The Artist of Sex and Death

Egon Schiele: Portraits

an exhibition at the Neue Galerie, New York City, October 9, 2014–April 20, 2015
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Alessandra Comini
Neue Galerie/Prestel, 295 pp., $65.00

Standing in front of Egon Schiele’s full-length portrait of Edith—one of the most striking pictures at the Neue Galerie’s exhibition of Schiele portraits—I thought what a peculiar tribute this was to the young woman he had just married (see illustration below). He had begun a courtship of Edith (as well as her sister Adele) in the spring of 1914, and she became Schiele’s wife, much against the wishes of her family, in 1915. The painting was done the same year. (Another fine portrait in sombre autumn colors, displayed in the same show, of Edith’s father, Johann Harms, a retired railway man, slumped in his chair, asleep perhaps, suggests that just one year later Schiele may have been forgiven for taking Edith away from her family.)

Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, Netherlands
Egon Schiele: Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Standing (Edith Schiele in a Striped Dress), 1915

There she is, a gawky red-haired figure squeezed into a milky background, her slim hands clutching a multicolored striped dress, made by herself out of curtain material, her white shoes turned slightly inward, her wide blue eyes peering with childlike innocence from a pale-skinned face. The impression is of a doll-like creature, stiff, timid, not entirely in control of her own limbs. The inexperienced, ultra-respectable Edith Harms, from a Protestant family, would seem to have been an odd companion to a nominally Catholic artist famous (indeed notorious) for his scandalously erotic pictures, many of them of his mistress and model, the free-spirited Wally Neuzil.

In the Neue Galerie show, the portrait of Edith hangs in the same room as the erotic works, such as the watercolor and pencil drawing of a young girl opening up her vagina like the petals of a rose (Observed in a Dream, 1911), or Wally looking at the viewer anything but innocently with her legs drawn up, as though waiting to be penetrated (Wally in Red Blouse with Raised Knees, 1913).

Wally had been living with Schiele in Neulengbach, a small town in Lower Austria, in 1912, when he was arrested for kidnapping, rape, and public immorality. The first two charges were dropped for lack of evidence. But Schiele’s erotic drawings of young girls were enough to convict him on the third count and send him to prison for twenty-four days. Wally loyally stuck with him, as his mistress. Despite all his bohemian airs, Schiele did not regard her as a suitable wife. Himself the son of a humble stationmaster (who had been driven mad by syphilis at an early age), Schiele wanted to combine his artistic explorations of dark sexuality with the bourgeois comforts of settled domesticity. For this he needed a bourgeois wife.

Private Collection
Egon Schiele: Wally in Red Blouse with Raised Knees, 1913

Edith and…

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