The Silent Children

Egon Schiele

Portrait of Egon Schiele

By the turn of the Twentieth Century, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was at its zenith and its capital, Vienna, was renowned as the cultural heart of Europe. A melting pot of science, art and literature, some of the greatest thinkers, creative minds and scientists challenged ideas, pushing the boundaries of art and science. Through Freud and others, theories of the subconscious and psychoanalysis inspired artists to use their canvases to explore lust, desire and fear. The advent of photography gave them the freedom to move away from simply capturing a pretty face or a still life. Gustav Klimt, and latterly, the Austrian Expressionists, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, among others, shook the conservative art establishment with their bold representations.

When he died in 1918, Egon Schiele was recognised as one of the most outstanding artists of his time. While studying art in Vienna, he developed his own distinct style. During the chaos of the period between the two world wars, Schiele was quietly forgotten, then labelled as a degenerate by the Nazis. It was only in the 1950’s that collectors – notably Rudolf Leopold – saw in Schiele’s work an artist on a par with the great masters of the past, but whose work reflected a true modernism in its expressionism and subject matter. In the words of art historian and Austrian and German art specialist, Jill Lloyd:

“There would be a strong case for viewing Egon Schiele’s entire work as an extended self-portrait. With an intensity unique among his Expressionist peers, Schiele used his self-image to explore not only his psychic and sexual impulses, but also his role as an artist and as a way of symbolising mankind’s universal fate. Schiele viewed the world through the prism of his fears and desires: despite his heightened powers of observation and the brilliant accuracy of his draftsmanship, the artist was less concerned with rendering objective reality than with recording his deeply felt emotions. To this extent every subject, be it an autumn landscape, a sunflower, or a Viennese model… Is less an objective depiction than a displaced self-portrait, a mirror of the artist’s soul.” ¹

In some of his work, Schiele explored the theme of motherhood and the relationship between mother and child. He had a difficult relationship with his mother and he wove this conflict into his images, playing with ideas of motherhood in ways which were counter opposite to the classical paintings depicting this theme. For Schiele, motherhood was perhaps more about sacrifice and subordination than joy and happiness. Despair, melancholy and bitterness shrouded his paintings, and in a series of earlier pictures he juxtaposed motherhood and death.

Mother with Two Children III

Mother with Two Children III currently hangs in the Belvedere in Vienna.

Mother with Two Children III is slightly different from those and other versions of this painting: perhaps he was slowly coming to terms with his own conflict with his mother. Yet even though the matriarch in this picture is more ‘alive’, she appears withdrawn and glassy-eyed. There are innumerable ways to interpret it, but for me, this painting (and Schiele more generally) inspired my novel. Given one of the themes running through my story, I wanted to give this picture a ‘cameo role’. Of course, I’ve exercised my creative licence and placed it in a fictional setting — in this case, in somebody’s own home, and I’ve removed the roman numeral III from its title.

Biography ²

1890 – Egon Schiele is born on 12th June, the first and only son of Adolf and Marie (née Soukup) Schiele. His father is the station master at Tulln, a town on the Danube west of Vienna. He has two sisters who survived in to adulthood, Melanie (born 1896) and Gertrude (‘Gerti’, born 1894).
1901 – Schiele enters the Realgymnasium in the town of Krems. Half way through term he is returned home and finishes the year with the help of a private tutor.
1902 – He is sent to the Gymnasium at Klosterneuberg.
1904 – The artist father is removed from his post at Tulln and the family joins him in Klosterneuberg. Adolf has suffered from Syphilis throughout his maturity and after an unsuccessful suicide attempt finally succumbs to the disease and dies on New Year’s Eve.
1905 – The young artist befriend Max Kahrer, a painter 12 years his elder, and receives extra tuition from Ludwig Karl Strauch who is the art master at the Gymnasium.
1906 – After being asked to leave the Gymnasium having failed his spring term, Schiele persuades his mother and guardian, Leopold Czihaczek to allow him to sit the entrance exam for the Academy of Fine Art in Vienna. Upon his acceptance to the Academy the family move to Vienna.
1907 – Schiele enters the Academy of Fine Art and undertakes the introductory curriculum.
1908 – He joins the ‘general painting’ class of Christian Griepenkerl, a harsh and conservative painter who develops a mutual antipathy with his pupil. The influence of Gustav Klimt becomes more distinct in the artist work, having apparently met him the previous year and seeing his work so prominently displayed at the Kunstschau in Vienna.
1909 – Klimt invites Schiele to participate in a second international Kunstschau. Schiele and a group of classmates form the Neukunstgruppe whose first act – a letter of complaint to Griepenkerl – causes Schiele to be threatened with expulsion. He and other members duly resign from the Academy.
1910 – Schiele develops his own form of Expressionism, a unique style distinct from that of his contemporaries, Klimt or Kokoschka. This new raw style is received with hostility by the Establiment and some of his works are removed from the Neukunstgruppe’s travelling exhibition to Prague. He leaves Vienna for Krumau and remains there throughout the summer returning in the winter to the capitol.
1911 – Schiele moves to Krumau accompanied by his lover Valerie ‘Wally’ Neuzil (1894-1917), a model who had formerly posed for Klimt. However, Schiele’s unconverntional relationship with Wally and his practise of taking young models into the garden to pose prove too provocative to the conservative town and he is forced to leave in August. He moves to Neulengbach, west of Vienna.
1912 – Schiele is embroiled in a court case, accused of kidnap, statutory rape and public immorality. The first to charges are dropped but he is convicted for the third and sentenced to jail. He spend 24 days in prison, after which he is emotionally scarred and financially precarious.
1913 – Having returned to Vienna the previous year he continues to work in a studio at Hietzinger Hauptstrasse 101. He is given a solo exhibition at Hans Goltz’s gallery in Munich which is not a commercial success.
1914 – Schiele meets Heinrich Böhler whose generosity significantly improves his financial situation. The artist’s friend and fellow painter Anton Peschka marries his sister Gerti.
1915 – The artist breaks off his relationship with Wally in favour of pursuing Edith Harms whose family lives opposite his studio in Hietzinger Hauptstrasse. He marries her on 17th June after Schiele is drafted into the army.
1916 – Schiele is posted to a prisoner-of-war camp in Mühling where he continues to work encouraged by his superior officers and the nature of his light duties. However it is still the least productive years of his mature career.
1917 – Schiele is transferred to the Military Supply Depot in Vienna. Schiele reputation strengthen both at home and abroad. He befriends Franz Martin Haberditzl, the director of the Staatsgalerie (to become the Österreichich Galerie Belvedere) and exhibits at the Munich Seccession.
1918 – In March the artist has a sell-out exhibition at the Vienna Secession, and following the death of Klimt in February, Schiele is regarded as the most important living artist in Austria. In October, six months pregnant, his wife Edith contracts Spanish ‘flu and dies on 28th. Egon Schiele followed his wife three days later.

¹Jill Lloyd – Egon Schiele: Self Portraiture (2013)
²Source: Sotheby’s (2013)
Acknowledgements: With thanks to Sotheby’s for providing all the source material and text.