Galerie St. Etienne
Coming of Age
The Galerie St. Etienne's principal exhibition of the fall season, containing major loans from private collections in Europe and the U.S., explores the fascination with underage models that was prevalent among artists at the turn of the twentieth-century. Timed to coincide with the Neue Galerie's Egon Schiele retrospective, the St. Etienne show places the work of this increasingly popular artist within the context of such peers as Erich Heckel, Ferdinand Hodler, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, Paula Modersohn-Becker and Edvard Munch.
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The fin-de-siecle culture that spawned Egon Schiele and his Expressionist comrades was uniquely oriented to youth. Only in the late nineteenth century did the concept of adolescence as a protracted way-station between childhood and adulthood gain popular currency. At the same time, many artists began to rebel against the stodgy values promulgated by their elders, both at the art academies and in society at large. Throughout German-speaking Europe, Secession movements served to unite young artists in opposition to the status quo. In Germany, the preeminent style of the period was Jugendstil—literally, "youth style" The first flowering of this fin-de-siecle youth movement was filled with hope and yet undercut by pangs of foreboding, which can be seen in the work of such emblematic artists as Ferdinand Holder, Gustav Klimt and Edvard Munch. By the early twentieth century, the sense of anxiety had become increasingly pronounced. The younger Expressionist generation, more extreme in their stylistic innovations and more vehement in their demands for change than their late-nineteenth-century predecessors, were also more firmly associated with the hallmarks of adolescence: oedipal revolt, sexual experimentation, narcissistic introspection and identity formation.
Believing that the adult world was irredeemably tainted by inauthenticity, both Egon Schiele and the his German colleagues sought one possible solution in the rejection of rote formula. To this end, the Expressionists assimilated a range of unconventional visual sources, ranging from the tribal art of non-Western cultures to indigenous folk art. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and other members of the North German group Die Brucke created emblematic images of nudes romping through the wilderness to celebrate the primacy of natural instinct. Unmediated sexual instinct was particularly well represented by adolescent subjects, who projected a poignant combination of precocity and naivete, nonchalance and embarrassment. Oskar Kokoschka drew circus children, Schiele Viennese street urchins, and the Brucke artists found their ideal models in the teenage daughters, Franzi and Marzella, of an artist's widow. Such subjects were not taboo by the standards of the day, so long as they were drawn from the underclass of prostitutes and models. However, Schiele famously came into conflict with contemporary mores by openly parading his liaison with his model, Wally Neuzil, and inviting middle-class school-children into their home. For this, he served 24 days in jail in the spring of 1912.
Although most of the Expressionists were in their twenties when they executed their breakthrough works, Schiele, as the youngest of them, dealt most consistently with adolescent subjects and issues. These preoccupations are evidenced not only by his use of underage female models, but also by his preoccupation with the male nude and with self-portraiture, through which he probed his own feelings and identity. However, like all teenagers, Schiele eventually grew up. Shaken to the core by his prison experience, he in 1915 chose to marry a conventional middle-class girl, Edith Harms. Hereafter, Schiele's style changed: his lines became less angular, his nudes more conventionally beautiful. He drew far fewer male nudes, self-portraits and children. The works executed in the last three years of Schiele's brief life speak eloquently to the resolution of his adolescent conflicts, transforming his entire oeuvre into a coming of age story. In this regard, it is both tragic and yet somehow fitting that the artist died at twenty-eight.
COMING OF AGE: Egon Schiele and the Modernist Culture of Youth is documented by a comprehensive checklist, which is available free of charge by mail or can be down-loaded from our website: