Art History 101: Egon Schiele, the master of controversial expressionism


I love blogging but hate blogs that contain nothing but self promotion and useless information, so I thought I would use my time to impart some of my knowledge of art history to the masses! Each week I will dedicate some of my time to bring you a new Art History 101 subject. These may include overviews on movements, particular artists and techniques, all with the aim of developing your knowledge of the people and skills that have inspired the industry we work in.

The first stop on my decorative journey is not a traditional starting place in terms of chronological history. It is the most logical starting place from my point of view as we will be starting with the person and style that first got my heart racing in art class. Not because of his themes, which are often explicit and controversial but because of the beauty and personality displayed through his work.

My muse and the spark that started my fascination with all forms of art is the Austrian expressionist painter Egon Schiele (1890 – 1918).

A brief history: Egon Schiele’s history is saturated with controversy. Trained in Vienna until 1909 under the guidance of Gustav Klimt, he famously ran away with his model Valerie aka Wally, who was only 17 at the time and rumoured to be Klimt’s mistress. He and Wally were driven out of no less than two towns due to their questionable lifestyle and he was also arrested and convicted of producing work of a pornographic nature featuring underage minors and sent to prison in 1912. Despite this he managed to marry advantageously to Edith Harms (although he also planned to continue his relationship with Wally) serve with the army and produce and enormous catalogue of artistic work. Schiele died in 1918 three days after his pregnant wife succumbed to Spanish Flu during the epidemic.

So why am I so fascinated with Schiele’s work and why is his history even relevant?

In writing this blog I spent quite a long time trying to find the most appropriate words to describe the style and why I like it or why it interests me. On a very top level I know that Schiele’s work is predominantly expressionistic but still features lingering elements of the Art Nouveau period in terms of colour and tone. His themes are often erotic bordering on pornographic and focus on sex, death and discovery. His technique and application of paint is neither conventionally pretty nor precise but it is certainly engaging and unique.

In all honesty I am not sure I can put into words the way I feel or think about his work. I am not sure if it’s his paintings or him that I find more interesting. I remember my first ever experience of his work however and the one question that made me delve into his past and catalogue of work. It was simply born out of my own confusion, I thought: ‘there is a girl, in an explicit pose, looking straight at the artist and yet there is nothing behind her eyes’. I wondered if she was merely a model that he had intended to appear soulless and uninterested or whether he was demonstrating his feelings towards the girl. Exposed and engaging in eye contact but with no desire to be approached. Like an object not a person.

It made me want to know more about the artist and at 15 I assumed there would be something psychologically different about a man that paints women in such a way. Rightly or wrongly this was my starting point. Sure enough I found a short but very colourful history as demonstrated above. He also created a large back catalogue of self-portraits of himself masturbating, a theme that I am yet to try to figure out or understand but that still fascinates me even more.

In discussing this with people and showing them his work I often get asked if I would ever want to own his work knowing the themes and back history and the answer I give them is always yes. Never before have I ever felt that art could give such a direct window into someone’s soul. To own a piece would be in my view like owning a page of someone’s personal diary except rather than being hidden in pages he tried to express his thoughts through intricate images and paintings.

I know there are many people that would disagree with my viewpoint on Egon Schiele but that’s the beauty of art, it’s always open to personal opinion and I love it! Every twisted and perversely beautiful piece of it!

And with that class is out! —- Coral

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