The upcoming show will feature over 150 works from the collections of Neue Galerie co-founders Ronald Lauder and Serge Sabarsky, some of which have never been shown in the United States before. Schiele’s most recent major exhibition in the U.S. was at the Museum of Modern Art in 1997. In that show, his sensibility seemed to fall into line with the culture’s own fin-de-siècle mood, resonating seductively with zeitgeist in the same way that, Elizabeth Peyton’s rock-star paintings did. Since then, of course, the zeitgeist has changed radically. In its next stateside appearance, Schiele’s work—which argues so eloquently against moralizing and enforced “normality”— may not only seduce, but edify as well.
The Viennese Expressionist Egon Schiele (1890-1918) had only two urgent interests: himself and his sexual fantasies. Out of such limited preoccupations and by means of a preternatural gift for drawing and graphic design, he created artworks that still burn with narcissistic yearning, erotic desire, bohemian dissent and existential anxiety.
Since the revival in the early 1970's of his dormant reputation, he has been esteemed by fine-art lovers as one of the 20th century's great draftsmen and he has been a romantic hero to generations of young people raised on sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll who would not know a Monet from a Manet.
Schiele did other things besides self-portraits and sexy pictures of young women. He made wonderful portraits of friends, relatives and lovers, painted gloomy landscapes in an amalgam of Modernist and medieval styles, and concocted lugubrious, overwrought allegories of life, love and death. But were it not for the self-portraits and erotic pictures on paper, his name would be forgotten today.
That is why the Neue Galerie's exhibition "Egon Schiele: The Ronald S. Lauder and Serge Sabarsky Collections" is, though an excellent production, in certain ways disappointing - because it gives too evenhanded an overview of Schiele's life and oeuvre. Organized by Renée Price, the Neue Galerie's director, it presents the Schiele holdings of the two collectors who founded the museum, Mr. Lauder and Mr. Sabarsky. The show is full of wonderful pictures, but because many of the 150 or so works on view are more biographically significant than aesthetically and psychologically gripping, Schiele seems a less exciting artist than he was at his best and most provocative - which is to say at his narrowest. There are exercises made before 1910, when Schiele was a talented teenage art student; drawings from 1912 made during a short, painful stay in prison; portraits of his in-laws; and images of fellow soldiers and landscapes from his easy stint in the Austrian Army. Informative though it may be, little of this material is very memorable.
On the other hand, though the collections do not focus on Schiele's wilder side, Mr. Lauder and Mr. Sabarsky didn't shy away from it. The show includes images of women masturbating and making love to each other - two of Schiele's favorite motifs. And Humbert Humbert would die for a watercolor from 1911 that offers the view of a girl lying face down, with her vibrantly striped skirt opened up like a flower to expose her naked buttocks and pudenda. (Many of Schiele's drawings play hide-and-seek with female genitalia.)
Was Schiele a pornographer? In some sense he surely was making art with the purpose of provoking sexual arousal - in addition to shocking the bourgeoisie - and there were people who purchased his work with that purpose in mind, so the answer is yes. (There is also enough evidence to get him charged, if not convicted, as a pedophile by today's standards.) But there have been few pornographers who drew as well as he did. At his best, Schiele was in Toulouse-Lautrec's league as a draftsman. His ways with composition, line and color and his responsiveness to paper were nothing short of exquisite.
Unlike Toulouse-Lautrec, however, Schiele takes little interest in women as people. Women for Schiele are almost always archetypal; in portraits they have severe, masklike faces; in full-figure drawings they are interchangeable objects of desire. There is a certain pathos to his depiction of women, as there is in his portrayal of himself. The body may be a source of ecstatic pleasure, but it can also be an affliction to be endured - see, for example, the studies of nude pregnant women made in a maternity hospital. There is often something overripe in his female figures, as though the body were a barometer of moral degeneration.
In self-portraits Schiele glamorizes himself, exaggerating his soulful eyes, his lithe and skinny body, his long, prehensile fingers, his high forehead and his mass of standing-up hair. He grimaces and gestures dramatically; in some cases - haloed as he is by touches of white gouache, so that he seems to radiate electric energy - he looks positively satanic. He never looks very healthy. He has the emaciated, fiercely hungry look of a spirit starved by the industrial brutality of modernity.
Rumors of unwholesomeness dogged Schiele's posthumous career. A catalog essay by Jane Kallir, granddaughter of Otto Kallir, the Viennese immigrant who founded the Galerie St. Etienne in New York and worked tirelessly to promote Schiele in the United States, notes that American dealers and curators around World War II had to contend not only with anti-German sentiment (Americans did not see the difference between Germans and Austrians), but also had to be careful about how they handled the most sexually graphic work, lest Schiele be branded a pornographer.
Then there was the issue of Schiele's personal life: his interest in underage girls who often modeled for him, and his arrest and 24-day imprisonment in 1912 on charges - eventually dropped - of abducting and molesting a 13-year-old girl. The catalog is circumspect about Schiele's personal life, but the myth of his transgressive predilections remains intact.
Along these lines, a curious chapter in the catalog by Ms. Price updates Schiele's cultural currency by showing, mostly in pictures, the influence of his work and his persona on various contemporary artists and entertainers, including Nan Goldin and David Bowie. Photographic comparisons make it appear as though Schiele had been separated at birth from stars like James Dean and Sid Vicious.
The brevity of Schiele's life adds to the popular fantasy of the outlaw who lived fast and died young. His career lasted only about eight years, from around 1910, when at age 20 he suddenly found his own vision, until his sudden death by flu in the pandemic of 1918. He was not neglected during that time, however. As a student, one of his mentors was Gustav Klimt, the dean of Viennese Modernism, and as a young professional he was included in important group shows in Vienna and elsewhere in Europe. His drawings sold well to discerning collectors, and a solo show at the Vienna Secession just months before he died was a critical and financial success. Moreover, he was a dandy with a taste for well-made American shoes and a keen awareness of the cut of his silhouette, as photographs of him in the exhibition prove. So the myth of Schiele as a sacrificial outcast who died to rid the world of its moral hypocrisy does not tell the whole story.
But it is certainly true that Schiele was most alive as an artist in his provocative explorations of his own body and those of young women. He was no van Gogh, who could lavish the same loving attentiveness on anything from an old boot to the village postman's wife. Schiele's interests were perversely limited - like, some might say, those of a fellow Viennese, Sigmund Freud. In the Neue Galerie exhibition, they blossom like hothouse orchids among the less exotic specimens.