he had married one Edith Harms. Edith was, by all accounts, a perfectly charming woman with a perfectly respectable middle-class background. However, the sitter for Seated Woman with Legs Drawn Up is decidedly not Edith.
Admittedly, the girl in the painting shares some of her features—the unruly strawberry blonde hair and delicate chin for instance. The sharp crimson angles of the mouth. The wide, expressive eyes. There is of course an explanation for this. Egon had decided to utilize his wife’s sister, Adele, as his muse.
In the picture, Adele’s hair is tied back in something like a chignon except less elegant. It falls around her face in wispy fire-colored waves and curls. She is dressed in a simple turquoise tank top with ragged shorts, one leg extended and the other brought up to her chest for her to rest her head on. Her fingers are clasped tightly around that leg which is drawn up, and her eyes are scalding the viewer through the canvas. It is a wonder Egon was able to finish the piece at all, with Adele staring at him like that. She looks undeniably dangerous, for all the feigned casualness with which she has couched herself. The darkness under her eyes and the blush that infuses her cheeks are essential to the sulfuric sadness that simmers throughout her expression.
As a child, I despised the painting without knowing why in the same stubbornly visceral way that I reviled all of Schiele’s works. Later I grew to understand that I had loathed them out of some unconscious fear—some dread of the perverse twisted colors and the gnarled ramblings of charcoal. The canvases were offensive in and of themselves—stained vaguely with age—so that even the barest, blankest, cleanest spots felt as though they were hiding something. The people were drawn like spiders, skeletal and alien. So many lines and none of them clean. During art courses I would have to excuse myself when his paintings were brought up. I would hurry to evacuate the room and my own brain whenever the words “figurative painter” came up in casual conversation. From a young age, I knew this much was true: to glance, however fleetingly, at a Schiele, was to compromise the soul.
Naturally Egon was not the first artist to unnerve me. Others had done it with varying degrees of success. Before him, for instance, there was Dali. One overly humid spring, all the students in the stagnant air of my first-grade classroom were made to look at The Persistence of Memory as part of some futile cultural exercise. I immediately distrusted it. The absurd and the realist side-by side were dreadful—surely a symptom of some lingering madness in the artist himself. More than that though, was that when I forced myself to engage with the painting, everything had to be processed unconsciously at once. There was no way to prepare for the impact such an image might have upon the psyche until after it had been consumed whole, and by then I was a lost cause. Dali’s uncreative, obvious existentialism tapped into whatever it was I had already repressed at six years old, which was, admittedly a great deal. His subject matter seemed to melt off the page and sear itself, molten, over my eyelids.
Then there was Degas who obsessively preoccupied himself with those young and nubile ballerinas. I had found him one afternoon when I was still small and lithe myself, more child than woman. The encounter left me hollowed out. My mother and father had allowed me to wander anywhere I wanted within a local museum, and fatefully I had forayed directly into Degas’ skillful hands. For it was Degas who taught me how malleable clay can be under the fingers. How much it can feel like flesh. But back to the ballerinas—when he painted them, their faces were as white and visceral as stale cake. Of course this was nothing when compared to the sculptures. I am thinking now of The Fourteen Year Old Dancer. The title itself is telling: a succinct semiotic summary of the male gaze rendered linguistically. The female form is essentially reduced to its age and defining physical or vocational characteristic. There is no mention of an actual human name and so the muse is rendered anonymous, effectively colonized and refigured to suit the artist’s intention.
The dancer’s body might be wrought of textured bronze, but Degas hung the disastrous form with actual fabric—a tutu that has decayed over the decades so that it hangs around its charge loosely. The skirt is soiled and limp and indelibly intertwined with conceptualizations of time—it will disintegrate faster than the bronze ever will. The ethereal yellow ribbon tied lazily in the copper alloy of her hair is the final straw. Degas has created her body and dressed her in her own clothes and named her nothing. She could have been me, I remember thinking to myself, overcome with horror. In truth, she was I—the parts that a man might see anyways. The parts that would grow filthy and flaccid and unappealing if the universe gave them long enough.
Here is something that I have learned, or perhaps merely remembered, from my time staring at canvases: some art can be a form of torture. Not only the looking at it, but also the creating of it. The recognizing it. The knowing that it has remapped itself inside of you. Artist or viewer, no one escapes unscathed.
And so with that, we shall return to Schiele. Growing up, I thought there was something wrong with me. Other children were not terrified of paintings. They did not quiver with unnamed dread upon spotting Cardinal and Nun (Caress), certain that the image itself held the keys to their annihilation. After trips to museums, I would cower in the bathroom, hands pressed over my eyes with devastating pressure, sobbing into the bathmat.
