Art History 18: 20th Century
Prof. C.C. Hungerford, Swarthmore College

Erotic Art and the Facade: Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele

In the study of Viennese modern art, two men stand out for their explorations of what has been labeled erotic art. While Egon Schiele painted to destroy the conservative Viennese faćade of moral uprighteousness and expose the inner truth, Gustav Klimt indulged in this hypocritical pretense, manipulating it with sexual symbolism. Klimt's work shows strong influences from both the Art Nouveau and Symbolist styles, his sexual presentation of women coyly softened through the use of elaborate ornamentation. Schiele, on the other hand was a early Austrian Expressionist whose intentions to reveal the inner truth of his sitters was greatly influenced by the revolutionary psychoanalytic theories of Freud. This drive to probe the psyche helps us understand Schiele's concentration on intense self-portraiture and confrontational nudes. While both men faced social opposition to their art, Schiele was publicly castigated, imprisoned for 24 days and publicly censored. While these Vienesse artists produced landscapes and other motifs, their presentation of women clearly evidence their stylistic differences as well as their artistic motives. Their portraitures of Friederike Maria Beer and each's presentation of two women together, Schiele's Two Girls Embracing Each Other and Klimt's Girlfriends, also entitled Two Women Friends, will help our understanding of the former's concentration on external beauty, ornamentation and the faćade and the latter's on the inner truth and the destruction of the facade.

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) was the foremost artist of fin-de-siecle Austria when he helped found the Vienna Secession in 1897, of which he was elected the first president. The public scandal regarding the sexual content of his three University paintings eventually led Klimt to break with the Secession in 1905 and turn towards commissioned portraiture, over which the public had no control. These portraits, almost exclusively of women, reflect Klimt's interest in "other appearances" rather than in his own appearance or even specific subjects for a painting. 1

In 1907 at the age of seventeen, Egon Schiele (1890-1918) looked to Gustav Klimt for approval of his work. Klimt obliged and helped the younger artist by providing him with contacts as well as serving as a patron. During the years 1909-1910 Schiele began developing his own style, emerging as a premier Expressionist artist along with Kokoschka.2 Twelve years after Klimt had founded the Vienna Secession, Schiele left the Academy with a group of students and founded the independent artists' association called the Neukunstgruppe, of which he was elected president.3 Unlike Klimt, who concentrated on presenting femme fatales encased in elaborate ornamentation, the majority of Schiele's sketches and paintings were psychoanalytic self-portraits, often nude, (a few featuring Klimt with Schiele) or similar "psychological portraits" of nude women.4 In 1912 the artist was jailed for 24 days, charged with immorality and seduction. His sexual liaisons, invitations to children to sit for him, and erotic sketches amounted to the first arrest of an artist in 1,000 years of Habsburg rule.5 One of his sketches was burned in front of him, denounced as pornography, as a public censor was pronounced against him.6

In order to understand the works of these two Austrian masters, it is important to understand the two different Viennas they experienced.

Klimt's golden world of Art Nouveau shimmer, richness, and elegance
reflects the last brilliance of Imperial imperviousness; Schiele's austere
Expressionist terrain maps out the collective Angst of prewar society.7

Klimt and his contemporaries were working within a provincial, hypocritically moral fin-de-siecle Vienna much like that experienced by Schiele after the turn of the century. However, the growing political instability and sense of doom was synthesized more intensely and presented with deliberation by Schiele, who intertwined his work with the revolutionary psychoanalytic theories of fellow Viennese Sigmund Freud.8

Klimt's works strongly reflect the influence of Art Nouveau and its ideal of decoration as content. Accused of perpetuating Austrian emphasis on beauty and the external, his portraits have been interpreted as presenting an unrealistic, trance-like escape from a cruel reality.9 However, in order to understand Klimt we must comprehend his manipulation of the social faćade. Rather than focusing so overtly on the psyche and its sexual manifestations like Freud and the young Expressionists, Klimt cleverly masked his sexual themes and representations with the use of intricate ornamentation of "decorative symbolism."10 The use of rich silver and gold, the beauty and detail of the design distract the viewer, confusing anatomy and ornament, subverting the underlying sexual content to the subconscious. His high society women stand confident and proud, femmes fatales exuding a hidden eroticism which the viewers' eye may attempt to deny but which their subconscious cannot. This interpretation of Klimt’s work was proven upon the investigation of his studio at the time of his death in 1918. An unfinished work entitled The Bride featured a nude girl with bent knees and spread legs. Her detailed pubic region was in the process of being overlaid with "suggestive and symbolic ornamental shapes."11 It is through this covert means that Klimt was able to publicly display his sensuous works without fear of public disapproval or imperial censor, exposing his eroticism to an ironically approving prudish society.

