Gustav Klimt was a generous artist who mentored numerous students during his career, the most notorious of these being the young Egon Schiele. But Klimt and Schiele’s relationship was a complex one that went way beyond that of master and pupil. As their relationship intensified, their professional and personal lives became increasingly intertwined.
Egon Schiele was born in 1890 in Tulin, Lower Austria. His classmates saw him as an eccentric boy, shy and reserved, who only excelled in drawing and sport. Schiele was a troubled child, known to have had incestuous tendencies towards his sister. He was held back a year and educated in a class with younger children.
When Schiele was 15, his father died of syphilis; his maternal uncle, Leopold Czihaczek took over his care. Schiele’s uncle recognised his artistic talent and employed a tutor for him, the artist Ludwig Karl Strauch. In 1906, Schiele was given a place at the Kunstgewerbeschule, (Vienna School of Arts and Crafts). Within his first year, at the insistence of some of his tutors, he was sent to the more traditional Akademie der Bildenden Kunste. But the strict doctrines and conservative style there frustrated him so much that he left three years later.
At that time, Gustav Klimt was mentoring younger artists; Schiele sought him out. Klimt took a particular interest in Schiele, buying his drawings, arranging models and introducing him to potential patrons and to the Wiener Werkstatte, the arts and craft workshop of the Secession. Klimt and Schiele embarked upon a mentor-student relationship that was to last throughout their careers.
It is easy to see how much Schiele admired Klimt’s work. Their paintings are often very similar in terms of both subject matter and style. Below, Klimt’s Death and Life, (1910) depicts figures cocooned within an arch shape against a background of brightly coloured flowers. Death looks on but the figures seem oblivious to him; the painting exudes beauty and calm.
Schiele took details from Klimt’s celebration of life – the middle aged couple, locked in a loving embrace – and created something much more macabre. In Death and the Woman, 1915, (above right), we still see this arch shaped cocoon, but the flowers have gone and the fabric appears shroud-like. The figure of Death is no longer a distant observer; he has entered the arch and the woman welcomes him. Indeed it appears as if she has crawled to him on her bended knees and now finds solace in his embrace.
In Klimt’s Death and Life, the new mother appears content as she sleeps, cradling her baby. In his Dead Mother series, Schiele echoes this pose, whilst setting his figures against dark backgrounds. The woman’s expression is one of anguish as Death creeps towards her, staring blankly at her belly. Her baby reaches out, seemingly trapped inside the womb.
Above top, Detail from Death and Life
Above left, Egon Schiele, (1910) The Dead Mother; above right, Egon Schiele, (1911) The Pregnant Woman and Death
Both artists had an obsession with the female form, painting many women nude or performing sexual acts. But while Klimt acknowledged female pleasure in his work, recreating women as beautiful, sensual beings, Schiele’s women with their twisted body shapes make for much more uncomfortable viewing. While Klimt’s women recline against floral backdrops and gold leaf, there is nothing to soften the starkness of Schiele’s paintings.
In 1912, Schiele was convicted of showing these paintings to an under aged girl and sentenced to 24 days in prison.
As the years passed, it seems artistic influence became somewhat of a two-way process. The bright, mosaic-like colours, flat visual planes and oriental motifs at first glance make it difficult to distinguish one artist’s work from the other’s. Klimt’s 1916 portrait of Friederike Maria Beer-Monti, (below right) clearly echoes Schiele’s earlier portrait. Stand back from Klimt’s painting and the oriental figures in the background seem to melt away, becoming almost identical to the fabric in Schiele’s work, with its vibrant, blocky zigzag pattern.
Above left: Egon Schiele, Portrait of Friederike Maria Beer-Monti, (1914); Above right: Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Friederike Maria Beer-Monti, (1916)
In 1911, Klimt and Schiele became embroiled in a love triangle. Valerie Neuzil was one of Klimt’s models, and rumoured to be his lover, but in 1911, she embarked on a four year affair with Schiele, moving into his home in southern Bohemia. By 1916, she was posing again for Klimt.
Egon Schiele, (1911) Portrait of Valerie Neuzil
Schiele died in 1918 of Spanish Influenza, aged just 28. Gustav Klimt died earlier the same year. Even in death it seems they were inseparable. Schiele remains one of the most controversial artists of the 20th century, both for his startling paintings and his troubled personal life.