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ESSAYS

Gustav Klimt

Left: Gustav Klimt in his studio garden. Circa 1912-14. Photograph.

Right: Poster for the First Secession Exhibition. 1898. Private collection.

COMING OF AGE

Egon Schiele and the Modernist Culture of Youth

Like all great artists, Egon Schiele (1890-1918) transcended the specific circumstances of his personal and historical background, while nevertheless being indelibly marked by them. Reaching creative maturity shortly before his twentieth birthday, he is surely one of the youngest modernist superstars. However, Schiele was not entirely alone: the fin-de-siècle culture that spawned him and his Expressionist comrades was uniquely oriented to youth. It was within an overall culture of youth that Schiele, the quintessential artist of adolescence, flourished. This fall, as two major Schiele retrospectives, one at the Neue Galerie in New York (October 21-February 20) and a second at the Albertina Museum in Vienna (December 7-March 19) celebrate the artist’s imprint on our present-day mindset, the Galerie St. Etienne reexamines Schiele within the context of his own milieu.

 

Unlike puberty, which is a specific biological marker, adolescence is a cultural artifact: a way-station between childhood and adulthood whose duration and even existence vary across time and place. Evidence suggests that the concept of adolescence did not emerge—as a subject in literature, art, pedagogy, criminal justice or social psychology—in Western society until the latter part of the nineteenth century. The reification of adolescence was in large part a product of bourgeois capitalism, which placed heretofore unknown emphasis on secondary education as a prerequisite to entering the middleclass workforce. Increased life expectancy and a decrease in infant mortality made it less necessary to commence the reproductive cycle during one’s teen years. In fact, in Schiele’s Vienna, bourgeois men were not encouraged to marry before they had reached their twenty-fifth birthday, at which time they were finally deemed fit to support a family. The postponement of adult responsibilities created an uneasy interim period during which young men were expected to “sow their wild oats” amongst prostitutes and the like. Young middle-class women, who were expected neither to work nor to be sexually active, were largely denied this phase of youthful experimentation; they were often married off at an early age to comparatively older men.

 

The predominantly male adolescent subculture that developed as a result of these conditions was to some extent defined in opposition to the elderly forces that circumscribed the subculture’s boundaries. The strict teachers who ran the schools and the bearded gentlemen who controlled the pathways to subsequent professional success were associated with conservative social and artistic values that came to seem increasingly outmoded. Across central Europe in the 1890s, a cry arose for greater creative freedom and for an art more in tune with contemporary concerns. Secession movements in Berlin, Munich, Vienna and elsewhere attempted to wrest control from reactionary art academies by establishing venues wherein innovative artists could display and market their work. The German style of the period, Jugendstil (Youth Style) took its name from the popular Munich periodical Die Jugend (Youth). In Austria, the literary movement Jung Wien (Young Vienna) brought to the fore authors such as the teenage Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Franz Wedekind’s 1891 play Spring’s Awakening set up a central metaphor for his generation. It is surely no coincidence that, seven years later, the Vienna Secession chose to name its journal Ver Sacrum (Sacred Spring). Spring connoted both artistic renewal and the first flowering of youth.

 

The first flowering of the fin-de-siècle youth movement was filled with hope and yet undercut by pangs of foreboding. The rapid rise of the various Secessions indicates that the member artists were not economic outcasts, and many of them quickly found patronage among the emergent bourgeoisie. Ambivalence to the bourgeois environment that had brought forth and sustained them nevertheless was rampant among the Austrian and German avant-garde. Although Gustav Klimt was Vienna’s foremost society portraitist, he famously derided the efficacy of contemporary medicine, philosophy and jurisprudence in his controversial University paintings. The gloomy view of the human condition that pervades Klimt’s allegories was a primary focus for Edvard Munch, who often used the ambiguity of adolescence to symbolize anxiety. In Munch’s series of paintings and prints of Girls on a Jetty, the subjects congregate on a literal path to nowhere. The fearful, cowering woman-child in his series Puberty is the direct antithesis of the exultant girl in Ferdinand Hodler’s lithograph Spring's Awakening. Yet the Wedekind play from which Hodler took his title is actually a tragedy: the fourteen-year-old heroine dies of an abortion after being seduced and abandoned.