While Klimt labored towards a clever subversion of eroticism, a masking of reality by what seemed a perpetuation of the external bourgeois faćade of moral goodness, Schiele did all he could to accentuate his eroticism, expose the horrid internality of man and its external manifestations.12 Paralleling Freud's theories of psychoanalysis, Schiele was constantly probing the psyche, the inner experience, in order to produce psychological portraits. His bold use of color, often highlighting the sexual anatomy, his raw depiction of the distorted human figure and empty backgrounds draw the viewer to confrontation with the images of what he deemed the internal pain and truth of Viennese bourgeois society. We can take as an indicator of their different motives for painting the fact that Klimt produced only one self-portrait, his Self-portrait as Genitalia, while Schiele created approximately 250 self-portraits (more than any artist since Rembrandt), mostly nudes.13 In 1917, a year before his death, Schiele wrote, "Since the bloody horror of the World War came upon us, there must be many who have come to realize that art is something more than an adjunct to bourgeois luxury."14

While Schiele produced more self-portraits and nudes than portraitures, it is revealing to compare his 1914 portraiture of Friederike Maria Beer with Klimt's in 1916 to understand their interpretations of the same subject. Klimt lays heavy emphasis on distracting ornamentation and soft color and line to subvert the subject's sexuality while Schiele's characteristic application of wild color and geometry, his sickly deformation of the body work to accentuate what the artist deems Friederike's inner truth: entrapment.

Klimt’s Portrait of Friederike Maria Beer, does not neglect his trademark emphasis on decoration of garment and background. The active backdrop accents Friederike’s tranquil strength. Her skin is pale and flawless, like porcelain. Her rouged cheeks, tight lips, drooping eyes and curved shoulders give her a stiff doll-like appearance. Friederike's figure is very rounded; the outline of her head flows into the curves of her jacket. Klimt has shortened her arms to allow her small ringed hands to pose at the lower waist or pelvic area without showing the pointed protrusion of her bent elbows. Perhaps the circle formed by the touching of her index finger to her thumb is suggestive of the female sex. We are unable to explore the actual curves of her body hidden beneath her garments, our eye teased only by the flesh of her long pale neck. The rounded billowing of her pants suggests to the viewers' eye the spread of her legs, her sexual availability. She stands upright and centered, her head slightly cocked to one side, boldly passive amidst the chaos of battling Oriental warriors. (These warriors were modeled after a Korean vase of Klimt's and alluded to the battles of the World War raging at the time.)15 Her rounded head rests upon a long pure white neck, a traditional symbol of sexuality and nobility. These features, coupled with her dark hair, her curved defined eyebrows, and the powerful stare of her drooping dark eyes, empower her with a quiet self-esteem and personal assurance. Her social status is obvious upon examination of her garments and gold ring and the confidence with which she wears them. Only the realism of her face and the hint of shadowing over her right shoulder separate her from merging with the cartoonish backdrop. This lively ornate background works with the decorative patterns of her jacket and clothes to distract the viewer, to subvert Friederike's sexuality. Here we can understand what Comini explains as Klimt's reversal of Freudian analysis. While Freud was intent on revealing the content behind given imagery, Klimt worked to translate emotion into overtly sexual symbolism through "a shimmering faćade of voluptuous ornament" which was left to the viewer to unveil or ignore.16

Upon analysis of Egon Schiele's earlier Portrait of Friederike Maria Beer (1914), we encounter quite a different representation of the same woman. Here Friederike's distorted body is awkwardly twisted away from the viewer; only her face tilts outward. Upon the balls of her feet with bent knees and upwardly stretched arms she achieves an impossible balance with no sign of effort in her face, almost seeming to be stapled or glued upon the canvas. This sense of entrapment is enhanced by her placement within the bare golden canvas-- it encases her-- and the geometric pattern of her confining dress. Schiele's characteristic juxtaposition of bold colors and nonconforming shapes both elongates and cramps parts of Friederike's body, folding and pulling her accordian-like through the use of a zig-zag pattern (note her back). Within her dress we find five colorful patches of gowned women leading us to wonder if perhaps Friederike herself is not a figure frozen on a patch of another woman's dress.

