The Disturbing Art of Egon Schiele — And Others

I love learning new things, especially “meeting” artists I’m unfamiliar with, discovering their works, and uncovering bits and pieces of their lives.

300px-Egon_Schiele_-_Self-Portrait_with_Physalis_-_Google_Art_ProjectPerhaps you’ve heard of this fellow before. I hadn’t. Either way, let me present to you Egon Schiele. First, though, we must step back in time over a hundred years. This self-portrait of Schiele was painted in 1912. It is considered to be his best-known self-portrait, but I’m not sure that’s saying a lot. As mentioned, I had never heard of Egon Schiele. His name and his works were totally unfamiliar to me.

So how did I come across Schiele?

It began with one of those random thoughts in my head. Were there any famous artists who were known primarily for pencil drawings? I searched around a bit, and I found some incredible artwork, mostly of the hyper-realistic vein, and all from contemporary artists. It was mind-boggling to see some of their graphite drawings, but that wasn’t quite what I was looking for.

At Artist Network, I came across an article entitled “Ten Master Drawers (And What They Teach Us).” I began scrolling through the list, encountering famous — and familiar — artists: Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Albrecht Durer, and others. Most of the drawings shown were ones I’ve seen before in art books.

Fighter_EgonSchieleBut then it happened. The wholly unfamiliar name of Egon Schiele appeared along with a drawing that immediately grabbed my attention.

Here is The Fighter, painted in 1913. I am fascinated by this painting. I love the oddly-placed colors, the slightly misproportioned body, the fierce expression on the fighter’s face.

I know nothing more beyond the title — who this fighter is, what he’s fighting for or against, the entire narrative of the fight will remain a mystery for me. Yet it intrigues me.

What drew me to Schiele was the way in which his style was described. Bear with me here, please, but descriptions of his works sounded a bit like descriptions of my own. I read about:

  • Distorted or exaggerated human figures
  • Twisted or wandering lines
  • Unexpected colors

No, I am not, in any way, attempting to compare myself with Egon Schiele. His distortions and exaggerations, his lines, his colors were all his own — and all very intentional, I’m sure.

These elements find their way into my paintings by accident, through my lack of skill, through my inexperience. If you want a good example of my distorted artwork, just take a look at my cringe-worthy Portrait in Blue. It’s awful, so please don’t look unless you absolutely must.

At some level, of course, I found it comforting that these distortions and exaggerations could be accepted as art, and in looking at Schiele’s works, I liked the sense of honesty and authenticity I saw.

I wanted to know more about Egon Schiele.

As I searched online, I began to wonder if I was the only person who had never heard of this artist. There is a tremendous amount of information available about him, and I went on a wild ride of emotions as I read about his life.

Here is a little blurb from The Art Story website:

With his signature graphic style, embrace of figural distortion, and bold defiance of conventional norms of beauty, Egon Schiele was one of the leading figures of Austrian Expressionism. His portraits and self-portraits, searing explorations of their sitters’ psyches and sexuality, are among the most remarkable of the 20th century. The artist, who was astoundingly prolific during his brief career, is famous not only for his psychologically and erotically charged works, but for his intriguing biography: his licentious lifestyle marked by scandal, notoriety, and a tragically early death of influenza at age twenty-eight, three days after the death of his pregnant wife, and at a time when he was on the verge of the commercial success that had eluded him for much of his career.


Schiele, it seems, had a fascination with underage girls. He is not the only creative soul who gained a bit of notoriety in this respect. Lewis Carroll, (whose real name was Charles Dodgson) author of our beloved Alice in Wonderland, was known for photographing young girls in various stages of undress. Below is a photo of Alice Liddell, believed to have been his inspiration for Alice:

Alice Liddell

Musician and composer Anton Bruckner had a reputation for propositioning — and even proposing — to girls half his age. He also had a morbid fascination with death.


At this point in my explorations, curiosity led me to a list of  7 Artists Wanted by the Law. It came as no surprise to find Egon Schiele on that list.

egon-schieleSchiele’s alleged criminal activity involved kidnapping and raping an underage girl who had been serving as a model. He spent twenty-four days in jail, but was then released and charged only with public immorality. From that point forward, he did not use children as models.

Understandable, I suppose. I suppose, too, that one reason he was accused was because of his erotic drawings. This event happened in 1912 when his works were stirring up a lot of controversy because of their sexual — almost pornographic — content.

It was in that same year — 1912 — that Schiele painted that haunting self-portrait. Here is a description of the painting that I found interesting.

…the 22-year old Egon Schiele captivates us in a way that is at once self-confident and fragile. Nothing in this balanced composition is left to chance; every line finds its continuation or a counterpart to which it corresponds: hair and body are both cropped by the edges of the painting as if reflecting, one shoulder is pulled up with the other lowered, and the slender branches bear intensely colored red lampion fruit…this painting shows an Egon Schiele who is sensitive, confident of his giftedness and likely at the zenith of his creativity.

