When Egon Schiele died on All Hallows' Eve in 1918, a victim of the Spanish influenza pandemic that killed 40 million people--including his pregnant wife, who had died three days before him--he was 28. Schiele had been poised to assume the position of Vienna's leading artist, having abruptly arrived at his signature style in 1910, at the age of 20. The change was more like a metamorphosis than a transformation. Schiele had been a precocious student, but nothing he did before 1910 would have prepared anyone for the singular artist he all at once became. The only parallel case that comes to mind is that of Arthur Rimbaud, writing urgent and unprecedented verse while still a schoolboy. Rimbaud and Schiele were comparable geniuses, and Schiele was in a way a vilain bonhomme, as Rimbaud and his drinking buddies called themselves. But Schiele's rebelliousness was part of the overall secessionist spirit that possessed twentieth-century artists impatient for official academic art to be junked and Modernism to begin.
There was nothing criminal in his character, as there had been with Rimbaud, but the extreme eroticism that marked his work--and his use of very young models--raised suspicions that he was capable of transgressive sexual acts. Indeed, he was jailed in 1912, accused of abducting and sexually abusing an underage female, while he was living in a small village outside Vienna with his long-term lover and model, Wally. At the trial the charges were refuted, but one can easily understand, on the evidence of his art, how he could be believed capable of sexual delinquency. The authorities found pinned to his studio wall an evidently salacious drawing of a young woman, naked from the waist down. He was sentenced to an extra three days in prison--his incarceration lasted twenty-four days in all--on the ground that he displayed an indecent picture where it could be seen by innocent eyes. The offending image was subjected to judicial destruction. Interestingly, the fact that the authorities found drawers full of similarly "indecent" images did not count against him. The offense was showing, not making, dirty pictures.
Eroticism and pictorial representation have coexisted since the beginning of art, and many great artists have a few erotic images in their "X Portfolios" (to use Robert Mapplethorpe's term). But Schiele was unique in making eroticism the defining motif of his impressive if circumscribed oeuvre. He was also unique in that drawing was his chief medium. Willem de Kooning said that flesh was the reason oil painting was invented, but Schiele demonstrated how remarkably fleshly thin transparent washes of pale color can be. Consider the iconic self-portrait of 1910, in which the naked artist is gazing--or glowering--at himself in a mirror, over his left shoulder. The right arm is bent around his head, which he grasps with his hand. The fingers are abnormally long, and his face is focused in a look of intense concentration: One eyebrow is raised, the mouth is pursed in a sullen grimace. The left arm, all bone and stringy muscles, falls straight down from shoulder to a flared elbow. Whatever he is looking for in the mirror, the artist is as confident as the drawing of his arm, his outthrust rib cage, his curved back, his narrow waist. Lines of tension give definition to his body, matching the ferocity of his look. Two features call for specific comment: the wiry thatch of hair beneath his right arm--echoed by a curl of pubic hair at the bottom of the sheet--and his right nipple, red almost to the point of blackness. These express not so much the gender as the sexuality of the body. The hair is not indicated but drawn, and the nipple suggests a target. There is a touch of red on the elbow so sure in its execution as to take one's breath away. The same red is on the cheekbones and on the finger clasped around the artist's head. There is nothing else in the self-portrait besides Schiele and the signature initial S in the lower right corner. The paper is yellowish. The figure is cropped, which heightens the intensity both of the posture and the execution. The accuracy of the drawing is confirmed by several photographs, in which Schiele contemplates himself in the mirror, clearly proud of his looks, his elegant figure, his leonine head of hair. Unquestionably, this is a vain young man.
Schiele was 20 when he drew his self-portrait. Compare it with any of the earlier drawings of nudes in the exhibition of Schiele's art on view at the Neue Galerie in New York City through February 20, and you will see instantly what I mean by the abruptness of his style. All of a sudden, and until the end of his pathetically brief career, everything is mobilized to express the sexuality of the human body. Schiele inevitably drew many naked figures in the course of his academic education. The sexual attributes are all shown. But in his final style, the whole body expresses its sexuality. If I can put it somewhat paradoxically, he has found a style that sexualizes eroticism. In Schiele's work the human body expresses its sexuality as artistic truth.