I t’s Vienna, 1907. A young artist, his palms sweating with apprehension, approaches an older artist dressed in a light blue smock in the garden of his atelier home. Just 17 years old, he hands over the pages of drawings on pale brown Japan paper, depicting amputated torsos, twisted expressions and haunting beauty, to one of Europe’s leading artists. He takes a deep breath and asks the question that has plagued him, shaped him, since he was a child.
“Do I have talent?” Everything, for Egon Schiele, hinges on this moment.
“Talent?” came the reply from the man he idolised – Gustav Klimt, then 45, founder and leader of the Viennese Secession – and to Schiele, a meteor of talent. “Much too much.”
Dizzy with relief, Schiele went on to propose an exchange of drawings, offering several of his own sheets for one by Klimt. Klimt’s reply? “Why do you want to exchange with me? You draw better than I do.”
And with that, Egon Schiele received Gustav Klimt’s gilded seal of approval. It was a creative collision of kindred souls and rebellious minds that would be tragically brief – both men would be dead a little over a decade later. But their artistic impact still reverberates today.
Gustav Klimt was born into poverty in Baumgarten, near Vienna, in 1862, the second of seven children – and went on to become one of the best-loved artists on the planet.
Egon Schiele was born in 1890 and grew up in the small town of Tulln, a short distance from Vienna. His father, a stationmaster, was a much-loved but strict man. At first, he was impressed by his infant son’s obsession with drawing the trains he could see from the window of the family’s station-side home. But his enthusiasm turned to desperation when Schiele failed at school and rejected a career path following in his father’s footsteps.
Schiele’s father burned Egon’s childhood sketchbook in a fit of rage. But the artist couldn’t be deterred. He became the youngest student ever to be accepted into Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts in 1906, at the tender age of 16. Before long, Schiele fell out with his conservative tutors, and left in 1909 to establish the Neukunstgruppe with other students.
It was during this time that Schiele met Klimt – and the young man began to imitate his master. But Schiele’s first attempts were rather pitiful.
Take Klimt’s oil painting, Danaë, created in 1907. Look at the suggestive “golden rain” falling between the woman’s tender thighs, her expression blissful. Then look at Schiele’s teenage efforts from 1909 – the model is crouched in foetal position, her knees tucked under her chin, the life-giving rain washing off her back. Schiele had missed the point entirely.
But nevertheless, the respect between the two men was mutual. Schiele painted a self-portrait with Klimt, The Hermits in 1912, as homage to their friendship, and was proud when his work was exhibited opposite Klimt’s in Berlin during the first world war.
Then, in the spring of 1911, when the 21-year-old penniless artist was looking for cheap models to pose for his provocative and controversial works of art, Klimt generously introduced the young man to a model he had reportedly used: Wally Neuzil.
She was Klimt’s greatest gift to Schiele.
Wally was 17 at the time, born in Tattendorf, and had moved to Vienna to make a living as a model, which, at the time, was akin to prostitution. She was a flaming spark of a woman, with soulful eyes, a large, sensuous mouth and tawny hair. Schiele painted her often throughout their four-year love affair, and she became integral to everything he did.
“Wally, at first, is really just one of Schiele’s models,” says Jane Kallir, author of the Egon Schiele catalogue raisonné and co-director of Galerie St Etienne in New York. “She doesn’t become easy to single out, or develop a noticeable presence, in his work until 1912.”
Then, her distinctive features are clear in works such as Sleeping Woman (Wally Neuzil), 1912; Wally Neuzil Kneeling with Grey Cloak, 1912; and the sexually-charged Woman in Underclothes and Stockings (Wally Neuzil), 1913. Kallir adds: “What’s really unusual is that Schiele grants [Wally] a skin of equality. Not just as his life partner, but his artistic partner.”
Wally is credited with transforming the young artist’s emotional maturity and the insight he bestowed onto his sitters. This is witnessed in Portrait of Wally Neuzil, 1912, created as a counterpart to Self-Portrait with Physalis. “In his allegories, Schiele is always the star,” Kallir says. “He’s the ‘seer’, the one with second sight. But in the allegories from 1912-14, Wally’s by his side, also as a ‘seer’ – that degree of recognition is quite extraordinary for that time.”
With Wally, Schiele found his voice. He was able to match his master and, some may say, surpass him. In 1912, he created the controversial Cardinal and Nun (Caress), based on Klimt’s enduringly famous The Kiss. It’s a self-portrait, with Wally posing as the nun. The composition is the same, the subject matter similar – two people embracing. But Schiele’s has a wild streak of eroticism and rebelliousness that Klimt’s just doesn’t possess.
But for all Wally’s strength and generosity – she stood by the disgraced artist after Schiele was imprisoned for 24 days on counts of kidnapping, statutory rape and public immorality (the first two charges were quickly dropped) – he was never going to marry her.
The heart-breaking oil painting Death and the Maiden was made in 1915, in response to their impending separation, before Schiele married the more respectable Edith Harms.
When Klimt died unexpectedly, aged 55, in February 1918 of the Spanish influenza epidemic sweeping the continent, Schiele was devastated. He drew Klimt on his deathbed. He wrote of his mentor: “An unbelievably accomplished artist – a man of rare depth – his work a sanctuary.”
After the death of Klimt, Schiele took on the mantel as leading figure of the Viennese art scene. But he wasn’t to know then that he, too, would be dead before the end of the year.
Schiele died, aged 28, on October 31, 1918 – three days after his wife, Edith Harms, who was six months pregnant with their first child. Two of Austria’s greatest artists extinguished.
The loss was a travesty. But today, a little over 100 years after the untimely deaths, their reverberations can still be felt. Schiele’s artwork remains seismic, transcendental, shocking and full of fire. Klimt will forever be his master.
Sophie Haydock is a journalist, and is writing a novel about the key women who inspired Egon Schiele. Follow @egonschieleswomen on Instagram