The smooth curves of Klimt's plump Friederike are in sharp contrast with the dark angular outlines of this gaunt elongated figure. The flesh of Friederike's bare feet pulls tightly, accentuating her bones as they fight to support her awkward pose. The sharp elongated fingers of the typical Schiele hands form the sexually suggestive circle echoed in Klimt's later painting. While little flesh is exposed to the viewer, Friederike's immobility and precariousness makes her fair game for any sexual predator.

The angular shape of the eyebrows, the pointed highlighting of her upper eyelids, and the darkness underlining her eyes pull Friederike's eyes into triangles and help create her dour, tired expression. The smooth round porcelain face of Klimt's portrait is contrasted here by the sharpness of the chin, the blotchiness of the otherwise ghastly pale skin and the angular scarlet lips. Schiele strives for no realism, his Friederike is stylized, her hair simply a thick dark stroke contrasting her palely painted mime-esque face. Friederike peers out over her shoulder at the viewer, weary and gaunt, sharply differentiated from the strong assured woman of Klimt's canvas.

This contrast of representation of the same subject helps us understand Klimt's utilization of ornate decoration and quiet female strength to indulge and manipulate the Viennese bourgeois faćade of uprighteousness and sexual morality. In contrast, Schiele's search to uncover the inner truth of his sitters has apparently unveiled a suffering within Friederike, perhaps the unhappiness she experienced as a willful woman entrapped within the narrow confines of a conservative bourgeois society.

Both Klimt and Schiele painted numerous portraits of two or more women together, a potentially erotic subject in itself. By analyzing Schiele's Two Girls Embracing Each Other from 1915 and Klimt’s 1916-1917 Two Women Friends (also entitled Girlfriends ), we can understand their varied presentations of nudes and more overtly sexual themes. While Klimt calms the ostensible sexuality of the two women with soft rounded lines, he accentuates their sensuality through their pose and the application of warm color. Schiele chooses to accentuate his pair's sexuality through action: their diagonal positioning on the page, the pointed aggressiveness of the red dress, the nude's powerful stare and their participation in a sexual exchange. We should note that Klimt refers to his figures as women while Schiele calls his females girls.

In much of Klimt's work we see a blending of women with nature, as exemplified here by the placement of his women standing against a warm rosy background of exotic birds and flowers to which they are analogized. The friends stand almost huddling, cuddling, one nude with her long ivory body, the soft splotch of pubic hair and small round breasts public. She coyly wraps her arm around her opposite shoulder, pulling towards her companion, cocking her head seductively upon the ornate cloth which echoes the pattern of the birds' feathers. Looking out through clear feline oval eyes with a childish naivete, she seduces, invites the viewer. Her companion is covered, with hair wrapped in a white turban, suggesting a sense of control. Her body is lost within her large smeary gown, Klimt, as with Friederike, only allowing us access to a long pale neck. This woman's eyes seem more alert, darker and less dreamlike than her passive companion's. She seems a bit startled by the viewer's presence, her body seems to start to turn away, but hesitates. Her continued direct gaze invites us as well, but her raised eyebrows suggest surprise and curiosity; she is analyzing the viewer. Through the women’s pale skin we do see the redness of life; they are not porcelain dolls like Friederike. The rouged cheeks play with the rosy background and the women's robe to create a warmth suggestive both of the female anatomy and the sexual act. Klimt's typical rounded line is not abandoned here. The faces, their curved lips and eyes, the curving outlines of the bodies create the subtle inviting softness and sensuality at the core of Klimt's motives.

