At the start of 1917, Schiele and his wife Edith moved back to Vienna from Mühlings in Upper Austria, and he was again able to paint in his own studio. He continued in military service, working in a store supplying the Austrian field army.
Together with Albert Paris Gütersloh, he organised an exhibition at the Vienna Prater. His works were also exhibited in the Munich Secession, and in Amsterdam, Stockholm, and Copenhagen.
Four Trees (1917) is perhaps Schiele’s finest landscape painting, and one of the most significant of the early twentieth century.
It is sunset in the autumn. Four young chestnut trees stand in a line beside a path which meanders gently across the canvas. Their leaves have already turned completely red, and on one have almost all fallen. The rolling hills in the middle distance part to reveal far rugged mountains, and the clouds roll in parallel banks, coloured by the setting sun.
Schiele painted several portraits of his wife in these last couple of years. In Portrait of the Artist’s Wife Seated, Holding Her Right Leg, which he painted in black crayon and gouache in 1917, she assumes a less formal posture, but still looks at the viewer with almost no emotion.
His painting from models shows a great contrast. In Kneeling Girl, Resting on Both Elbows from the same year, the model’s simple shift is pushed up above her waist, and her buttocks and thighs bared.
This theme of availability is a common thread in these later nudes: the same model lies, legs apart and sex only just obscured, in his Reclining Woman (1917). Schiele again colours her cheeks, lips, and nipples garishly.
In 1918, Schiele was invited to take part in the major Vienna Secession exhibition, where nineteen large paintings and twenty-nine of his drawings were shown in its main hall.
Brook from 1918 is one of Schiele’s last landscapes, a close-up view of a mountain stream gushing and broken on its course through rounded rocks.
In the Spring of 1918, Edith became pregnant. I don’t know whether this was the stimulus for Schiele to revisit the theme of The Family, but the three figures here seem full of longing and aspiration. The father, surely a self-portrait, looks straight at the viewer. His wife, who doesn’t resemble Edith, stares slightly sadly down to the right. Her lips and nipples are not painted gaudy pink unlike those of his nude models. Their young child peers out from mother’s legs, as if looking up at an object to the right.
When the influenza pandemic reached Vienna in the autumn, Edith, now six months pregnant, fell ill on 19 October, and died on 28 October. Egon Schiele lasted another three days, before being overwhelmed by the virus and dying on 31 October 1918 – a century ago today. He was only 28.
I wrote at the outset of this series to mark Schiele’s death that I have many reservations about his figurative works. Schiele was a master draughtsman, whose drawings and paintings excel in line and form. But his often overt sexualisation of women puts them in a passive role, and seems devoid of love (unlike Klimt’s paintings) or even pleasure.
I believe that Schiele is seriously underrated as a landscape artist. Including Four Trees (1917) shown above, he has at least five exceptional paintings which stand against others of the period, which I show below.
Boats in Trieste Harbour (1908).
Setting Sun (1913).
Old Gable (1913).
House Wall on the River (1915).
Schiele’s landscapes have two common themes: the compact urban environment, in which depth is flattened, which he developed from Klimt’s holiday landscapes, and dereliction and decay in buildings. His light is that of sunset, which emphasises the process of decay and finality.
Schiele was without doubt thoroughly modern, in his landscapes and figurative work. Yet his drawings and paintings have lasted, indeed become enriched by what they have inspired. Yet Schiele never saw his, or anyone’s, art as being modern. One of his often-repeated statements is perhaps his best epitaph:
“Art cannot be modern. Art is eternal.”
If only the artist could also be less ephemeral too.
Rudolph Leopold (2004) Egon Schiele, Landscapes, Prestel. ISBN 978 3 7913 8346 0.