The images of girls created by Egon Schiele are entirely problematic. He is best known for his explicit representations of nude women often in pre- or post-coital states of languor. With the knowledge that he was driven out of several communities because of his activities, regularly used delinquent girls as models in his home and was charged with seducing a girl under the age of consent (14), in an era when blind eyes were constantly turned, these images take on a sinister tone that is glossed over with art historical rose-tinting.

Egon Schiele, Zwei Klein Madchen (Two Young Girls), 1911, Graphische Sammlung der Albertina, Wein. Wiki Commons.

Egon Schiele, Zwei Klein Madchen (Two Young Girls), 1911, Graphische Sammlung der Albertina, Wein. Wiki Commons.

In context of the times, there were many harsh realities for children. Children were hired to sell pornography on the street. They were products of and subject to oppressive cultural dictates that created varying forms of sociopathy. Whether runaways or homeless, the girls entering Schiele’s studio were little safer than on the streets. In the end, he only served three days in prison for exhibiting erotic drawings in a place accessible to children, escaping seduction and abduction charges.

Rebelling against a polite society, being avant-garde and living a bohemian lifestyle is the prerogative of the artist. However, this does not excuse Schiele’s behavior. Some rules are made to be broken, while others are there, universally, for good reasons. Taking physical advantage of children, whether for sexual gratification or violence, has been a part of human society forever. This neither justifies nor explains the reality, it merely is. So elevating portraits of little girls likely in a state of trauma, either from their present state or from previous experience, does not make good art.

Regardless of his artistic eye or command of the line, formalist rhetoric cannot transform the subjects of some paintings into merely compositions of shapes and colors.

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