Schiele, Ego(n): The Sacred Body

I paint the light that emanates from all bodies. Erotic works of art are also sacred.”

Self-Portrait, Egon Schiele
Self-Portrait, Egon Schiele


Even allowing for the rich legacy of nearly 100 self-portraits left to us by Rembrandt van Rijn over the 40 years he painted, Austrian artist Egon Schiele’s hundreds of self-portraits in only 12 years, from 1906 to his death in 1918, are staggering. Unlike Rembrandt’s almost dogged record of his slowly aging body, Schiele’s watercolors and charcoal drawings exhibit little aging, but revel in ever more revelatory flaying of his psyche. On one hand, Schiele’s narcissism seems to prophetically define the late 20th century’s obsession with self and celebrity; on the other, he offers himself as a sacrificial victim on the altar of art's sexual freedom.


Schiele’s merciless, even masochistic peeling away of his body in watercolors and charcoal drawings is equaled only by the explicitness in his renderings of the naked female form; nor did he spare recording his own sexual urgencies in drawings that include masturbation.

While Schiele was a protégé of fin-de-siècle master painter Gustav Klimt, and also in his academic drawings at Vienna’s Kunstgewerbeschule, there were few signs of the raw emotions and near pornographic depiction of male and female bodies that inhabit his mature work, frenetic images that repose alongside the benign landscape studies and idealized portraits of young women that found favor with his contemporaries and collectors.

Some of Schiele’s more delicate sexual studies inspire commercial emulation even today, as with this photo of actress Julianne Moore channeling the watercolor Seated Woman: in a photo from the May 2008 Harper’s Bazaar

Photo by Peter Lindbergh
Schiele's Seated Woman and Julianne Moore (photographed by Peter Lindbergh).

… or in this simple, full-figure study of his wife, Edith Schiele (née Harms) in a pose and dress that emphasizes his demure vision of her (though she, too, was later to model in more sexually suggestive poses):

6. edith harms in striped dress
Portrait of the Artist's Wife, Standing

But it is in the tormented self-portraits and askew female nudes that the power of Schiele’s work projects across time to our 21st century eyes — and to me, a cinematographer long mesmerized by his work.


A recent exhibition at London’s Courtauld Gallery bravely explored Schiele’s use of graphic nudity, and has been documented in two short videos. In one, exhibition curator Barnaby Wright presents Schiele within the Freudian context of early 20th century Vienna, explaining how the 20-year-old artist, in the career-defining year of 1910, opened psychological as well as artistic gateways to modern art.

In the second video, Imma Ramos offers, from a feminist perspective, a nuanced yet unblinking look at Schiele’s obsession with female sexual depiction and his unsparing examinations of his own body.

A short but detail-rich overview of Schiele’s career is offered in a sympathetically narrated video from Red City Projects. It concludes with one of the artist’s last completed paintings, 1918’s The Family.

The Family (Self-Portrait), Schiele
The Family (Self-Portrait), Schiele

The melancholy tone of this video is rendered even more affecting by the suggestion that all of Schiele’s youthful narcissism, sexual obsession and psychic turmoil was on the cusp of falling away when he assumed the mantle of family and fatherhood. Such peace was not to come; his six-month-pregnant wife succumbed to the worldwide influenza epidemic of 1918. Schiele soon followed her.

A two-part BBC Four documentary explores in greater detail the full scope of Schiele’s work, placing him in a timeline of World War I and the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. One of Schiele’s most respected biographers is Frank Whitford, who becomes increasingly judgmental of the artist’s turbulent and questionable moral life in an interview that looks at the artist's relationships with his mistress/model Wally Neuzil, and his decision to reject her to court the more respectable Harms sisters. (One of whom became his wife.) It’s unusual to see a biographer “go off” on his subject to this degree — an indication, perhaps, of Whitford’s admittedly “censorious” judgment. In any case, the documentary employs Schiele’s 1915 painting Death and the Maiden in Vienna’s Belvedere collection, as well the painting’s thematic links to Klimt’s more engaging The Kiss, as a departure to explore the “times and mores” of Viennese society.

Death and Maiden, Schiele
Death and the Maiden by Schiele

The second part of the documentary details Schiele’s difficult breakup with Wally in a Viennese billiard café, exploring the confusion and regret that must have continued to haunt him as he painted Death and the Maiden. With the theme of the eponymous Schubert string quartet and Lied playing over narration, a fascinating history of the multiple versions of the painting is explored — the focus on a detail, Wally’s exposed buttocks, standing in for the ambivalence and trauma of their broken affair. Late in the film, the promise of a new direction in Schiele’s portraiture is suggested by several of his late paintings housed in the Belvedere; this direction was cut short by his death four days after Edith’s.


Many cinematographers have found that studying certain painters has inspired their own work. Gordon Willis often spoke of Rembrandt when citing his uncompromising chiaroscuro portraits and their sometimes-unstinting lack of flattery to the actors. Laszlo Kovacs often referenced Edward Hopper, especially in 1984’s Heartbeat. Néstor Almendros had an abiding love for portraits by Georges de la Tour that depict single-source lighting, usually candles or an oil lamp.

The Magdalen with Smoking Flame, Georges de La Tour
The Magdalen with Smoking Flame, Georges de La Tour

In 1987, Vittorio Storaro guided me to a small Venetian chapel to gaze on the Vittore Carpaccio painting cycle of Saint George that is tucked into the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni. Storaro’s love of this painting cycle illustrates how painting can serve as inspiration without resulting in a literal stylistic model.

