Book Review: The Pornographer of Vienna, by Lewis Crofts and Arrogance, by Joanna Scott
One hundred years ago, the young Egon Schiele had his first great success at a public exhibition, hung next to Gustav Klimt at the “Großen Kunstschau“ of Vienna Secession artists
The Prodigy of Sin
Books discussed in this article:
The Pornographer of Vienna by Lewis Crofts
Arrogance: A Novel by Joanna Scott
In 1907, according to several accounts, a young student from the Academy of Fine Arts came to see the master Gustav Klimt, founder of the Vienna Secession.
"Do I have talent?" asked the young, tense Egon Schiele. Klimt looked at Schiele’s work and replied warmly, "Yes, much too much."
Schiele, relieved, asked enthusiastically if they could trade some drawings. Klimt agreed and, in addition, bought some of Schiele’s. He said that the young man could already draw much better than he.
For a while, Schiele was so moved by Klimt’s generosity that his work was heavily influenced by that of the older artist. But soon he developed his own, more critical style. His subjects often seem pinioned upon the canvas with no ornamentation or warm backdrop to comfort them. Schiele’s dead-serious scrutiny of his models squeeze them into the center of the universe, reduce them to their anxieties, press their secrets from them.
In the autumn of 1909 – 100 years ago – the newly minted graduate of the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts had his first great success in a public exhibition. At the „Großen Kunstschau", Schiele’s work hung next to Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka, the legends of the Vienna Secession. He was acclaimed by the leading art critic Arthur Roessler, who through his reputation and contacts, helped Schiele establish himself on the city’s art scene.
After decades of relative obscurity among writers on art, Schiele has become the subject of renewed interest in the last few years, including two fictional biographies that deserve attention.
The most recent, The Pornographer of Vienna, by Lewis Crofts (2008), is a remarkable first novel that succeeds at making Schiele both real and sympathetic, the believable creator of the work for which he is known. Thoroughly researched and brilliantly imagined, Crofts succeeds in evoking the man as well as the artist.
The result is a masterful, at times heart-breaking, portrayal of Austria’s most decadent and possibly most misunderstood painter, and of the city that both inspired and destroyed him.
"Underage whores, opium pipes and absinthe chasers. . . . Thoroughly researched, and well described," wrote the Financial Times. "The author is bewitched by his subject’s decadence and by the period’s historical detail."
A second novel, Arrogance, by Joanna Scott (2004) is more a creative and psychological inquiry than a biography, examining the artistic imperative and its obsessive nature, the inexorable grasp of social convention and fabric of life in Vienna at the turn of the century. The story centres around Schiele’s 24-day stay in the village jail in Tulln, on charges of seducing the young girls who modeled for his unrestrained sketches.
Told through a series of these excursions that so shocked his neighbours, Scott centres the deepest insights on the story of Vallie Neuzil, Schiele’s child-like mistress whom he abandons to marry the conventional Edith Harms.
Perhaps most difficult is the voice: in spite of the intimacy and often passion of the encounters, particularly of Schiele’s inability to separate his physical and creative lives, there is a confusing detachment that rings hollow, too analytical to talk of love or loss. Somehow Scott’s characters never really bleed.
Schiele himself was a particularly self-reflective artist, and a passion to capture the peculiarities of physicality seems to be the driving force behind Schiele’s many self-portraits. They reveal a flirt’s fascination with self.
But if his preoccupations seem immature, it is because all of his work is that of a young man. Schiele died of influenza in the great epidemic of 1918. He was 28. That same year, the year the Great War ended, Klimt died at 56.
For a long time, the erotic nature of Schiele’s work got in the way of the public’s appreciation of his talent. Thomas Messer of the Guggenheim recalls having to testify that the work was not pornographic in order for it to be allowed past customs. Today, Grace Glueck, art editor of The New York Times, ranks Schiele as "one of the most exciting draftsmen in the history of art."
The Pornographer of Vienna
by Lewis Crofts
Old Street Publishing (2008)
Arrogance: A Novel
by Joanna Scott
For an introduction to his work see:
Egon Schiele: At the Albertina
by Klaus Albrecht Schroder
Published on the occasion of the a major exhibition by:
The Albertina, 2005.
Available at the museum gift shop