At some point, I confided in my mother about the panic I felt when confronted by various pieces, although I did not explicitly name Schiele. I felt that to say his name would be to admit to some form of embarrassing perversity of sexuality—for surely every one of his pieces was steeped in sex (I am thinking now of Kneeling Girl, Resting on Both Elbows or The Embrace). Instead I told her about Van Gogh. I did not say what I wanted to say which was When I first inspect his paintings I think I’m fine even though my chest hurts, but then I look away and the whole world is suddenly how he saw it. How he painted it. I see in paintings for weeks at a time. I look at father and he’s made of terrible brushstrokes that shudder when he moves.
Instead I offered, “Van Gogh was a pretty good artist but he cut his ear off and killed himself right? That seems really upsetting.”
My mother was for the most part, unconcerned.
“Well, artists—truly great ones—are only great because they see things in a way that is true. And to look at truth is to stand up against an intensity that is impossible to do for any extended period of time, hence their eventual decline into insanity. They see too much, and that is the victory and the demise."
That was enough for me. I decided I no longer had any desire to be an artist. At school I avoided Schiele and made fun of Dali and told all of my friends that Degas was a vile sexist creature with no actual talent. I figured I was safe from the art that frightened me as long as I stayed away from it. But Seated Woman with Legs Drawn Up had inherited some sort of queer gravity from the man who painted her, and I was not immune to it. In high school, when I was feeling especially brave I would Google her just to scare myself. At some point, I bought a pocket-sized book that contained most of Egon’s paintings. For some reason, they were starting to seem beautiful to me. Heady and overpowering in a way I could not articulate with language.
I tried to reason with myself. Egon Schiele was essentially Degas, except more talented. He could obscure his womanizing behind colors too powerful to resist. I familiarized myself with his biography—and reaffirmed what I had already suspected: there was something perverse about how he selected and portrayed his models. Many of them were underage. He would insist on painting his sister in the nude. He frequently had relationships with his muses, including Adele Harms, the inspiration for Seated Woman with Legs Drawn Up, and the sister of his then-wife. At one point he spent approximately twenty-four days in prison following the kidnapping and “seduction” of a child. The subject matter of his paintings, and the sitters he had previously used were utilized as evidence against him to secure a child pornography charge.
This, I imagined, was what had unnerved me from my earliest memories. The understanding that I was in love (for yes, it was love, from the very first sight, and not loathing, although I processes it as such to make I more acceptable to my conscious mind) with the art of a predator—more specifically, that some part of me appreciated each and every painting even when unconsciously it was obvious what was going on behind it. Because that is the gift of Schiele: he never exactly hides what he’s doing. The women he draws are lovely, but also haunting and sinister—because what transpires on the canvas is the microcosm of the whole of their “relationship” together. Adele Harms presumably had a look like sulfur in Seated Woman with Legs Drawn Up specifically because she was entrenched in relationship with Egon. A relationship that involved some level of betrayal in regards to her sister, Edith. In his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde insinuates that “To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.” But that would be an oversimplification.
Yes, Egon Schiele’s paintings are undoubtedly transcendent. They seem to exist in a mystical no-man’s land beyond his life and his physicality. And yet, they are also completely and utterly bent on disclosing every little thing about him. In this way, his art is forever in the act of betraying him. Every painting is, as I had noticed as a child, steeped in sex.
Each sketch is brimming over with desire, oftentimes a desire that is decidedly warped and twisted and insidious—nothing can obfuscate that. As a child who had resorted to the analytical in an attempt to escape embodiment, his creations were a slap in the face. And it is true that I only began to appreciate them as I was coming into my own sexuality and gender identity. As a supposedly straight adolescent, I had seen nothing but threats in those lines and brushstrokes.
Once my queerness emerged, and I began to take note of the ways that gender for me manifested more like an absence than a presence; I fell head over heels in love with piece after piece. Looking at Four Trees or Seated Woman was like remembering an old lover, a remembering that happened in parallel with the recollection that I had always been queer. So yes, desire is key here. But paradoxically his works are also indelibly intertwined with death. There is some message to be processed in the moment that the viewer’s eyes fall upon Crouching Nude in Shoes and Black Stockings—some message that implies that desire is the mark of mortality upon the soul—the mark of a devastating annihilation adjacent to radical connection. The resulting discomfort is the whole point, because truth is never comfortable.
So we cannot divorce the art from the artist. Fine. We cannot throw the queer, repulsive baby out with the sordid bathwater. So be it. What can we do then? We can stare at the carnage until we are just about to lose our minds, and then return back to “reality” again, if we are so lucky. Truth, like divinity, after all, is only ever sustainable ephemerally for most people. And for those that are cursed and gifted with seeing it more often than not—I suppose they must put pencil to parchment and drag the others down with them, if those other eyes consent to look at the results.