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Egon Schiele; In Search of a Perfect Line | davelovell.net
Nov 152010

For some time I have been read­ing every­thing I can put my hands on regard­ing the Aus­trian artist Egon Schiele.  I fall into these peri­ods occa­sion­ally; two years of my life went to Theodore Roo­sevelt, another three to Irish His­tory, etc., etc.  It is one of the upsides to my cho­sen level of acad­e­mia that I may pur­sue fields of intel­lec­tual study com­pletely at my own whim (as long as I get my papers graded on time).

I stum­bled onto Egon via a cir­cuitous route; I have long had a fas­ci­na­tion with what I see as the Ger­manic ten­dency toward national dual­ism (pos­si­bly national schiz­o­phre­nia.)  How a sin­gle coun­try could reach such incred­i­ble heights of oppo­site direc­tion, but I also know enough his­tory to real­ize that the polit­i­cal unity of the Ger­man state is really quite young, and that this dual­ism is rooted in real his­tory.  Feel free to read more about the long bat­tles for Ger­man hege­mony between the Junkers of the North ver­sus the Hab­s­burgs of the South.

With this in mind I began to won­der if the wild mood swings that I saw in Ger­manic cul­ture would cor­re­late to which part was in charge.  To look more deeply into this I began to read about the cen­ters of north­ern and south­ern Ger­manic cul­tures at the start of the 20th cen­tury — Berlin and Vienna respectively.

I lost focus on my orig­i­nal intent almost imme­di­ately (I hope to get back to it even­tu­ally,) and lost myself in the late stages of Vienna’s fin-de-siècle.  Gus­tav Klimt and the Seces­sion was my port of entry, but I soon fix­ated on the birth of Ger­man Expres­sion­ism and ulti­mately found young Egon wait­ing there for me.

I learned the basics – born to a Hab­s­burg rail­road civil ser­vant who lacked much enthu­si­asm for art, a early and obvi­ous gift for draw­ing, the typ­i­cal break with fam­ily sup­port to fol­low his gift… but then things got inter­est­ing, and I was hooked. One of the things that I found attrac­tive about Schiele was the fact that he had gone through years of for­mal train­ing in draw­ing, in his teen years at the gym­na­sium school he had been sent to (after fail­ing at another), and then at the Vienna Acad­emy (he was admit­ted for the same class into which young Adolf was not).

Often peo­ple look at the early works of the Mod­ern period with caus­tic cliché’s that the work is inter­est­ing, but the artist clearly lacked any real skill – very not so for my lit­tle Egon. If you look at his work chrono­log­i­cally, the impact of his teach­ers is clear and you can see him attempt­ing to emu­late what he was being taught.  But more inter­est­ing, you can see him keep­ing the lessons that he saw as use­ful, and dis­re­gard­ing those he did not.

Egon Schiele was fas­ci­nated with line.

And so am I.  Those who can; do, and those who can’t; teach – I teach about Art, its his­tory and the­ory… but I can’t draw a line to save my life, and my inabil­ity is part of the fas­ci­na­tion I have for Schiele.  He is quoted as hav­ing said that his entire career was spent in search of the per­fect line.  I think that he found it repeat­edly, but I’m glad he kept look­ing for it.

To pick back on my point about Egon’s for­mal study, I end up in too many dis­cus­sions with peo­ple about “Mod­ern” Art, what­ever the hell that is.  It usu­ally goes some­thing like this:  “Oh, so you teach Art His­tory?  Then let me ask you (as they point to some­thing like an abstract work) is this Art?  I mean, you’ve stud­ied it, what is this, it looks like some­thing my kid could do?”

My reply is usu­ally sub­ject to one of two things; the tone of the per­son ask­ing me, and the amount of alco­hol I’ve con­sumed before the ques­tion.  If the tone is supe­rior, and there’s an open bar – “I’m sure your kid looks more like your pool boy than you, but he still couldn’t pro­duce any­thing like this.  I’d stand here and explain it to you, but I don’t know that many small words and any­way I have to pee.”