 

As the Secession movements split into squabbling factions and artists such as Klimt, Hodler and Munch, who had come of age professionally in the 1890s, moved toward their later years, the central-European avant garde entered a new phase. This second flowering would be led by a younger generation, who included the Brücke (Bridge) and Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) artists in Germany, and in Austria, Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka. More extreme in their stylistic innovations, more vehement in their demand for change and their denunciation of bourgeois values, this Expressionist cohort both critiqued and continued the efforts of their Secessionist predecessors. The Expressionist generation is if anything more firmly associated with the hallmarks of adolescence: oedipal revolt, sexual experimentation, anxiety, narcissistic introspection, role-playing and identity formation.

 

Whereas the Secessionists had initially sought to establish a broad-based institutional presence, the Expressionists gathered in much smaller groups. With some misgivings, they left the marketing of their work chiefly to professional dealers, who were becoming increasingly important not just as salesmen but as defenders of difficult modernist trends. And whereas the Vienna Secession had stood behind the ambiguous motto “To the age its art, to art its freedom,” the newer groups were more explicit in their rejection of the past. “We call upon all youth to gather,” wrote Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, a leader of the Brücke group, in 1906. “We want to create elbowroom and existential freedom against the settled older forces.” Nonetheless, the Expressionists had no clear idea of how to achieve this end. “Anyone who directly and authentically reproduces the creative urge within himself is one of us,” Kirchner concluded. Schiele, in his 1909 Neukunstgruppe (New Art Group) manifesto, was similarly vague: “There is no new art. There are only new artists. . . . Formula is their antithesis.” In this context, much has been made of the influence of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who mandated a decisive break with the commonplace as a prerequisite to the birth of a “Higher Man.” Stranded between a despised past and an uncertain future, the Expressionists occupied an anxious limbo similar to that of Munch’s teenage Girls on a Jetty.

 

Like that latter-day adolescent hero Holden Caulfield, who believed the adult world is irredeemably tainted by phoniness, the Expressionists sought one possible solution in the pursuit of authenticity. Aesthetic authenticity, as Schiele suggested, might be found in the rejection of rote formula, and to this end the Expressionists assimilated a range of unconventional visual input: French Fauvism, the tribal art of non-Western cultures, and their own indigenous folk and Gothic traditions. Authenticity of content was a more complex matter that to some degree came to be exemplified by an unresolved tug-of-war between urban and rural environments. The city was the nexus of modern life, and as such it represented freedom and the future. But the city also represented bourgeois corruption, whereas the country was “pure.” “The city is dark,” wrote Schiele, and fled Vienna for Krumau and Neulengbach, where he clashed head-on with provincial values. He was evicted in the first town for drawing a nude in his studio garden; in the second, he was jailed on charges of “corrupting the morals of minors.” The Brücke artists found a slightly more hospitable climate in the Moritzburg lake district outside of Dresden, where nude sunbathing was tolerated if not condoned. Brücke depictions of nudes romping through the open landscape encapsulate the group’s idyllic vision of harmony between humankind and nature.

 

In addition to connoting Edenic purity, the natural environment suggested the unfettered expression of primal sexual instincts. If these two concepts were powerfully conjoined in images of the nude outdoors, an adolescent nude was even more potent. Children, like nature, had been associated with purity for over a century, but as Freud had recently revealed, they also embodied inchoate sexual impulses. It is therefore logical that the Expressionist generation was particularly attracted to underage models, who projected a poignant combination of sexual precocity and naiveté, nonchalance and embarassment. For the most part, these models came from the underclass: Kokoschka drew circus children, Schiele Viennese street urchins. The Brücke artists found their ideal models in the teenage daughters, Fränzi and Marzella, of an artist’s widow. The ready availability of such models reflects the hypocrisy of fin-de-siècle sexual mores: for although bourgeois girls were supposed to remain virgins until marriage, the streets were rife with lower-class prostitutes, often scarcely past puberty, who catered to young men during their protracted adolescence. Professional models—women who took their clothes off for money—were socially hardly better than prostitutes. So long as they did not violate the boundary separating lower- from upper-class girls, artists were free to do as they pleased; Schiele had ignored this caveat and paid the price in Neulengbach.

