This weekend we're checking out Egon Schiele: Portraits at the Neue Galerie on the Upper East Side. And while we're right there, we'll stop at the Cafe Sabarsky on the museum's ground floor for some Austrian fare after the show. Update: this exhibition closed in April 2015. To stay updated on going on right now, sign up for our #YourArtWeekend newsletter here.
THE ART /
For most of the history of Western art, the primary goal of a portraitist was to create an optically-accurate representation of a real-life person. Egon Schiele was different. Like other Modernist artists and intellectuals of his era, Schiele turned inward. (Freud was exploring the inner self in Vienna at the same time.) For him, a portrait became an opportunity to express the essence of one's interior by means of a somewhat-distorted representation of his body. This new exhibition at the Neue Galerie, which has always been the city's best place to see German and Austrian art from Schiele's era, brings together more than a hundred paintings and drawings from his career as a portraitist.
Schiele was a prodigy who was selling his work at group shows in Vienna as an eighteen-year-old. His work was not just unconventional, but was a kind of middle-finger aimed at the too-clean, illusory perfection behind most pre-modern portraiture. One art school professor is supposed to have yelled at the teenaged Schiele, "You have brought the devil into my classroom!" When he lived and worked for a time outside Vienna, in Neulengbach, the small-town authorities disapproved of the frank sexuality of his art and he spent 21 days in a jail cell. (Apparently the judge burned a particularly offensive drawing in the courtroom during the trial.) The Neue Galerie has devoted a room to the journals and drawings he made while in jail.
Schiele's formal skills, especially in the drawings, were remarkable, but what will stick with you is the emotional honesty behind his pieces. There is a bleakness and agitation to the people in these raw portraits. With just the barest reference to a background in most pieces, the tense bodies seem to float uneasily in unarticulated space. The rare bursts of color, as in "Self Portrait With Peacock Waistcoat" (1911) and "Portrait of Karl Zakovsek" (1910), are often just as angst-ridden as the black-and-white images. Schiele's emaciated, distorted body in his self-portraits are perhaps the polar opposite of something like Michelangelo's David, but the intensity and emotion behind the pieces makes them beautiful in their own twisted way. This tendency towards angst and severity makes the rare hints at warmth and softness in some of these portraits especially compelling.
Schiele died from the Spanish flu in 1918, when he was twenty-eight. (In a tragedy straight out of Hemingway, his pregnant wife had died a week before, just as World War I was finally ending.) Judging from the work in this exhibition, his short life was not a particularly rosy one. But in these intense and unconventional portraits, he displays an uncanny ability to capture the psychology not only of his sitters but also of his whole time and place. I am glad I don't live in Central Europe in the 1910s, but I am certainly thankful that a brilliant, sensitive artist like Schiele was there to record it for us.
The show is up until January 19th. The Neue Gallerie is across the street from the Park on 86th Street. They've got a permanent collection that's always worth seeing as well, with a number of great paintings from Schiele's Vienna contemporaries, including his mentor Gustav Klimt.
WHAT TO DO AFTER /
This week, you don't have to go far at all for a post-art snack. Cafe Sabarsky is a Viennese restaurant located on the first floor of the Neue Galerie. Stop in for some wiener schnitzel or sachertorte after building up a craving for Austrian food in the galleries.