But if the tone was sin­cere and it was a cash bar – “Kids can do amaz­ing things since they don’t over think like adults, let’s both take another look… do you see the lines, look for the lines, see where they lead your eye.  The lines are the hint, a chance to feel where the Artist is try­ing to take you.”

If the ques­tion is sin­cere and it’s an open bar… well, who knows?

It took me awhile, but I can always find Egon’s lines, and he is lead­ing me some­where, I’m just never sure where.

The first ques­tioner above took his supe­rior tone from a belief that mod­ern, abstract or unrep­re­sen­ta­tional art is the prod­uct of the untrained – that some­how no work or skill was involved.  And I will admit that some­times that is true, and the art is crap.

I seem to hear sim­i­lar dis­cus­sions regard­ing gen­eral edu­ca­tion, the bat­tle between old-fashioned “rote” learn­ing and some type that doesn’t sti­fle cre­ativ­ity.  That mem­o­riz­ing events from his­tory is a waste of time, that we should just have the chil­dren dis­cuss things…  These are the same non­sen­si­cal argu­ments I hear between reli­gion and sci­ence – as if it is a zero sum game.

For me the best answer is always in the mid­dle, and I’m sure that this is the legacy of my Jesuit train­ing: mem­o­rize first, think later.  It sounds scholas­tic, but its beauty is in how sim­ple the approach is, and how it destroys both extreme argu­ments.  One does not mem­o­rize for the sake of mem­o­riz­ing (although the brain is a mus­cle, and exer­cise never hurts…) one mem­o­rizes to inter­nal­ize data, to cre­ate a base of knowl­edge that you can then use.  You can’t think cre­atively about some­thing you know noth­ing about. Some­one taught Pey­ton Man­ning how to throw a foot­ball, there were rules, things to mem­o­rize and not ques­tion – but after that was inter­nal­ized he could take it and make it his own.

Egon was trained as well, in the very old-fashioned approach of the acad­e­mies of the time.  He stud­ied, he copied, he repeated, he inter­nal­ized and finally he rebelled against its con­straints.  A pro­fes­sor of mine once told me that if I didn’t come to see that both he and the uni­ver­sity were slow­ing me down… then I hadn’t really learned anything.

Egon Schiele knew how to paint, he had copied all that had been done before him, he had mas­tered all the tech­nique.  With all of that study, he was left look­ing for one thing; the per­fect line.

I’m try­ing to fig­ure out what per­fect line I should be look­ing for… have you found yours?

…more on Egon soon.

  10 Responses to “Egon Schiele; In Search of a Perfect Line”

  1. Thanks for com­ment­ing. Egon and his wife both also died in the flu epi­demic, Egon had to endure watch­ing his wife’s demise before suc­cumb­ing to the dis­ease him­self. A cou­ple sum­mers ago I spent some days at the Leopold Museum in Vienna study­ing there col­lec­tion of Klimt and Schiele. Among the dis­plays was a haunt­ing pho­to­graph of Schiele on his death bed.

  2. Hello.
    I am Aus­trian. Do you want to say that Aus­tria and Ger­many are the same coun­try? Or that they should be the same coun­try? If you think so, you must be quite stu­pid.. Or do I mis­un­der­stand you?
    Thank you for an answer

    • Lena, thanks for the com­ment…
      While leav­ing the ques­tion of my stu­pid­ity aside for the moment, I cer­tainly am not sug­gest­ing that Aus­tria and Ger­many are the same coun­try. My point was cul­tural, not polit­i­cal or national. I con­tinue to be intrigued by the period from the failed Frank­furt Assem­bly to Bismark’s use of the “Ems Dis­patch” to achieve hege­mony over the Hab­s­burgs for the con­fed­er­a­tion states.

  3. Thank you .

  4. won­der­ful post on my favorite artist and my own pur­suit of the per­fect line. thank you.

  5. Hi Dave, do you know the title of the first line draw­ing on this article?

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