Escape and Experimentation in Egon Schiele’s 'Trieste Fishing Boat'
F ollowing on from Klimt/Schiele at the RA, an extremely rare work by Egon Schiele will make its auction debut in the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale on 26 February in London. Known particularly for his depictions the human form,Triestiner Fischerboot (Trieste Fishing Boat) marks a period of particular turmoil for Schiele, and a shift in focus for the artist from the figure to his surroundings.
Painted in 1912, Triestiner Fischerboot is a fascinating and unique work in the œuvre of Egon Schiele, created in the aftermath of what was arguably the most tumultuous and life-changing experience for the artist. Based on an everyday scene he would have observed in the harbour of Trieste during a brief visit in May of that year, Schiele transforms the image of a simple fishing boat against a backdrop of sea and sky into a pictorial marvel, using flat patches of pigment to build a mosaic-like composition. The work was a result of a self-imposed exile in Trieste, whilst Schiele and his muse Wally Neuzil fled to the Italian town.
In the summer 1911 Schiele and the model Wally Neuzil had settled in the town of Neulengbach, some twenty miles west of Vienna. The artist’s very presence in the small country town scandalised his conservative neighbours, and his bohemian lifestyle and his use of local children as models drew specific criticism. When a retired naval officer’s daughter asked Schiele and Wally to help her run away, the couple found themselves in a precarious position.
Although they returned the girl to her parents, the father had already pressed charges against Schiele and the artist spent twenty-four days in a prison cell. This experience – and particularly the loss of freedom it entailed - had a marked effect on Schiele’s life and work. After his release from prison, he could no longer stay in Neulengbach, and his belongings were sent to Vienna, where he was temporarily staying with his mother.
Built out of bright patches of pure colour, the boat and its rippled, rhythmically linear reflection in the water create a shimmering, highly decorative effect that represents a legacy of Schiele’s mentor Gustav Klimt. With a dramatic use of foreshortening and perspective, Schiele has turned a modest fishing boat into a dominating presence that occupies almost the entire canvas.
Combining the elevated perspective for the inside of the boat with a frontal depiction of its bow, the artist creates a highly unusual, almost vertiginous effect reminiscent of Paul Cézanne’s still-lives. The round shape of the vessel, with its mast and rigging forming a triangular shape that disappears beyond the scope of the canvas, unify various elements into a harmonious pictorial whole.
Furthermore, the breaking down of forms and the semi-abstract manner of this work demonstrate the artist’s pivotal role in the wider context of European avant-garde painting. The year 1912 was marked by key developments that would have a lasting influence on the direction of twentieth-century art, from Picasso’s and Braque’s Cubist inventions to Orphism, Expressionism and Futurism. Artists across Europe were experimenting with a new pictorial language, and Triestiner Fischerboot reflects Schiele’s place in this unique moment in the development of Modernism.