Thursday, October 18, 2007

Meeting Egon Schiele

The world is full of mediocre art, made by even more mediocre artists, and it is beyond me why they even bother. A waste of perfectly good pigment, I say. Scores of artists painstakingly apply their paint so it looks exactly like the object or scene they are painting. This is not art, it’s clever replication. Those daubs of red and blue slapped on a canvas don’t give me a clue about the intrinsic nature of the artist, don’t communicate anything more than what I already know. I’m sure this art has its place, but I’m not sure exactly where. Possibly a bank or a motel lobby in either of the Dakotas. But lest you think I’ve lost faith in the creative arts, I will share with you something I love, something worth seeking. I love a piece of fine artwork evocative enough to shake me off my footing. Rare, I know, but there are a few instances when a painting has grabbed me so tight that I have to remind myself to breathe.

For over two months I immersed myself in the art and architecture central to our human heritage. I made it a priority to visit as many historic edifices and art museums as my two little feet could endure. In Paris I spent heavenly lost hours in the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay. In Nice I ambled around the Matisse and Chagall museums. In Spain I strolled along an outdoor median in Barcelona, showing the bronze sculptures of Igor Mitoraj. I was able to see a collection of Picasso’s earliest sketches and the fanciful tile work and unique architecture of Antoni Gaudi. In Florence I gushed over the ancient frescos and religious triptychs in the Uffizi, my mind whirling and my spine tingling to be standing only feet away from the earliest magnificence of the Renaissance.

The last country on my tour was Austria. In Vienna, there is an area called the Museums Quarter. According to my tourist brochure, The Leopold Museum seemed to be my best bet. I read about a movement in the early 1900s called Austrian Expressionism. I knew next to nothing about it, but was curious to discover how this period played into the bigger picture of European art. What I wasn’t expecting was to be introduced to Egon Schiele, a man whose artwork knocked me right off my feet.
As soon as I walked into the room filled with his larger-than-life-size canvases, I knew I was looking at something that inhabited a completely separate domain than anything I’d seen up to that time. Schiele’s use of planes, shapes and layered pigments exposes a world that is at once raw and beautiful. His subjects are either somber cityscapes or people (frequently in twisted and graphic positions). His men and women, whether clothed or nude, have an uncanny way of revealing themselves. There is a piercing sadness that held my gaze, that whispered to me in a language without any words. These were human beings filled with pride and desperation, secret desires and resignation.
Schiele had an uncompromising determination to share his interpretation of life and death, no matter the repercussions. I learned he was imprisoned once because his work was considered pornographic. There is something in the way he painted the eyes, the hair, the flesh and particularly the hands, that touched me profoundly. His figures were solid and transparent at the same time. They conveyed strength and vulnerability; fear, innocence, raw sexuality, and deep loathing. Even though Schiele died from the Spanish Influenza at the age of twenty-eight, he left a tangible spirited part of himself in his paintings. By giving himself completely to his art, he gave me a moment I will never forget: a reflection into my own fragile humanity.

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