Liebespaar is one of Schiele's most intense and expressive representations of an embracing couple, a theme that preoccupied the artist towards the end of 1913 and 1914. The models for this work are most likely Schiele himself and his mistress, Valerie Neuzil, known as Wally. The artist had met Wally in 1911 through his mentor, Gustav Klimt, and she soon became Schiele's lover, confidante, and his primary model. During their time together between 1911-14, Schiele had other women pose for him and, indeed, other lovers. The year he painted the present work, he forced Wally, then aged 19, to sign a 'testimony' of detachment. It read: "I say today, 8 June 1913, that I am not in love with anyone in the world. Wally." The reality of their relationship, however, proved to be quite the opposite of this statement. Despite his outward protestations, Schiele was dependant on Wally's emotional support, and his love and obsession with her was clearly evident in his art. Jane Kallir has elaborated on this observation: "The most significant aspect of Schiele's relationship with Wally, at least from the point of view of his art, was that it was a relationship. For the first time, his drawings of women began to display a broadened awareness of sexuality that acknowledged the existence of a separate female partner" (J. Kallir, op. cit., 1998, p. 109).
Schiele's fascination with his lover, or more specifically, with her physicality, dominated his art. In 1913, he made several depictions of lovers, recumbent and embracing (figs. 1 & 2), their bodies exaggeratedly twisted or foreshortened. In the present work, however, the figures are rendered frontally, with their bodies facing the viewer, as if to accommodate voyeurism. Schiele confronts the viewer with the striking physicality of the man, whose muscular torso and sculpted arm remain unobstructed by the body of his lover. The image of the woman is all the more explicit, as her body unfolds before us. Yet, the psychological connection between the two figures is undeniable: the tenderness of the couple's touch and their familiarity with each other, particularly expressed by the way that she leans her face towards his head, preserves the intimacy of this explicit scene.
Formally, the subject of the pair of lovers enabled Schiele to experiment with perspective and the foreshortening of his forms, as he preoccupied himself with the movements and physicality of two bodies. Here, for example, the female figure weaves her thigh over the leg and through the arms of the man, while he links his arms beneath his knee. The interlocking of bodies is undeniably sensual, and it is technically a feat of draughtsmanship, a skill in which the artist excelled. The pronounced three-dimensionality of the figures reflects an important shift that occurred in Schiele's work around 1913. At this time, he became interested in depicting his sitters in an increasingly sculptural way, which is particularly evident in his monumental oil Mann und Frau (Liebespaar I), now at the Neue Galerie in New York (fig. 3). Discussing the developments in Schiele's art in 1913, Jane Kallir wrote: "This year produces one of the most profound changes of the artist's career: the switch from two-dimensional to three-dimensional orientation, which will shape his drawing style for good. In keeping with the Jugendstil conditioning, Schiele prior to 1913 had been in thrall to the flatness of the picture plane, the negative spaces, and to the tactile qualities of pigment for pigment's sake. [... In 1913] one finds an interest in oblique views from above, but whereas previously such poses were interpreted two-dimensionally, the models are now presented in an approximation of realistic space" (J. Kallir, op. cit., 1998, p. 490).
Schiele executed the present work at the height of his relationship with Wally, his red-haired mistress. Wally had been a constant presence in the artist's professional life as he developed the distinct aesthetic that set him apart from the rest of the avant-garde. More than just his model during these years, Wally was a companion to Schiele, often taking his drawings to clients throughout Vienna and tending to his household chores. During his period of incarceration for moral indecency in 1912, she remained loyal to the artist, bringing him art supplies. Yet, despite his liberal views about sexuality, Schiele deemed Wally an inappropriate choice as a wife, mainly because of her promiscuity. According to Jane Kallir, the incident in prison had tempered his behaviour, and, as he matured, he became increasingly preoccupied with bourgeois concerns. In 1915, he married the young Edith Harms, his next door neighbour, whom he met through Wally's introduction. In 1917, Wally died of scarlet fever while working as a nurse for the Red Cross in Dalmatia, and in the following year, Schiele died of the Spanish influenza.
Fig. 1, Egon Schiele, Umarmung, 1913, gouache, watercolour and pencil on paper
Fig. 2, Egon Schiele, Weiblicher und männlicher Akt, veschränkt liegend, 1913, gouache, watercolour and pencil on paper, Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna
Fig. 3, Egon Schiele, Mann und Frau (Liebespaar I), 1914, oil on canvas, Neue Galerie, New York
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