The Metamorphoses of Egon Schiele

The Leopold Museum reveals the Expressionist’s ability for transformation


Following the huge success of the exhibition “Melancholy and Provocation”, which highlighted the antitheses in the oeuvre of Egon Schiele (1890-1918) – the profound sadness and world weariness on the one hand and the provocative, stirring aspect on the other – the Leopold Museum now presents Schiele masterpieces from the Leopold Collection in a new context. The exhibition entitled “The Metamorphoses of Egon Schiele” and curated by Elisabeth Leopold opens tomorrow, on the 19th of April, and is dedicated to Schiele’s ability for transformation.

Schiele transformed his own figure into various shapes

The main focus of the exhibition, which comprises some 20 paintings as well as documents and autographs, is on the artist’s self-portraits. Since the Renaissance the self-portrait has been a central theme for many artists, including Albrecht Dürer, Anthonis van Dyck and Rembrandt. Schiele, however, transformed himself in his self-portraits. “Schiele often used himself as a model, changing and transforming his body into various shapes”, explains Elisabeth Leopold. These transformations could best be described as “metamorphoses”. The intensity with which Egon Schiele used body language as a medium of expression is largely unprecedented. According to Elisabeth Leopold “the depicted becomes a symbol of the dying man who becomes a hermit, naked and levitating”.

Hermits and Levitation: transformation of life into death

Right at the start of the exhibition visitors encounter three large-scale figural depictions which are among Egon Schiele’s most important paintings. The 1912 work “The Hermits” sees Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt melting into a double-figure under a black cloak. The two figures also appear as generalized types of men. In a letter to the industrialist and eminent art collector Carl Reininghaus Schiele explained: “They are the bodies of sensitive beings”. In his impressive early masterpiece “Seated Male Nude (Self-Portrait)” of 1910 the artist rendered himself as a highly expressive, gesticulative figure. A few years later Schiele showed the transformation of life into death in his two-figure depiction “Levitation” (1915).

Oneiric images and forbidden love

These three chief works are framed by the surreal oneiric images that Schiele presented in his 1911 exhibition at the reputable Galerie Miethke under artistic director Carl Moll: “Lyricist”, “Self-Seer II” and “Revelation”. The same room also hosts numerous significant works from 1912, most importantly “Self-Portrait with Physalis” and “Portrait of Wally Neuzil” which depict Egon Schiele and his great love Wally and are among the most famous pairs of paintings in art history. Much in keeping with the theme of their amour fou, Elisabeth Leopold also presents the work “Cardinal and Nun”, symbolizing a “forbidden” but nevertheless inescapable attraction between man and woman. The “Self-Portrait with Raised Bare Shoulder” shows a face full of panic and horror. Seemingly forced into a corner, the artist screams open-mouthed and wide-eyed in protest of a hostile world that refuses to understand his message.

Farewell paintings and anthropomorphic houses

Another part of the exhibition is dedicated to Schiele’s landscapes. The work “Sinking Sun” (1913) is a farewell painting. The foreground is dark and infused with an infinite sense of cold, the sea is gray. The sky glows in a faint shade of carmine red. The horizontal lines are broken up by two young, almost bare trees whose dry leaves are stiffened by the cold. The sun is sinking almost imperceptibly as a small ball into the sea. It is taking its leave, and perhaps it will never return.
This section also includes Schiele’s anthropomorphic houses inspired by the Bohemian city of Český Krumlov on the Moldova River, with its Gothic and Renaissance buildings set in narrow lanes and surrounded by the black river.

“No-man’s-land and the end of the world”: Schiele’s Houses by the Sea

According to Elisabeth Leopold “these houses are expressions of the artist’s spiritual world”. She points out the slightly animated contours and the subdued colors, which are occasionally shot through with bright objects such as gutters, window frames and hung up laundry. To Elisabeth Leopold these renderings represent “landscapes of the soul” which are “permeated by a sense of melancholy and transience”. The highlight of this part of the exhibition is the rarely exhibited work “Houses by the Sea” (1914). A partial settlement could be reached last year concerning this painting with the sole heir of the work’s original owner Jenny Steiner. Elisabeth Leopold says of it: “Each house resembles a human face. A sharp, horizontal boundary line behind the buildings marks the transition to the light gray sea from which rocks emerge in the distance that stand out against the dark gray sky. Rudolf Leopold called this horizon “the eternal line of the no-man’s-land and the end of the world”.”

Klimt: Up Close and Personal shown until the 27th of August

The successful anniversary exhibition “Klimt: Up Close and Personal”, which sheds new light on the Jugendstil genius, can still be seen until the 27th of August.


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