Egon Schiele (1890-1918) as an Austrian painter and graphic artist belongs to the central figure of Austrian expressionism. After beginning as an impressionist Schiele painted in the style of the Viennese Secession.
The model Schiele mostly used was he himself. The painter does not emphasize reports about outward conditions, but he works on penetrating into his being. Schiele, as compared to his contemporaries, breaks with tradition most radically as far as aesthetical appearance is concerned and prefers artistic finding of the truth in an expressionist sense. Not only in graphics and painting does he use all possibilities of facial and physical expression, but also in photography as a means of self-contemplation. The small excerpt of a picture is part of its quality of meaning. Often his head is cut shortly above the forehead.
In composing his portraits he looks for new solutions with the help of new points of view. The gaze out of the picture is not only the painter´s look upon himself in the mirror, but it is also directed at the observer without communicating with him. Nevertheless, it is not an inner monologue that takes place here, but a dialogue. On the one hand a relationship between the observer and the artist is established with the help of the latter´s eye-contact, on the other hand communication is often interrupted by his grimace. Schiele´s self-portraits do not result from contemplating his own soul, but stem from turning his immediate feelings outward in an active, often exaggerated way and thus demonstrating various possibilities of self-perception: It is likely to assume that the image in the mirror and the grimace are meant to refer to the unsolved questions of life and every-day experiences, but it is also possible to detect a few provocative glimpses. Perhaps Schiele´s opposition to contemporary society´s suppressive tendencies is a reason for that.
Although we can delimit the meaning of the gaze out of the mirror there still are various different attempts at interpretation because people have varied reactions depending on the moods they are in. The artist utilizes the expressiveness of his body by using gestures as a simile. His hand motion to the viewer with the help of ever new expressive and unreal gestures as a symbol of communication at a standstill.
Gestures and clothing do not only serve expressiveness. They also fulfil tasks in the composition of the picture. Despite depicting emotions the picture is composed in a rigid way. In the lively depiction of contours which form the boundary between man and space between light and darkness we see Schiele the draughtsman. His uncompromising linear and colourful translation of a moment of utmost tension in a provocatively exhibitionist pose challenges the observer to witness a self-contortion, a vision. By habitual distorsions he becomes a stranger to himself, he even sees himself as someone else would see him, in other words, in society´s light.
Therefore he also puts on masks and plays different roles ("monk", "prophet"). These types that have been developed in Christian iconography mutate into modern symptoms of suffering that become embedded in the expressionist´s body as a reflection of societal suffering. Karl Kraus said: "The truth on part of the distorting genius is rated more valuable than anatomical correctness,... because to art reality is only optical illusion."
In the society of the turning of the century techniques of self-observation and self-control are steadily on the increase. Schiele´s self-portraits give us access to the role of the individual in that era: subjectivity and loneliness. By drawing a clear, emphatic outline to his figure, Schiele puts himself at a distance, even into isolation as regards his surroundings.
Also descriptions of some place of nature around 1900 increasingly allow us to look into an artist´s psychological landscape and inner life. Oblong formats and squares are preferred because of their static effect and because of the possibility to depict a segment of a landscape. Here we can detect the influence of Japanese wood carvings in colour which were seen for the first time in Vienna at an exhibition. Photography, which is developing at the same time, also works with picture excerpts, which are again used by painting at the turning of century. By concentrating on a segment of a landscape, the very segment works as a quiet object of meditation. The impression of perspective alignment is lost because of minimal top view, which is supported by high horizons that fold the segment of a landscape back into the surface of the picture. Therefore our contemplation remains undisturbed by our familiar concept of space.
Landscapes by Schiele (that are influenced by Klimt) at the same time seem to be a form of self-contemplation ("Vier Bäume" - Four Trees). In his municipial views of Krumau, the South Bohemian place of birth of his mother, Schiele does not depict any sights but unobtrusive details of peripheral municipal architecture. Architecture, however, remains inanimate. The excerpt of a housewall ("Hauswand" - Wall of a House) is brought to life by the artist, however, due to the lingering of the depicted facade and the rhythmic swinging of the windows which are open but empty.
The individual citizen as well as the artist and art around 1900 are forced into the defensive. A work of art can only be a semblance of reconciliation- as opposed to the utopian hope towards better art and a better life on part of the Secession and Wiener Werkstätte.