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Egon Schiele was associated but not part of the German Expressionist movement. During his tragic but prolific career, Schiele produced more than 3,000 paintings and drawings. Most of these paintings and drawings consist of nude figure studies of men and women in gouache and watercolor on paper, including approximately a hundred self-portraits.
Much like other 20th-century German Expressionist artists, Schiele’s figure studies and self-portraits evidence a strong interest in emotional and psychological states. As a teenager, Schiele watched the slow, painful death of his father at 15 years old after contracting syphilis. The experience had a profound impact on Schiele, to the point where he would forever remain to associate sexuality with physical and emotional pain and death. Schiele began his artistic formal training the year after his father died. He enrolled in Vienna’s Academy of Fine Art in 1906, where he became the protégé of Gustav Klimt, who invited Schiele to exhibit some of his works with his own, and those of, among others, Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch. Although Klimt and Schiele remained close throughout their careers, and that Klimt deeply influenced Schiele’s art, he did not fully share Klimt’s inclination towards the decorative. When Schiele exhibited with van Gogh and Munch, their emotional content made a deep impression on him.
However, eventually, Schiele surpassed all of his contemporaries, including Van Gogh and Munch in the portrayal of emotional states and tormented psyches through the representation of withered bodies. One time a judge ruled his works to be pornographic art after Schiele innocently attempted to seek for children as models for his works, sentencing him to spend 24 days in prison. Schiele’s tragic life ended when he contracted
the Spanish Flu in 1918, he was only 28 years old.
Egon Schiele’s “Self-Portrait with Peacock Vest, Standing” made in 1911, is one of the most unusual works in his career.
Primarily, it is unusual that the central figure is not standing against an empty background, but rather the ambiguous background of the portrait with its rapid brushstrokes and green-like colors give dynamism to the composition.
Secondly, unlike most of his self-portraits, Schiele does not represent himself naked in a state of misery, despair, and grievance. Rather, we observe Schiele in an almost arrogant, proud, smug stance.
A white aureole surrounds Schiele’s head, resembling images of saints or byzantine fresco representations of Christ. Influenced by Nietzschean philosophy, which also influenced other members of the German Expressionist movement, (i.e. Gustav Klimt), instead of implying that he is God or a God-like being, Schiele suggests that art itself can bring salvation to humanity. Schiele’s “Self-Portrait with Peacock Vest, Standing” is the first time we evidence in Schiele’s oeuvre, the V-Shaped gesture of his hand spreading off his index finger, in front of the solar plexus of his chest. Like Gustav Klimt and his lavish use of gold leaf, Egon Schiele also takes influence from Byzantine religious art. This gesture resembles blessing hand gesture signs of Christ in Byzantine frescoes, such as the Christ Pantocrator fresco found at the Chora Church in Istanbul. It is also noteworthy to point to Schiele’s clothes in this portrait. Although Schiele seems elegantly dressed in this portrait, it is likely that this vest did not belong to him. Schiele painted this portrait at a time when he was living in extreme poverty with his life companion, Wally. In fact, the white collar on his vest was most likely cut out from paper, since he could not afford one. In Schiele’s “Self-Portrait with Peacock Vest, Standing” one piece of evidence that the artwork is not a mere representation, a mirror image of reality, but an invention.