by Roderick Conway Morris

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A Revealing Body of Work

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 30 November 2018
Albertina Museum, Vienna
Group of Three Girls by Egon Schiele, 1911



The works of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele now between them seem to encapsulate an entire era of avant-garde art in Vienna in the late 19th and early 20th century. Although Klimt was 28 years older than Schiele, by a twist of fate they both died in 1918.

This centenary is now being marked by the Royal Academy with a revealing exhibition, curated by Désirée de Chair and Sarah Lea, of drawings by these the two most brilliant and original Austrian draughtsmen of their times, of around 100 works on paper, including preparatory sketches for paintings, portraits, self-portraits and erotic nudes.

Both artists came from modest, village backgrounds near Vienna, but both received traditional trainings at two of the city's art schools, where drawing provided the basis for all other subsequent artistic activities. But both rebelled against the strictures of their formal art educations and invented new, disconcerting and provocative modes of expression. Nonetheless, both remained devoted to the human figure as the focus of their art.

Klimt was one of the co-founders of the Viennese Secession in 1897, a breakaway group of avant-garde artists. Schiele first encountered his works at the Kunstschau, an exhibition in 1908. Schiele was briefly much influenced by the older artist, but he firmly established a distinctive personal style within a couple of years.

From then on the parallel careers of these artists as draughtsmen makes for an absorbing narrative. Almost all of Klimt's drawings were preparatory for paintings, whereas Schiele quickly came to develop them as an end in themselves.

An intriguing exception to this is represented in a room entirely devoted to Schiele, which includes portraits, nudes, landscapes and flower paintings. In a small notebook on display, we can see a series miniature landscape sketches, barely bigger than postage stamps, which Schiele later hugely enlarged to create two of his finest paintings: 'Stein on the Danube' and 'The Bridge'. But, as the artist himself once remarked, 'copying from nature is of no consequence to me, because I paint better from memory than in front of a landscape'.

However, when it came to the human figure, both rigorously worked from live models. But whereas Klimt reserved his flamboyant use of colour for his paintings, Schiele employed a highly selective and expressive use of colour washes in his finished drawings. And while Klimt recoiled from the very idea of self-portraits, Schiele made a powerful series of them, including 10 on show here.

Schiele died tragically young at 28, but the fact that he left such a substantial oeuvre - 2,900 works on paper and 70 paintings - secured his place, alongside Klimt, as a key figure in the story of modern art.

Klimt/Schiele Drawings; Royal Academy, London; 4 November 2018 -

3 February 2019

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023