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What’s a museum to do? The art and conscience of Egon Schiele in the #MeToo era

Austrian Expressionist Egon Schiele's 'Portrait of Wally'.

Associated Press

It has been 100 years since the death of the great Egon Schiele – the master of the beautiful and the grotesque, the erotic and the ugly, the exemplar of all that was brilliant and original about turn-of-the-century Vienna, one of the links between the graphic design of the Secession/Werkstatte and high art, between Art Nouveau and expressionism – and museums are of course planning retrospectives.

One is already happening at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, called Klimt and Schiele: Drawn (on until May 28). But there is a very contemporary problem for these museums to deal with. Schiele’s work is largely sexual, a product of the objectifying male gaze, and we know that he probably had sexual relationships with teenage girls when he was himself in his early 20s. Today, he would be called out for sexual harassment. Were he a contemporary artist, his career would not be allowed to flourish.

So what’s a museum to do? Deny his popularity, his influence on 20th-century art and the sheer beauty of his brush? Or add some caveats and some context, in the form of explanatory notes admitting Schiele was probably a bad guy?

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The latter is what the Boston museum has done. Their wall text states, “Recently, Schiele has been mentioned in the context of sexual misconduct by artists, of the present and the past. This stems in part from specific charges (ultimately dropped as unfounded) of kidnapping and molestation.”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is also planning a retrospective of nudes by Schiele, Klimt and Picasso and will likely also include didactic panels that admit to the accusations of mistreatment of women by the artists.

This seems to be the compromising tack most museums are taking. But there have been more extreme reactions. A planned retrospective of the work of Chuck Close at the National Gallery in Washington, for example, was simply cancelled after accusations of sexual impropriety against the artist.

'Seated Woman with Bent Knee', 1917

Narodni Galerie, Prague, Czech Republic / Bridgeman Images

Here in Canada, we face a conundrum about a planned exhibition of the work of the late Indian photographer Raghubir Singh at the Royal Ontario Museum. Shows of his landscape photography have been protested by his former assistant, Jaishri Abichandani, who alleges he sexually assaulted her repeatedly during a trip in 1995. It remains unclear whether there will ever be widespread adoration or even exhibition of Singh’s work again. How do we praise the works of such artists given the pain they have caused?

It’s hard to know exactly how bad Schiele was as a human being, as his crimes are recorded in archaic language. He wasn’t arrested for sleeping with his 17-year-old model, Walburga Neuzil, when he was 20, but we know they lived together. We know that he liked having teenage girls, often from poor backgrounds, around his studio, and that he painted a lot of female nudes, and that in whatever small Austrian or Czech village he lived in, he tended to incense the townspeople with the lewd behaviour that they thought he was leading their children into. He was arrested in 1912, when he was 21, for “seducing” a young girl, a crime we would now probably call rape. He was not convicted of this crime, but when the police entered his studio, they found other reasons to detain him: There were paintings of nudes everywhere, and so he could be charged with exposing young people to pornography. He served 24 days in prison. He died at the age of 28.

But then all these tendencies of his – his sexual obsessions, his voyeurism and indeed his self-loathing about his obsessions – are explicit in his work, indeed the very subject of much of his art. We have always had to face them. For one thing, many of his drawings and paintings are sexually explicit and present women in submissive poses. Late in his career, the women develop creepily inhuman mask-like faces, like dolls with button eyes. And Schiele was also obsessed with his own naked body and its ugly sexuality. He kept returning to nude self-portraits, and they are almost always pictures of emaciation and abjection. The body is often twisted to the point of deformity. Titles include Self-Portrait, Grimacing and Self-Portrait, Masturbating. The penis is either tiny and mangled or hyperbolically huge. The hands and feet are ungainly and large. They are portraits of self-hatred.

In this, Schiele’s story faintly resembles that of comedian Louis C.K., who has admitted to manipulating women into being present while he masturbated in an exhibitionist manner. Louis C.K.’s shame about his masturbatory habits – and indeed his shame about all of his sexual relations with women, his perceived unattractiveness, his potential for doing harm – has repeatedly been the subject of his comic monologues and even of his TV comedy-drama series Louie.

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This does not make his behaviour any less reprehensible, of course, but it does mean that expressing shock and disdain for those people with an interest in his art seems a little ingenuous. Artists of all platforms do tend to explore their own flaws and demons, and the more honestly they face them, the more complex the art; this seems hardly a reason to condemn it.

Schiele is not being condemned, of course, by the Boston museum; they are still devoting space and glory to his oeuvre. They are just putting an asterisk beside his name – something akin to admitting that pleasure gained from his expressive lines will henceforth be a guilty one.

But I suspect Schiele’s star will fall as attitudes toward lecherous art and artists change. In time, he will occupy a lesser space in museums. There are going to be fewer naked women in galleries generally, and fewer sexy Egon Schiele posters on undergraduate residence walls. The canon is not irremediably fixed, not written in stone; artists fall out of it and soar into it as the years go by.

Schiele’s work is largely sexual, a product of the objectifying male gaze, and we know that he probably had sexual relationships with teenage girls when he was himself in his early 20s. Today, he would be called out for sexual harassment.

SZ Photo / Bridgeman Images

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