Vienna Celebrates Doomed Erotic-Art Icon Egon Schiele With a Discreet Show of His Portraits

Egon Schiele, of course, is famous for his portraits. His landscapes and his cityscapes are admired by museums and collectors, but it is the portraits that shock. Depicting himself, his family, his lovers, and his fully-clothed commissioned clients, these works — which make up a third of his oil paintings, and a quarter of his watercolors and drawings — show raw souls in various modes of extremity, from contorted and sickly to hungrily hypersexualized (or all three). His sunken-eyed, grimacing self-portraits, with angular bodies and exposed genitals, are particularly emblematic. So why is it that the Belvedere Gallery's "Egon Schiele: Self-Portraits and Portraits" is now the first time these works have been the focus of an exhibition in the artist's hometown of Vienna, the city whose bohemian underground he helped define, and where he died at 28? 

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For one thing, sex-driven Schiele-mania has given curators pause in dedicating a show to portraits, given that their in-your-face erotic reputation could overshadow a scholarly exhibition — a threat that the Belvedere has worked to blunt, suggests exhibition co-curator Jane Kallir of New York's Galerie St. Etienne. "Schiele's forthright depictions of sexual subjects — often as shocking today as they were when he created them — impede a complete understanding of the artist's accomplishments," the curator said. "In Schiele's watercolors and drawings, the nudes and the female figures are dominant." This show, however, shows a breadth of the artist's work that goes beyond the erotic to include portraits that could even be termed decorous.

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Also, enough Schieles are in Viennese museums that the enterprising visitor can easily seek out the portraits without much help. A portrait show outside Austria, on the other hand, wasn't an option, according to Kallir. "Most of the oil paintings are still in Austria," she said. "Getting this many paintings on loan to a foreign country is difficult, if not impossible."

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The Belvedere Castle, on the other hand, is an annex to Austria's national gallery. More than 800,000 people visit annually, usually to see "The Kiss" by Gustav Klimt. (In 2006, an Austrian commission ordered the Belvedere to return six other Klimts seized during the Nazi era to the heirs of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. One of them, "Adele Bloch-Bauer I," sold for $136 million to Ronald Lauder.) But it is also the official venue for Schiele portraits from his teenage years to the months before his death in 1918. 

The 100 Schiele works now displayed in modest galleries there introduce a prodigious teenager. Accomplished renderings of plaster casts done when Schiele was 16, before the Academy of Arts expelled him, hang next to the casts themselves. Soon the gifted imitator had captured the style of Klimt, star of Vienna's art scene, and then began to make his mark with provocative self-portraits that mixed, in the city of Sigmund Freud, the vain arrogance of ego and the darkness of id. In "Seated Male Nude" (1910), Schiele paints himself as a yellowish half-goat, half-insect. Besides the jaundiced color that reeks of decadence, Klimt's only discernible influence here is the improbably calm elegance of the 20-year-old's pose.

If 1910 was the year of formal breakthrough for Schiele, 1912 was the psychological coming of age. It was then that Schiele, who scandalized neighbors in the village of Krumau (now Cesky Krumlov, in Bohemia), was accused in the town of Neulengbach, outside Vienna, of immorality and seduction of young children — a charge based on his using children as models and letting them view his drawings. He was locked up for 24 days. That experience survives in anguished notebooks and in "Prisoner!" (1912), a trembling self-portrait with a beard and shaved head in a blur of blankets.  (Confinement may have sensitized Schiele to the plight of Russian prisoners, whom he later sketched while a soldier in 1915.)

Schiele got off with a fine and the horrifying punishment of witnessing a judge burn one of his drawings in court. (The jail is now a Schiele museum, adjacent to a day-care center.) Nearby throughout the ordeal was his doe-eyed mistress and favorite model, Valerie Neuzil (aka Wally). At the Belvedere, she is wedged between two images of Schiele in a double self-portrait, and in "Death and Maiden" (1912), a poignant scene in which she clings to Schiele as he looks straight ahead toward his life beyond her.

Schiele abandoned Wally for his future wife, Edith, a sheltered bourgeois girl who resembled Wally but fit the artist's ambitions for respectability. He married her in 1915 and dragged her into the art world, even to his military postings. Pictures of the sad vulnerable Edith at the Belvedere suggest that the calculating Schiele understood the psychological price that she paid.

By 1918, the year of his death, Schiele's respectability strategy was succeeding, with portrait commissions and exhibitions abroad. But his fate wasn't the martyrdom trajectory of Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, or Jean-Michel Basquiat (who also died at 28): The Spanish Flu killed Schiele three days after it killed Edith, six months pregnant with their child.     

