‘Erotic works of art are also sacred,’ Egon Schiele once said, though it can be hard to see what is sacred about his own erotic works, which are about as far as they could be from any conventional norms of beauty. Schiele was an eternal rebel, deeply influenced by Freud’s theory of sexuality, who offered a new, bold and raw form of nude portraiture and self-portraiture to the world. Throughout his short yet productive artistic career, Egon Schiele invented his own kind of visual poetry, brutally honest and direct.
Egon Schiele is not really an illustrator in the sense that most of the work on this website is illustration, but his work is too central and important to the development of the way erotic illustration has developed since his too-early death not to include a small sample of his erotic drawings.
It is hard to talk about Egon Schiele and the power of his work without telling the story of his intriguing life. A reserved and shy child, he developed an early interest in sketching, and at sixteen enrolled at the Vienna Academy of Fine Art, the youngest student ever to enrol there. The conservative artistic style of the Academy did not suit him, however, and together with a group of other dissatisfied students he left in 1909 to form the avant-garde Neukunstgruppe (New Art Group). It was about this time that he started developing his extraordinary approach to the naked human body, which was not unrelated to his exploration of his own sexuality.
Egon Schiele quickly acquired a reputation as a womaniser. Wherever he went, and he moved around Austria several times, he caused controversy related to both his art and his relationships. Some of his most striking paintings feature his seventeen-year-old lover Wally Neuzil, with whom he spent some time in the small town of Český Krumlov, his mother’s birthplace. Its residents did not approve of the couple’s lifestyle nor of his alleged employment of teenage girls as models. As a result they moved to Neulengbach, only to be arrested for seducing a young girl below the age of consent. These charges were dropped, but Schiele spent three weeks in prison for exhibiting erotic drawings, many of which were confiscated by the police for indecency. In 1914 he married Edith Harms, which coincided with a more mature and realistic painting style.
Until his untimely death in 1918 from Spanish flu, Egon Schiele painted many nudes of his mistresses, prostitutes, and anyone else who was willing to model for him, and his later drawings sometimes depict pregnant women and women masturbating. His work was often described as pornographic, grotesque, disturbing and explicit; it is still disturbing and explicit, but his reputation is now firmly established as an artist who never hid from his own truth, integrity and raw nakedness. This is what he meant by ‘sacred’.