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
In the 2013 movie La Vie d’Adele-Chapitres 1 & 2 (Blue is the Warmest Colour), a masterful study of love, sexuality but above all else class, there is a particularly telling scene during the party at the beginning of Chapter 2. Invited to sit down in the home she shares with Emma, Adele is asked what she does by Emma’s friends. Her response that she is a teacher barely elicits acknowledgement and soon the conversation has turned to the Austrian artist Egon Schiele who the friend is studying for her thesis. Emma counters that though she likes Schiele she finds him too tortured, too dark and too obscure and she prefers Klimt. Klimt is dismissed by the art historian as ‘florid and decorative’. Adele looks lost and returns to her hostess duties.
Although it could be argued that the above exchange sets Klimt and Schiele in a needless competition when in real life they shared a mentor-pupil relationship (Klimt was 30 years older than Schiele), a close, long lasting friendship, muses (most infamously Wally Neuzil, who went from Klimt to Schiele and then back to Klimt again), and themes, most notably the female nude in overtly erotic situations, their art is markedly contrasting. Schiele gaze is uncompromisingly morbid, rawer and decidedly more edgy. Whereas Klimt, at least in the major paintings, is resplendent with gorgeous semi-abstract decorative motifs borrowed for Byzantine, Greek, Celtic and Egyptian art, leading it to be easily assimilated with bourgeois ideals of beauty. Regardless of this, Klimt’s work is undeniably sexy.
Klimt’s studio was populated day and night by cats and naked models. He never married and was rumoured to have fathered seventeen children on various lovers. His promiscuity resulted in syphilis which undoubtedly coloured his lush, decadent vision. He died in 1918 from complications arising from contracting influenza in the worldwide epidemic of that year that killed up to 50 to 100 million people.
In the apocryphal Book of Judith, the beautiful, daring young widow Judith (feminine form of Judah), distressed by her fellow Jews lack of faith in God to deliver them from the Assyrian conquerors, ingratiates herself with the General Holofernes. Having gained his trust she is admitted into his tent where he is lying in a drunken stupor. With the help of her loyal maid she proceeds to decapitate Holofernes and shows the severed head to an awe-struck crowd of her fellow-countrymen. The Assyrians demoralised by the loss of their leader retreat and Israel is liberated from the foreign threat.
The story of Judith was a popular source of art from the Middle Ages to the Baroque. The Symbolists interpenetration brought the perverse and sadistic elements to the forefront. The great Austrian Symbolist painter and Viennese Secessionist Gustav Klimt’s (The Succubus) JudithI of 1901 was the cause of considerable scandal when first exhibited. The focus of the painting is Judith, only a part of the decapitated head of Holofernes is shown and even that is regulated to the bottom right-hand corner, beneath Judith’s exposed breast. With an expression of rapt depravity Judith caresses the head, all set against a ornately gilded, Art Nouveau decorative background.
An interesting comparison with Klimt’s Judith is with two masterpieces from the Baroque period on the same subject, Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes circa 1599 and Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes 1614-1620. Here the paintings are concerned with the act of murder itself. Caravaggio who led a tumultuous life and would die on the run after killing Ranuccio Tomassoni, manages to convey with his trademark chiaroscuro all the tension and ambivalence Judith must have felt as she saws through the neck of Holofernes, while Gentileschi’s Judith surpasses Caravaggio (she was the most famous of the Caravaggisti, followers of Caravaggio) in showing the bloodiness and sheer physicality of the scene. It has been interpenetrated as a vivid rape revenge fantasy.