A throng of people is starring with wide eyes at a nude who lies with her lids closed and an almost dislocated arm on the floor. Her gleaming white contours separate her from the rest of the sober background and make her almost transcend from the painting into reality.
Egon Schiele’s art, exhibited in Munich’s Kunstbau, is still able to mesmerize people with its naked truth. Almost a century ago it was too much truth for the Austrian authorities who incarcerated Schiele for the “dissemination of immoral drawings.” One can still see folds on some nude drawings, where the owners tried to hide the genitals.
Although it is ordinary to display flesh today, and Schiele would very unlike be labeled as to be obscene, one cannot help but look at Schiele’s paintings. While the media turns skin into a numbing surface, Schiele uses it in his attempt to reveal what is hidden beneath – that is its real provocation.
Neither the nude minor girl, nor the licentious gay couple, or the woman who masturbates is shocking, but the curiosity with which we, the onlookers, are fettered. Unlike Édouard Manet in his painting, Olympia, he is not merely questioning our morality, but provokes us to question our entire sexuality.
Still, the exhibition reveals that it would be blinkered to reduce Schiele to his renowned nude drawings, since he does not question solely sexuality but also identity as a whole. The title of the exhibition, “The lost I” (Das unrettbare Ich), summarizes Schiele’s work (if possible) with the adequate headline.
Egon Schiele, who lived in Vienna’s fin de siècle, depicts with every painting the Zeitgeist of his time. It is the time of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis, Albert Einstein relativity theory, and an industrially, socially and politically changing world.
All this inconsistency in the worldview left the expressionistic painter, like many others in his generation, lost in his search for identity. Every stroke, colour, angle, and motive are a different attempt to draw a picture of this enigmatic self and the surrounding world it corresponds with.
This search for the I is not merely captured in his abundant self-portrays, but can also be read in his poems which are written on blackboards throughout the exhibition hall. In one poem he asks himself: “which puzzling substances I am made of.”
Especially the Freudian theories of the self are protruding. Besides the libido as elemental force and the tripartition of the psyche, the examination of Thanatos and Eros (death and love) are omnipresent. He makes the ugly beautiful and the living morbid in his journey for meaning.
Opposites, in general, dominate his work. In some pictures, he omits space, lines, or details, such as the cello player who is holding no cello. In other pictures, he uses colour only in certain parts, in order to emphasise these.
Thereby, he pays most attention to faces and hands. As if the eyes were the window to the soul, Schiele reveals their – often paradoxical – emotion through their glances. At the same time the hands either reconfirm this emotional state or contradict it.
Whether a woman holds something imaginary in her sleep, or someone is intertwining his fingers, the hands are always a symbol of the hidden personal condition. Exhibited photographs of Schiele show that he uses his hands as metaphors even in his own portrays.
Although his most famous drawings are not displayed and one is often clueless about the material he used for his work since there are no signboards, it is a grabbing and multifaceted exhibition, that should not be missed.
Further, the exhibition is highly current because the search for the self is nowadays, in a world that offers so many meanings, more prevailing than ever. Whether it repels us or attracts us, Schiele urges us on voyage to the self.