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.