10. Conference-carpaccio-23
A panel from Carpaccio's Saint George cycle.

As for me, I’ve had this abiding fascination with the watercolors and drawings of Schiele that goes back to my student days in Vienna, long before I had any notion that I would spend my working life lighting the human face. (What consumes most of our creative concentration as cinematographers is the infinitely variable landscape and moods of the human face.)

In the fall of 1987, I photographed a movie that has come to define for me a lighting approach as much as American Gigolo did a camera style. This movie is The Accidental Tourist, directed by Larry Kasdan, from the novel by Anne Tyler. It tells the story of a broken family, a husband and wife who divorce after the death of their young son, who was caught in crossfire at a convenience-store robbery. The father, played by William Hurt, is both grieving and numbed, his emotions bottled up in his often impassive face, the legacy of a family that always has struggled to express its feelings.

In preproduction discussions with Larry, I suggested that studying some deeply emotional self-portraits by Schiele, with their fractured swatches of watercolor and pigment, might yield a window onto how we could use lighting to create an equivalent mood in Hurt’s close-ups. We had already decided to shoot in the anamorphic aspect ratio, deliberately taking advantage of the format’s longer lenses and shallow depth of field to isolate Hurt’s face from the background environments, and to give panning portrait shots an undefined, floating quality. Against these visually ambiguous backgrounds, every detail in the actor’s face could become part of the landscape of emotion. So, against all dictates of normal source lighting, I decided to use, whenever appropriate, an unusual number of light sources as sculpting elements. I thought this could suggest the conflicting and confusing play of emotions that, given the subtlety and restraint of Hurt’s acting style, would help us feel empathy and engagement in his journey of grief, and lead toward a path of peace.

Here is one of the Schiele portraits I chose to study:

And here is a close-up of Hurt that shows the multiple light sources used to create an introspective, emotional state.

There were other times when a simpler source, such as a window, could achieve the same effect. In this shot, Hurt is standing at a doctor’s office front window, waiting for Geena Davis and her sickly son to reappear. He looks lost in a reverie, possibly thinking of his dead son.

American Cinematographer writer Nora Lee spoke with me for a cover story on the film for the November 1988 issue. I described to her how a recent trip back to Vienna, 25 years after my student days, had given me an opportunity to see Schiele’s work anew in an expansive exhibition, more of his watercolors and drawings than I had ever seen.

14. AC NOV.. 88 cover

I also spoke of the importance of seeing art in its museum or gallery setting, rather than in reproductions. This is especially true for an artist like Schiele, whose intimate drawings and watercolors must be experienced one on one. I also discussed how deeply emotional abstract art can be when you stand for several minutes in front of an abstract Mark Rothko painting that can seem merely colorful in reproductions.

Orange and Yellow, Mark Rothko
Orange and Yellow, Mark Rothko

My first encounter with the art of Schiele was in 1963, in a small Viennese gallery in the inner city. I had gone there to see some new work of Jasper Johns, who was at the time all the rage. His U.S.A. flag and map paintings were being shown in Vienna for the first time. A small side room of this gallery had some charcoal and graphite drawings by Schiele. They were for sale, priced at several hundred dollars. I was living in an unheated, no-water cabinet, with the bed nearly touching three walls; the rent was $20 a month. I lusted for a Schiele, but it represented my living expenses for months.

So began my decades-long quest to acquire an original Schiele drawing. In the 1980s, I frequented a small gallery a few blocks north of the Whitney Museum on Madison Avenue. Serge Sabarsky specialized in early 20th century art of Austria. Every time I went to New York, I would drop by his gallery, chat with him about my love of Schiele, and watch the slowly rising prices push the work ever more out of my range. The old man was always sympathetic, but that never affected the price. Aside from about 3 feet of my bookshelf being occupied by Schiele monographs …

15. schiele bookshelf

… the only Schiele art I have is a 1990 published folder of 10 full-size facsimile drawings made during the artist’s 23-day prison sentence for art obscenity. The Egon Schiele im Gefängnis drawings are a mundane but powerful record of his cell and its furnishings. My portfolio was published by Vienna’s great museum of prints and drawings, The Albertina.

16. gefangnis cover

17. jail chair
Schiele's watercolor of a chair in his cell

In 1982, Scofield Thayer, editor of the poetry journal The Dial, gave the Met 39 drawings and watercolors by Schiele. Several years later, they were exhibited, and I, of course, was eager to see them. Current major exhibitions are typically advertised with stanchion posters in the Met’s Great Hall. Not these Schieles. I was able to find them only after several inquiries; they were hung deep in the bowels of the museum, on a stairway wall and landing that led to the second-floor contemporary galleries. The Thayer donation must have had a provision for exhibition, but it was pretty clear that the Met wasn’t interested in making these sexually explicit drawings too visible. One of the most challenging bears this accession number: 1984.433.311.

Girl Seen in a Dream, Egon Schiele
Girl Seen in a Dream, Schiele

Concurrent with the first solo show of Schiele's work in London is a closely focused one at New York City's Neue Gallerie. Titled "Portraits," it includes works from the Met's Thayer collection, including "Girl Seen in a Dream." A review of the exhibition by Ian Buruma appears in the April 2 issue of The New York Review of Books. (The full review can be accessed only by subscribers, but you can see an excerpt here.)

Almost a century after his death, Schiele’s art is still disturbing, even disruptive. Most of today’s art and movies are created and marketed as entertainment and status, more soporific than provocative. Schiele’s examination of the human face and body might raise some hackles, but his bold work opens a window into his own psyche — and ours. Isn’t that what we filmmakers aspire to create?

  • schiele
  • egon_schiele_078
    Self-Portrait, Schiele


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