In April 1912, aged 21, Egon Schiele found himself imprisoned for 24 days, having been accused of seducing and abducting underage girls and exhibiting pornographic material to minors. Though undoubtedly a personal nadir, Schiele’s imprisonment fits into a wider period in the artist’s life. Sickened by the superficial sycophancy of Vienna, Schiele sought artistic rejuvenation in the countryside, only to find his cosmopolitan habits and eroticized artwork hounded by his conservative neighbours.
In the pantheon of tortured artists, Schiele is a paramount, but also a problematic figure. The debate as to whether his portraits represent a playful subversion of contemporary standards of sexual conduct and display, or whether they depict the pornographic exploitation of adolescent girls, will continue to be debated into perpetuity. Indeed, Schiele’s work asks us to question whether it is the prerogative, or even the duty, of an artist to override morality.
For all his protests about the artifice of Viennese life, Schiele was a quintessential product of the city he sought flight from. Already daring, his work reached new heights under the pupilage of Gustav Klimt, the patriarch of fin de siècle Viennese art, whose decorative eroticism Schiele began to incorporate. It was through Klimt that Schiele was not only introduced to potential patrons, but also to the expressionist works of Kokoschka, Munch, and van Gogh. Though Klimt was a vital spring of inspiration and support for Schiele, the younger artist soon broke out into his distinct oeuvre. Klimt’s angular poses and depictions of lustful escapism gave way to emaciated and contorted figures with a new level of sexual openness.
Whereas a sense of wide-eyed excitement at the world, albeit in very different forms, pervades the work of both Klimt and van Gogh, Schiele often turned his gaze inwards onto himself. Schiele’s conflicted, even paradoxical, self-portrayal reveals a man battling for a sense of self and place in the world: we see Schiele as saint and sinner, fashionable dandy and emaciated corpse, martyr and masturbator.
Such adolescent angst goes hand in hand with a zeal for sincerity and a rejection of the artificial. The dazzling decorative schemes of Klimt were no longer enough for Schiele, and he sought to hone his work in rural retreat.
The first of Schiele’s sojourns was to Krumau, Czechoslovakia. Travelling with fellow artists, the eccentric dress and pose of Schiele’s entourage isolated them from their new community. Indeed Schiele’s paintings of Krumau reflect this sense of unease. The tall imposing houses and brooding castle of the real-life town are exaggerated and tarred with carcinogenic
brown and black in Dead City III (1911). Yet most disturbingly for the townsfolk, Schiele’s party became a massive hit with some of the town’s youth. One school-boy, Willy Lidl, became utterly infatuated with Schiele. When the artist briefly returned to Vienna, Willy desperately wrote to
him: “I love you endlessly, I live only for you. If you stay near me
I will become strong, if you leave me I will die.” Amongst the party was also the 17-year old Wally Neuzil, a former model and lover of Klimt’s who Schiele now embarked on a relationship with.
Escaping from the claustrophobia and condemnation of the town, Schiele and Wally took up residence in the outskirts: in a house with an idyllic garden. With the support of Willy and Wally, Schiele settled into rural life with astonishing success, ecstatically writing to friends to come out to visit him. The impressionistic haze of Field of Flowers (1910) captured the mood of childlike paradise that now engulfed Schiele. Yet something more suspect and scandalous was also afoot. Schiele’s practice of having young models sit for him, obscured in the anonymity of Vienna, quickly became a cause of public scandal. Though it seems that all of Schiele’s young models were
volunteers, and though the borders of sexual maturity were more hazy in an age where the age of consent was fourteen, his failure to get the permission of their parents is inexcusable. It brought condemnation down upon him. Exasperated and outraged, the enraged townsmen eventually drove Schiele and Wally out.
Despite the circumstances of their abrupt departure from Krumau, Schiele and Wally were determined to get away to another rural retreat. This time it was the town of Neulenbach, half an hour outside of Vienna. They picked up their same lifestyle and gossip quickly spread. Yet when a young girl
running away from home sought refuge with Schiele, who was too embarrassed to return her to her parents, the artist found himself confronted with the police, who unearthed hundreds of erotic works.
Schiele spent 21 days in prison before appearing before a court. The judge denounced Schiele’s work, taking a candle to one of Schiele’s drawings. It was a powerful demonstration that, as much for the nature of his work as for his supposed seduction and abduction, Schiele was condemned. Indeed, the only charge that held up was the one of displaying pornographic images; the charges of abduction and seduction were dropped.
Yet with all art – especially that of Schiele, given its preoccupation with the individual self – it is difficult, if not nigh on impossible, to draw a neat distinction between the lifestyle that produces it and the art itself. Schiele was a product of a Viennese scene where moral concerns over sex and age were viewed more as irritating and obsolete obstructions than as rigid taboos.
In transmitting this artistic philosophy outside of the urban confines, he exposed himself to criticism to a far greater extent than he had previously. The outrage and despair Schiele felt is forcefully displayed in To Prevent an Artist from Working Is a Crime, It Is to Kill Life Which Is in Gestation (1912). Stretched out beneath a pile of coats and blankets, Schiele’s sunken eyes, cropped hair, and unkempt stubble have a skeletal horror. Turned on its side, his lying body appears to float and rise with a spectral quality. It is as if the very asceticism of his conditions was draining the life from him.
Schiele’s imprisonment met with protests from many of his supporters in Vienna and served primarily to bolster his presence. Though it does not do to romanticize the plight of the tortured artist in prison, nor can Schiele’s imprisonment be dismissed merely as a mytholigising episode. In many ways, it was Schiele’s artistic coming-of-age. The child-like naivety at the idea of the artist as a god, reshaping the world as he saw fit, which pervades his earlier work now gave way to a serious awareness of the darker side of this world. Previously Schiele had toyed with the concept of death as a mirror to life; now his work took on a grim morality.
Schiele’s censorship, though short-lived and more of a moral and aesthetic than a political dimension, was no less impactful for it. It both brought to an end a period in which he sought artistic regeneration outside of urban life and gave him a new awareness of his works potential to incite outrage. For Schiele, the paintbrush was a double-edged sword as capable today as it was a hundred years ago of provoking admiration as condemnation, at depicting life or death.