Egon Schiele most definitely possessed confidence, and he appears to have been a bit of a braggart. As I read more about him, I came across several rather bombastic quotes. Although I know nothing of the context in which these remarks we made, he commented that all beautiful and noble qualities had been united in him, and said that he was so rich he must give himself away. Odd statements, really.

I did like this quote: “To restrict the artist is a crime. It is to murder germinating life.”

I came away from my morning’s browsing with profoundly disturbed feelings about life, about art, about society, about all those darker shadows lurking at the edges of creativity.

Art is expression, and I agree that artists should not be restricted. At the same time, I wonder how far art goes before it crosses those indefinable lines and oversteps the boundaries of decency and morality. Questions about obscenity and how it is defined exist today, and we’ve had our share of controversial modern artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Robert Mapplethorpe. 

Art should encourage us to look at life in many ways, but does that mean there should be no standards of decency? I suppose it’s a deeply-personal decision for each of us to make regarding what we view as art, what we find disturbing, and what we consider illicit.

An interesting essay on the topic can be found here: Morals Versus Art.  This was written in 1886 by Anthony Comstock, postmaster and anti-vice activist. Although the writing and much of the thinking may seem antiquated, the truth is that the debate over immorality continues to this day.

I stand with those who say “Let artists have freedom without restriction,” all the while claiming as a viewer or patron of the arts my right to decide for myself whether a painting or other work crosses my personal boundaries. I think that’s all we can do.

Art will sometimes be disturbing. It’s not all about beauty and elegance. Art is human expression, human desire, and yes, human sexuality in all its myriad forms.

What are your thoughts and opinions on the topic? Is there ever a need for censorship in art? Are some works so profoundly disturbing they should be banned? Please, speak up!










  1. Don’t like his art, never have. Good to know he had a crappy personality to match. But it seems he died very young, so that’s sad. I did/do like Alice in Wonderland, though, so Lewis Carrol’s “hobby” is definitely disturbing. I wonder if Munch had a similar “hobby” – there is one artwork that suggests this might be so. Times were different, I guess; more was tolerated. Still disturbing, though. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against negative or provocative art, but it seems as I get older, I also get less and less interested by it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve been reading about controversial works of art, and — by my standards — some artists have really gone too far, to the point of being ridiculous, in my opinion. But there must be some people who are willing to accept those pieces as “art”. It is disturbing.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I see the societal struggle to determine whether the actions (criminal or otherwise) of the artist as a person should be taken into account when interpreting the art created. I have yet to come to a conclusive opinion on that. What’s acceptable behaviour, legal or ethically, falls within different governance given geopolitical, geographical, governmental laws and societal constructs. It becomes a more complex issue as what is defined as artistic expression expands. Photography, film, music, video are now considered forms of artistic expression as well as the traditional practices like painting or sculpture. Censorship is at the very least a nuanced concept. If I was to speak to the traditional practice of painting I would say I’ve seen paintings that depict infanticide, murder, rape (Massacre of the Innocents (Rubens), varied interpretations of The Rape of the Sabine Women) and while disturbing I understood that the purpose was narrative (instructive, revealing) and not about glorification. I’ve seen art that could be said to speak to a type of voyeurism or an exploitation of sexuality or violence coming close to that contextual line between art and pornography. That line is as with most things open to societal mores, personal biases, and legal interpretation. And with that I don’t generally believe in art censorship but what others may consider art might not fall into my definition of art and there in lies the heart of it all. For example I don’t think that images of sexualised children is art no matter how well rendered or whatever contextualized narrative might accompany the work but others might argue the opposite basing on their own biases. I don’t think it’s a conversation that will ever come to an all encompassing conclusion. It will continue to evolve as both society and the art within it does.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. There will never be any definitive answers, and we should probably be glad of that. At the same time, I don’t think we should call anything “art” because of who made it or what reason they had. I’m thinking here of Piero Manzoni’s “Merda d’artist”. In what world is this art? Certainly not in mine. I would truly hope that a can of crap is not art in anyone’s world — other than Manzoni’s, I suppose. All we can do is set our own standards and determine for ourselves if and when something crosses the line. It’s a tricky question, of course, yet even though I don’t personally like much overtly sexual or violent images, I’d rather live in a world where freedom of expression is granted to all than a world where censorship is imposed with a heavy hand.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I must agree with you Judith, censorship of art is not the way. Who would draw the line? I know Schiele’s work. I don’t find it disturbing but I do find it ugly. The colours are dull and his figures are grotesque. It is similar to the work of Lucian Freud. His work is also flat and dull and concentrated on the human figure, yet both are celebrated for their work that borders on the pornagraphic at times. Personally I choose not to view the works, but I will defend strongly their right to paint what they choose in the manner they choose.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I think we have to defend their right, hoping that the “public” will make good choices about what they consider art. Unfortunately, though, that doesn’t always seem to be the case. The “powers that be” where art is concerned seem quick to laud anything new and novel whether it has any real artistic value or not — but then again, that’s just my personal judgment and what do I know? All I can ever know is what I like or don’t like, and sometimes I might not even know why. Art is definitely a puzzle with no universally agreed-upon standards.


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