Driven by an innate talent for drawing, Egon Schiele is an essential part of the heritage of Austrian painting. Best known for his self-portraits tinged with melancholy and suffering, he leaves behind an exceptional collection of works and an exciting exploration of the human figure in its most expressive form. KAZoART returns to Schiele’s Self-Portrait made in 1911 and uncovers some of its moody secrets…

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Egon Schiele. Self-portrait in a Vest, Standing up, 1911. Gouache, watercolour and pencil on paper, mounted on cardboard.

A few words about Egon Schiele

Drawing had always been a key part of Egon Schiele’s life. As a child, the first thing would do upon waking up is go to his pencils and paper and begin to draw. His father, who was the head of a train station and also afflicted by a mental illness, encouraged his son’s artistic endeavours. When he passed away in 1905, Egon was plunged into an inner distress that would gradually be made evident in his work.

At just sixteen years old, he was accepted into the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, which is no small feat! But the formal learning environment didn’t suit his tastes. Alongside Gustav Klimt, he was drawn towards a new form of expression that was not in keeping with the Academy’s traditional framework. It was then that the Neukunstgruppe (Group for New Art) was formed in an effort to renew the trends of artistic expression.

Schiele developed his own style and left behind nearly 300 paintings and over 3,000 works on paper. Exploring the human figure, revealing it in its depths, its intimacy, its weaknesses, and its distress. All of this was a way for Schiele to give life to his inner struggles.

A closer look at the self-portrait

Schiele’s career was brief but intense. He died at the age of twenty-eight from the Spanish flu. Always committed to transcribing his subjects’ emotions, he gave a certain importance to his own figure in this particular self-portrait. Blatantly, he reveals his distress, eccentricity and anguish. The Schiele Portrait (standing up, with a vest) is a rare occurrence wherein he breaks with his usual posture. Far from extreme gestures, he presents himself at his best for the viewer.

4 details not to miss

1. A seductive look

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In his other self-portraits, he has accustomed the viewer to seeing him naked, tortured and posed ambiguously. This time, however, he sports a new look. Chic and seductive, he is well dressed and represented in a much more classic posture. In addition to his dashing outfit, it’s his attitude that grabs our attention. His raised eyebrows, slightly turned nose, and tightened mouth have us interested. It can be concluded that Schiele is looking at us openly! Dismissive of anyone who gets too close, he’s showing the viewer what he thinks of them.

Impossible to not miss, there is a halo of light that surrounds his head. In addition to having a snarky regard, Schiele looks as if he’s a high-ranking elected official. With his tousled hair, he’s a confident, mad genius, a kind of heavenly figure that is not impressed by the fact he must live amongst the mortals.

2. A tailored suit

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It seems to be a big day for Schiele. His self-representation here reveals a whole different side of his true condition. That said, the year is 1911, and he’s living in poverty with his partner Wally. We can only assume that he made his own suit and shirt by cutting paper and pretending to be a master tailor.

3. Evocative hands

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Egon Schiele’s hands…what absolute mysteries! He often paints himself with spread fingers. It is in this self-portrait that the famous V- shaped gesture appears. Could it be a symbol for something? A sign of protest? Scholars believe it references the Byzantine-era mosaic, Pantocrator in the Chora Church in Constantinople.

His hands tinged with green are also an echo of what regularly appears in his works: death and mortality. Even in the most perfect of costumes, even when depicted like a divine creature, he never ceases to suffer. It hangs above his head like the sword of Damocles. His hands are proof of his agony in their stiff and emaciated state. Though his representation is not very natural, it is the artist’s means of communicating with the viewer. Schiele’s fingers are a metaphor for the human condition, like a cry of distress in sign language.

4. A celebration of life

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Let’s finish this reading of Schiele’s work by looking at the flowerbed at the very bottom of the composition. Known for often filling his portraits’ backgrounds with emptiness, here, Schiele gives in to his desire to live. In his gaze and posture, we see that he coexists with destitution. Here, however, he is among a field of flowers, surrounded by vitality, abundance and life. This poetic artist is clearly dreaming of another life. He does this to give hope to others but most of all, to himself.

Schiele-inspired work on KAZoART – Florent Cordier

On KAZoART, artist Florent Cordier unveils his highly stylised portrait entitled Woman II in which the brass colours and blurred forms echo back to Egon Schiele’s style. We can just see the faint outline of a human form against the destitute background.

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Florent Cordier, Woman II