 

Not only were teenage models somehow more “authentic” than adults, they also had the advantage of being much more sympathetic to artists who themselves were often not quite over the pangs of adolescence. Girls’ slender, nearly hermaphroditic bodies were relatively unthreatening. They could be sexual without being sexy. Indeed, the emotions evoked by the adolescent nude range from terror and defiance to curiosity and soporific entrancement, but seldom include lust. Such art was in effect an analogue to sexual experimentation in the flesh, allowing artists to run through a panoply of feelings on paper or canvas before committing to full-fledged adult relationships. These works were thus less about the models per se than about the artists’ reactions to them. In this respect, the Expressionists’ teenage nudes constitute one component in the process of identity formation that is among the principal developmental tasks of adolescence.

 

Almost all the Expressionists were in their twenties when they executed their breakthrough works. However, Schiele, as the youngest of them, dealt most consistently with identity issues in his art. He, alone among his peers, paid extensive attention to the male nude, in addition to executing an extensive sequence of probing self-portraits. Often, glancing from one self-portrait to the next, we ourselves do not know who Schiele is. He can be beautiful one day, hideous the next; preening and self-confident, and then again wracked with fear and doubt. This exploration of multiple selves becomes even more explicit—some would say downright disturbing—in Schiele’s double self-portraits (a theme confined principally to his oils). Yet Schiele’s unwavering certainty in his artistic mission suggests that he was never in true danger of losing himself. Like his sometimes narcissistic self-absorption, his identity confusion is less a sign of psychological malaise than a normal concomitant of adolescence.

 

And like all teenagers, Schiele eventually grew up. The Neulengbach incident shook him to the depths of his being, pulling him closer into the orbit of conventional society. Schiele had, in fact, always been a bourgeois young man, whose sometimes extreme images were called forth by inner necessity, not by any overt desire to shock or offend. In accordance with the rules of the day, Schiele chose to marry at the age of twenty-five, throwing aside his long-time model and lover Wally Neuzil for a conventional middle-class girl, Edith Harms. In the wake of his 1912 imprisonment, Schiele’s style also changed: his lines became less angular, his nudes more conventionally beautiful. He drew children and adolescents rarely, and only with the permission of their parents. Self-portraits and male nudes, too, became far less numerous. The resolution of his adolescent conflicts in his art makes Schiele’s entire oeuvre a coming of age story. In this regard, it is both tragic and yet somehow fitting that the artist died at twenty-eight.

 

Adolescence is a luxury. Teenagers and young adults who have to work or go to war cannot afford to cavort in the countryside with naked girls, or to indulge in existential crises. Perhaps this is why adolescent themes faded from art after World War I. If the anxiety that pervaded much prewar art was on some level anticipatory, it became much less compelling to people who had actually experienced the horrors of war and seen governments fall in both Germany and Austria. The children who remain as subjects in Weimar-era art tend to be prepubescent, and they often evidence visible emotional scars. In the more politically conscious art of the 1920s, children are society’s youngest victims: bearing the brunt of poverty and unemployment early on, only later to become canon fodder. This was a viewpoint that was particularly attractive to female artists, such as Käthe Kollwitz, who had never indulged in the adolescent sexual fantasizing of their male colleagues. The prewar paintings of Paula Modersohn–Becker, for example, depict childhood and adolescence as a period of impotence and insecurity. More frightening still is the postwar art of Lea Grundig. Youth culture in her work is cruel rather than liberating, suggesting how adaptable the innate cliquishness and intolerance of childhood would prove to Nazi militarism and anti-Semitism. The movement that had begun so hopefully with the Secessionists’ call for creative freedom ended in the rigid lockstep of the Hitler Youth.

 

We would like to warmly thank all the lenders whose generous cooperation has made this exhibition possible. Checklist entries include catalogue raisonné numbers, where applicable. Sheet sizes are given for paintings, watercolors and drawings, image sizes for prints.