the truth unveiled
there are probably a lot of people who wonder why anyone would go out of their way, much less pay more than the price of a first-run movie, to see an art exhibit. of course, whether or not all that is worth it depends on the artist. in the case of german expressionist egon schiele at the neue galerie, this was a must for me. his paintings, drawings, and poster design represent one of the more formidable and recognizable bodies of work in modern art. that may seem like hyperbole, but it's given a bit of perspective when you factor in that he didn't live past his twenties.
schiele is one of those artists who learned the rules and then promptly discarded three quarters of them in favor of a distinctive style. his art academy work, which i'd never seen before this show, clearly rose to proficiency in a german classical manner during his years there. however, in 1909 you see the beginnings of a fluidity of line that comes from casting off the rigid art school techniques of careful measuring and needing to define every last area of an object in order to show form. by the next year his style was clearly defined, and his drawings from then on had the confidence and ability to show more with less.
in fact, some of his sketches showed so much less as to be disturbing. some figures have unfinished limbs and even missing heads. in some cases these omissions don't seem to be unfinished so much as being considered unnecessary in terms of getting across the thrust of the drawing or maintaining a simplicity of composition. this is even more clear in the cases when the figure has been colored in, sometimes in patches, other times in lurid detail.
one of the most unsettling qualities of schiele's work, when he did choose to fill in details, was his choice of tones and brush strokes to define skin. sparsely defined figures got blood-red splotches around key muscles and bones, around the eyes, on the genitals. more detailed studies or fully-realized paintings frequently favored a sickly green pallor, with patches of raw umber and more bloody reds, as though everyone had been beaten or infected.
however, this doesn't necessarily make his subjects ugly, simply more human. it reminds us of the veins and blood and bones just beneath our surfaces. in some cases the modeling of the skin is coupled with a gracefully posed figure. and then there were the commissioned portraits, in which he simply used his skills to render people flatteringly. these drawings effortlessly show the kinds of details that make you feel you're really getting a sense of the person's true appearance and character. in addition, schiele's poster design was as graphically arresting as his art, and even his signature had a look all its own.
of course, the most dramatic schiele works are the paintings, with their distorted bodies, strangely colored skin, and bold black outlines painted with a sure but tense hand. by 1918, he was the master of his own largely bleak and distorted world. sadly, schiele was cut down in his prime by the spanish flu, as were his wife and unborn child.
neue galerie is a nice place, but unfortunately the exhibition's setup and presentation suffered from a lack of clear direction. i'm not sure if was due to the nature of the rooms' placement, but nothing on the second floor flowed chronologically or in any other obvious way, and the crowd was left to wander somewhat aimlessly. the wood-paneled first room everyone is drawn to contained schiele's most immediately impressive and mature work, as well as personal artifacts in glass cases (including the incredible sculpture of a fellow inmate when he was in prison - molded out of bread). a second room then led to another smaller room with works of other artists, with no delineation between them. an ill-placed sign in an outer hallway read "exhibit continues on third floor", where we were left to guess that we should move counterclockwise. unless of course you bought an audio tour that told you where to go. being the sum of two private collections, the show lacked several major works including his arguably more widely seen version of the lovers. one of the great joys of seeing paintings and drawings in person is comparing what you know (or think you know) about a piece with the piece itself.
the dark wood-paneled souvenir store was also confusing. though schiele was the main draw that afternoon (the line was around the block and took 15+ minutes to reach the entrance), books of his work were scattered in three different sections. telling of a larger issue was the fact that there were postcard books of schiele's more popular teacher gustav klimt and a few other german or austrian artists, but none of schiele himself. there's something about his art that wouldn't really translate neatly into a postcard, something which makes people uncomfortable.
maybe it's for the best that schiele hasn't been commodified quite as much as his teacher or other great artists. perhaps taking a lead from certain pharmacists at target, some mailmen would choose to take a "moral stance" and refuse to deliver a postcard with a naked, spreadeagled, seemingly deformed woman missing parts of her limbs. or a recipient might say to the sender, "you sent me a picture of a gaunt, half-naked man who looks exhausted and diseased. what are you trying to say?" another option is that schiele would become huge in the manner of edvard munch, whose exhibit is now up at the moma; known only for one iconic image, the rest of his life virtually ignored by most of the world.
david bowie was quietly influenced by egon schiele; the cover of "heroes" was based on a self-portrait, and at some point bowie was picked to play the artist in a biopic (i'm sure this has since fallen through). his poster design and hand-drawn type probably influenced poster art and graphic design for years afterwards. these are the little ways popular culture is exposed to schiele's work, if not his name. for now, that will have to do.
the title of this post comes from one of the artist's paintings.