Schiele's Two Girls Embracing Each Other presents a much more aggressive and blatantly sexual image. (Although there is power in anonymity, for the ease of discussion I will name the robed woman Hillary and the nude Lisa.) His pair is posed, sprawling diagonally upon the white background of the canvas. Hillary firmly pulls the nude between her robust spread legs. Her angular, almost mechanical arm and large hand pressing upon the flesh of Lisa's back, awkwardly pulling her simultaneously towards both Hillary's chest and thigh. The aggressively sharp points of Hillary's red dress excite and dare the viewer, conjuring the infamous image of the toothed vagina. The leggings are a favorite sexual prop of Schiele, and they are undeniably erotic. Lisa's brown hair, wildly curly and flowing, gives her a ferocity and intensity which is heightened by her cold dark glaring eye, smudged with makeup. Her head is turning towards us, away from the lifeless caricatured face of Hillary which pushes to kiss her. Her pointed elbow, red with action (or seemingly amputated), the hand that would presumably be pushing against Hillary’s chest, and the awkward twist of her body suggest her resistance to Hillary's movements. She seems ready to extend that bent elbow to push off of her groping companion, separating herself to confront the voyeur who could be condemning her or longing for her. Our presence here apparently is much more intrusive than in Klimt's portrait.

Schiele's women's bodies are angular unlike the soft rounded bodies of Klimt's Two Women Friends. And while Klimt's bodies seem to merge and flow into one another, Schiele's awkwardly overlap, their dark outlines defining one another. For example, in the left bottom corner of the painting Schiele has neglected to paint the outer line of Lisa's thigh, allowing instead for the outline of Hillary's leg to define it. He enjoys calling our attention to the anatomy, reddening physical areas of tension or especial sexuality: red lips, hints of red upon the buttocks or where we imagine the vaginas. He has called our attention to Lisa's breast as we search to understand if she is seared of a nipple or if the red triangle which seems a part of Hillary's dress is actually that nipple. He calls us to analyze his women through their deformation or ambiguity.

The angularity, the aggression, the intense glaring at the viewer, the color, and the stockings work together to create an erotic tension in Two Girls Embracing Each Other. It is the viewer's eye that will condemn the content of this portrait as pornography, savor as erotica, or choose not to judge. In this respect, it is a portrait that forces the viewer to be self-analytical as much as it is a portrait of Lisa's inner discontent. In sharp contrast, Klimt's Two Women Friends stand passive and dreamlike inviting the voyeur into a warm sensual scene of love. Klimt's ornamentation, his soft line, and subtle colors allow him to present even this nude available woman with her companion standing against a backdrop of exotic birds in a non-offensive manner. He is able to soften the nude'’s gaze and tilt her head in a manner which invites the viewer to adore her beauty, not condemn her sexuality. During the Second World War Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and many other artists were banned by the Nazis for the sexual content of their work which was declared "degenerate art" and therefore unsuitable for exhibition. It is due to these orders that their art was spread around the world, emigrants carrying the paintings with them as they left Austria.17

Today with sex sold to us daily in magazines, on billboards, television, and in the theater, it is difficult to imagine the reaction these men stirred from conservative turn-of-the-century Vienna. However, their unique styles still eroticize us today. Klimt's subtleties and hidden symbols subvert the visual sexuality of his subjects but reach deep within the viewer to stir his/her consciousness to a level of sensuous excitement. Schiele, anything but subtle, forces the viewer to look into the hard stare of his subject, in order to look deep within his/herself (the viewer) to find the inner truth.

Klimt's utilization of the Art Nouveau and Symbolist traditions of elaborate ornamentations allow him to indulge in the Viennese faćade of external beauty, all the while manipulating his viewer to accept an erotica against which it firmly stood. Comini suggests that without Klimt's "overloading of the faćade," the younger generations might not have discovered the psyche with such fevor and depth.18 Schiele meanwhile worked to destroy the Austrian superficiality, the hypocritical morality of a decaying society, his paintings screaming of tortured souls and empty bodies. His brilliant color and bold lines and the suggestive pose of his subjects did nothing to subvert this erotica. Calling upon Freud and psychoanalysis, Schiele invites the viewers, the Viennese blue blood to look into their souls, to see what really lies beneath the eternal faćade of sexual morality.


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