Lacking some signature elements, the Belvedere exhibition can't be considered a greatest hits show. "It's crazy, there are more 'Vienna 1900' shows now than ever before," said Kallir. "Everybody's trying to borrow the same things." (Another opens at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne in June.) Meanwhile, "Portrait of Gerti Schiele," Schiele's 1909 homage to his sister (and to Klimt's style), is now at the Neue Galerie in New York, on loan from MoMA (where it was placed as a partial gift by Neue Galerie founder Ronald Lauder).

The Leopold Collection, with Vienna's largest Schiele holdings, did help to  fill some gaps, but did not send the now-notorious "Portrait of Wally" (1912). That tender post-prison picture of Schiele's mistress, now paired at the the Leopold Museum with a self-portrait in the same gentle style, was the subject of a 13-year dispute involving the Leopold Foundation, MoMA, the United States government, and the heirs of Lea Bondi, the Viennese-Jewish art dealer from whom the portrait was seized in 1939.

The restitution saga was convoluted: The collector Rudolf Leopold acquired the painting in a trade with the Austrian national gallery in 1954, and U.S. law enforcement seized it in 1998 — on the suspicion that it was stolen property — while the work was on loan at MoMA. The Leopold Museum then "re-acquired" it in a $19 million settlement last July, just after Leopold's death at 85. "Welcome Wally" signs greeted the painting at homecoming events in Vienna last August that the museum promoted, without compunction, as the picture's restitution to Austria.
    
"By the time our show opened at the Belvedere, 'Wally' had really been done to death in Vienna," according to Kallir. The $19 million price paid for Wally, she added, was at the low-end of the spectrum. Before the settlement was announced, Kallir said, she had lined up potential buyers for $20 million and more.

"I don't think there is any modern master whose prices have increased as exponentially as did Schiele's did between 1941, when we had the first Schiele show at the Galerie St. Etienne, and the present moment," she said, noting that her grandfather, the gallery's founder, was rebuffed by MoMA when he offered to donate a Schiele painting in the 1950s. The current auction record for a Schiele painting is $22.4 million for "House with Mountains," set at Christie's New York in 2006.  "We can't afford them," said Kallir's co-curator, Belvedere director Agnes Husslein-Arco, matter-of-factly.

Another Schiele work at the Leopold which, like "Wally," is unlikely to come on the block, could still help set a benchmark. The museum and the heirs of Jenny Steiner are said to be close to a settlement of the Steiner family's claim to "Haueser am Meer (Houses by the Sea)," a 1914 landscape looted by the Nazis. Initially, Rudolf Leopold's son, Diethard, a museum board member, had proposed auctioning the work and dividing proceeds between the Steiner heirs and the institution, which would use the funds to pay off the "Wally" settlement. Shamed off that strategy by Vienna's official Jewish organization, the Leopold Museum is said to be offering the heirs some $25 million. The sticking point is how much the museum and another institution still to be determined would each contribute to that sum.    

Yet insiders wonder about the painting's condition. "Haueser am Meer," which hasn't been on view at the museum, was a favorite of Leopold's, who may have done his own conservation work on it — which could mean that only the Leopold Museum would want it. "It will certainly will be $15-20 million, if it's in the condition that Schiele left it," said the London dealer Richard Nagy.

Nagy, who inaugurates a gallery on Old Bond Street in May with a themed exhibition on "Schiele's Women," believes the market will adapt to Leopold's shift from selective buyer to potential seller as the Leopold Museum ponders unloading Schieles to compensate claimants. "If they just dumped a lot of stuff into auction, it clearly would suppress prices," he said. "I don't believe that the Schiele market is that broad or that deep for material that will obviously be secondary to the Leopold's needs."
 
In the current recession, Jane Kallir sees a distancing between the top of the Schiele market and other works. "You can still have a Schiele watercolor that brings $6 million, a huge price," she said. "Then you have a lot of works priced between $100,000 and $1 million, whereas before they might have been twice the price for equivalent quality or subjects."

Meanwhile, the Leopold Museum is taunting Kallir and the Belvedere with its own Schiele show planned for September, to celebrate the museum's tenth anniversary. (The Leopold Foundation was conceived in 1994 after the Austrian government agreed to pay $217 million for Rudolf Leopold's collection and build a museum with Leopold as director for life. A search is underway for his replacement from outside the family.)

Be prepared this fall, then, for an unabashed celebration of the sexual Schiele from a collection that exhibits the racy 1912 "Cardinal and Nun" (a painting the Belvedere unloaded) and displays a gargantuan reproduction of the 1914 full-frontal watercolor, "Standing Nude Girl with Orange Stockings," on an exterior wall facing a children's museum. At the Leopold, it's no surprise that the loans taken out to retain "Portrait of Wally" were secured by the foundation's erotic drawings.