Tobias G. Natter, Egon Schiele: The Complete Paintings, 1909-1918, Cologne, 2017, no. 130, illustrated in color p. 535
The visionary scope of Schiele’s large-scale townscapes is undeniable. Painted between 1913 and 1917 they reveal the artist at the height of his power, experimenting with composition and form and clarifying his own distinctive artistic vision. The subject of these paintings is always one of two locations: either the village of Stein-an-der-Donau on the Danube, or—as in the present work—the small, medieval town of Krumau situated on the Moldau river in the Bohemian forest. Jane Kallir described the importance of the latter within the artist’s oeuvre: "Schiele's favorite landscape subject... was the town of Krumau (today Český Krumlov), to which he referred most frequently as the 'dead city' (but also as the 'old city' and the 'city on the blue river'). Krumau, his mother's birthplace, was indisputably an old city, a medieval time capsule whose winding streets and crumbling buildings embodied for Schiele an eternity of human decay and persistence. Situated around and within a tortuous bend in the Moldau river (now called the Vlatava), Krumau has a compact, island like configuration that Schiele found compositionally intriguing. He liked especially to perch on the high left bank of the river and draw the old town from above. He told one friend that this bird's-eye perspective influenced all his work, and, indeed, even his nudes were often viewed from the vantage point of a tall stool or ladder" (J. Kallir, Egon Schiele, New York, 1994, p. 96).
In adopting this compositional device Schiele liberated himself from the conventions of traditional representation and the result is a radical approach to perspective. The houses of the town crowd the pictorial plane, emphasizing the organic, cluttered nature of the medieval streets. Schiele eliminates pictorial depth, building the forms one on top of another, with the imposing swathe of river at the bottom of the canvas and the houses rising vertiginously above it. It has been widely observed that Schiele's townscapes are not literal depictions of a given view, but rather the artist's own, highly personalized interpretations of them. Like many of his best landscapes, the present work is reflective of the artist's emotional and psychological response to Krumau, rather than an accurate topographical representation. As Klaus Albrecht Schröder wrote: "The town, for Schiele, is a field of association for his own emotions; predictably, none of his townscapes gives anything like an exact rendering of the place concerned.... Nor does he select his views of Krumau with the eye of a tourist, strolling round to surrender himself to whatever charms the town may have to offer. On the contrary; he examines each and every building for its symbolic content" (K. A. Schröder in Egon Schiele und seine Zeit: Österreichische Malerei und Zeichnung von 1900 bis 1930 aus der Sammlung Leopold (exhibition catalogue), Von-der-Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal, 1988, p. 26).
In her study on Schiele’s townscapes, Kimberly A. Smith discusses this in terms of the Gothic character of the paintings, noting that: "Schiele’s Expressionism evokes the Gothic tradition in a series of townscapes that lay claim to a medieval vision of the world by striving for a perfect equivalence between form and content, in a strategy that identifies truth with style" (K. A. Smith, op. cit., p. 65). She argues that in reproducing—or re-appropriating—certain Gothic formal styles, Schiele also evoked a Gothic sensibility that could be seen as a palliative to the modern age. Schiele certainly emphasized the medieval character of Krumau, excluding elements that spoke of the town’s more recent history; in painting the view from the river and so showing the back view of the houses, Schiele concealed the later Baroque facades of the buildings which can only be glimpsed in silhouette. However, these works not only emphasize the Gothic character of Schiele’s subject, they also deliberately evoke examples of Gothic art. In Dämmernde Stadt the careful construction of the composition from boldly delineated shapes and a relatively restrained palette punctuated by brilliant, jewel-like colors are both reminiscent of the kind of Gothic stained glass windows with which Schiele would have been familiar.
Smith contrasts the compositional rigor of Schiele’s creation with another important element of his work: "Schiele’s line is absolutely sure of itself, unhesitating, virtuosic, yet highly dynamic and intimate…. Schiele possessed an extraordinary ability to compose and structure his paintings even from the most unlikely points of view, and his skill at constructing linear frameworks is flawless. But, while this draughtsmanship is accomplished and precise, Schiele’s line itself exhibits a tactile, lively movement, and signifies naturalness in contrast to the technical precision of the composition…. With its liveliness and imperfections, Schiele’s line resembles the organic character of the Gothic village" (ibid., pp. 89-90). This organic character was upheld as an alternative to the perceived artificiality of the modern city; it stood instead for individuality and an innate humanity. While Schiele was evidently experimenting with formal aspects of Gothic art, his real preoccupation with it—and certainly this is the way it manifests in his townscapes—lies in a rejection of beauty in favor of a personal spiritual truth.
In looking to a medieval past Schiele was very much in step with a contemporary strain of Gothic revivalism but it is evident that he borrowed from it only where it served his artistic vision and that in these paintings he was also looking more widely at the exciting artistic experiments that were developing concomitantly across Europe. His adoption of the high viewpoint and his growing sensitivity to formal relations suggest that he was examining the work of Post-Impressionist artists such as van Gogh and Cézanne. Equally, the influence of Klimt’s experiments with form—and particularly with the square format—are apparent. Klimt had begun using this format for his landscapes in 1899; in creating an equivalence between the horizontal and vertical, these works deny traditional perspective and transform the painting into an object of contemplation.
Although Schiele never embraced the extreme palettes of the Fauves or the German Expressionists, paintings like Dämmernde Stadt clearly show him experimenting with the idea of color as form. In the spring of 1912 he had participated in Hans Goltz’ Blaue Reiter exhibition and had been sent a copy of the catalogue. Later the same year he made a brief trip to Munich, making a list in his notebook of artists who caught his eye. Schiele was very aware of his German contemporaries’ interest in folk art which they often illustrated alongside their own works in exhibition catalogues; in some respects his engagement with a Gothic idiom paralleled this, providing an engagement with the past that was more specifically Austrian in character. As much as his use of color in the present work recalls the techniques of stained glass, so it also provides an interesting counterpoint to Kandinsky’s coloration in his landscapes of a slightly earlier period. Kandinsky’s bold and experimental use of color would eventually lead him to abstraction, and Schiele’s work treads the same path between visual representation and an inner truthfulness. It is this spiritual strain—the expressiveness of these works—that allows them to transcend their subject and, combined with their formal innovations, makes them among Schiele’s most significant contributions to twentieth-century art.
Dämmernde Stadt was first acquired by Hubert Jung, a Viennese architect who purchased the work through Gustav Klimt. In 1928, Elsa Koditschek acquired this canvas at the Hagenbund, the nexus for contemporary art in Vienna until its dissolution in 1938 after the Nazis assumed power in Austria. The Nazis' ascent forced Elsa Koditschek into hiding, her home confiscated by an S.S. officer's family and her most prized possession, Egon Schiele's Dämmernde Stadt, sold by her former tenant.
Please note that this lot is being offered for sale pursuant to a settlement agreement with the heirs of Elsa Koditschek.
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