The Belgian Symbolist James Ensor macabre vision of the Second Coming, 1888’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 is generally considered his masterpiece and with its densely crowded canvas, vivid use of colour and grotesque caricatures clearly pointed the way towards a new art: Expressionism.
With all the distorted clarity of a nightmare Ensor portrays a heaving mob that includes skeletons, clowns and masked figures drunkenly await the entrance of the Messiah. Several banners line the processional route, however the leering faces in the foreground suggest that Christ’s entry will not be a triumphant one but will turn into a second Calvary.
A late and possibly the greatest of the Symbolists, the Norwegian Edvard Munch was a major precursor of Expressionism. Visiting the National Gallery of Norway in Oslo which houses a collection of his paintings is an unsettling experience. Munch’s work possesses an neurotic intensity unparalleled in Western art and seeing them side by side you become aware of his unhealthy fascination and dread of women.
This is best seen in his 1894 painting Madonna which is a very unusual devotional painting to say the least. The pose of the Madonna is sexually provocative, her halo is a dangerous shade of red and in addition to the virgin/whore dichotomy there is the suggestion that the Mother is also a vampire. All in all a stunning glorification of decadent love.
In 1907 the seventeen year old Egon Schiele met the artist who he idolised and would continue to venerate to his death, Gustav Klimt (see Dreams of Desire 57 (Gustav Klimt), Dreams of Desire 53 (Judith) and The Succubus). Klimt was known to be supportive of aspiring artists, however he recognised the talent inherent in Schiele and he took a particular interest in his protege’s career, generously buying and exchanging his own works with Schiele’s drawings, organising meetings with potential patrons and arranging models to sit for Schiele.
Although Klimt’s influence is evident in Schiele’s early work, he soon found his own distinctive style. The heavily decorative elements of Symbolism, Art Nouveau and Jugendstil are gone and in its place is raw, naked Expressionism. Schiele’s females nudes, often featured in provocative poses are emaciated and sickly looking with a distorted line that renders the figures close to grotesque. It is true that after his marriage in 1915 to Edith Hams that the models are more fully fleshed, however the doll-like appearance of these later studies makes them even more disconcerting.
In 1918 after a brief, tumultuous life which had included being imprisoned for exhibiting erotic drawings and considerable controversy for his use of teenage models (who tended to be juvenile delinquents) Schiele died in the Spanish Influenza outbreak that was gripping Vienna at that time, just three days after his pregnant wife Edith had died and only 8 months after the death of his mentor Gustav Klimt.
Schiele, Egon. 1890ñ1918. ìZwei Freundinnenî, 1915. Gouache und Aquarell ¸ber Bleistift auf Papier, 48 ◊ 32,57 cm. Inv. Nr. 1915ñ933