In the early years of the twentieth century, the Austrian artist Albin Egger-Lienz (1868–1926) had several influences, including the social realism of Millet, and the great Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler.
Egger-Lienz followed Hodler’s example and moved steadily away from his earlier strict realism, but continued to paint the country people of the Austrian Tyrol. He now concentrated on their often arduous work.
Woodcutters (1906-08) shows a theme common to Hodler, but painted in Egger-Lienz’s new earth palette, with the figures and trunks outlined.
The figure of The Sower re-appeared, here in a version for which I have no date. It appears, though, to have been painted in some form of pastel, with a limited earth-based palette.
Reapers I (1907) seems to have been inspired by Hodler’s paintings of reapers, and is surprisingly colourful for this period of Egger-Lienz’s career.
Egger-Lienz was an accomplished painter of portraits, and his brilliant Portrait of Lorli from 1907 shows his own daughter, who was seven at the time.
He travelled extensively in Austria during the period before the First World War. In 1908, he finally joined the Vienna Secession.
Egger-Lienz’s agricultural workers were not always at work. In his Lunch (The Soup II) (1910), the four working men in a family sit down to eat a minimal meal of soup in the middle of the day, before returning to the fields.
His full-length portrait of a Husband and Wife (1910) follows similar conventions to Naturalist portraits, in placing its subects against a non-decorative, almost ‘clinical’ background, in their quest for objectivity.
In 1911, Egger-Lienz had been expected to be appointed as a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, but was blocked by the heir to the throne. Instead, the following year he was appointed professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Weimar.
The two labourers shown in Egger-Lienz’s Reapers in a Gathering Storm (c 1912) are desperately continuing with their work before they have to seek shelter from the torrential rain which will shortly fall from the black clouds behind them.
Two Reapers reappeared in another colourful work from 1913.
Shortly before the start of the First World War, Egger-Lienz moved to a village near what is now the town of Bolzano in Italy, but was in Austria’s South Tyrol at the time (corrected: see comment below). He also met Ferdinand Hodler, whose influence proved important to his later work.
In 1915, Egger-Lienz was drafted into the military, and was initially put to work as an artistic advisor. Although I have been unable to discover anything more of his war record, he appears to have served as a war artist, thereby gaining first hand experience of the horrific carnage which was taking place at the front lines. Unsurprisingly, this changed his art permanently.
Totentanz (Dance of Death) IV (1915) is a motif which he painted in several different versions, showing the skeletal figure of death walking out with three men armed with hefty clubs and other weapons. This version was made using casein paint, which uses milk protein as its binder. This was and remains an unusual choice of medium for a fine art painter, but was in wider use among illustrators.
Egger-Lienz’s lithograph of 1915, produced in that year, presents a disturbing vision of the organised thuggery of combat.
Then in Die Namenlosen (The Nameless) from 1916, those troops crouch among low mud ridges as they try to move forward under enemy fire. The man in the centre is already bleeding from a wound in his left thigh, and has splashes of blood on his left arm.
Finale (1918) shows the end, with a pile of mangled and contorted bodies in a trench.
After the war, Egger-Lienz was offered a professorial post at the Vienna Academy, but turned it down, preferring to continue living in South Tyrol.
Egger-Lienz was one of the few war artists to draw attention to the wives and mothers who had to work on in the countryside during and after the war. His War Women (1918-22) is particularly moving, showing a group of women who had, like so many, lost their menfolk, either to the carnage of the battlefield, or in the influenza pandemic which followed.
Egger-Lienz also appears to have been influenced here by Cubism, with a planked floor which seems to be anything other than flat, and variable perspective projection across the painting.
In Mothers (1922-23), Egger-Lienz has revisited the crucifixion narrative, with a young mother and her swaddled infant referring to the nativity.
Boy at the Spring (1923) shows a peasant boy lying to lick and suck up the last few drops of water from a feeble spring.
In 1925, his work was shown at the Venice Biennale, where it was acclaimed. Following that success, he had a solo exhibition in the Vienna Künstlerhaus.
Egger-Lienz’s last major project was an even more disturbing portrait of The Family, for which this is a study made in 1925-26. He did add facial details in the finished work.
Egger-Lienz died on 4 November 1926 near Bolzano. He was only 58. His paintings of the First World War remain some of its most important images. If only the world had heeded them.