Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Egon Schiele in Prison

In August 1911 the controversial artist Egon Schiele who was born in Tulln on the 12th June 1890 became a resident of the small Upper Austrian town of Neulengbach. Local residents were alarmed by the artist's reputation for erotic drawings and the fact that children were being invited to pose for their portraits in his atelier. 

On 13th April 1912 the artist was arrested and taken to the town's court (above). He was charged with 'immorality' and 'seduction' and locked in a cell (below). 

The prosecution held that he had carelessly or wilfully displayed erotic drawings in his atelier when children were present. The charge of seduction was dropped. 

Friends in Vienna had previously warned Schiele about his carelessness in respect of leaving erotic artworks lying about. 

Schiele was held in custody until his release on May 7th. The  trial took place in the provincial capital of St. Pölten. The artist was sentenced to a token 3 days imprisonment. At the trial the judge burned one of Schiele's drawings as a symbolic act of 'public condemnation'.

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On the fourth day following his arrest the artist was finally allowed to have painting and drawing materials in his cell. 

His first aquarelle in prison was a picture of an Orange on a Grey Blanket. "The little coloured spot did me remarkable good" he wrote in his diary. In the following days he moved on to other items in his cell and in the cell block corridor: Oganic movement of Chair and Pitcher, and Two of my Handkerchieves. 

The humbleness of the chair and the plainness of a bucket and water pipe were bestowed with meaning by Schiele and became more than simple objects. One still-life study was given the grandiose title: Art can not be Modern; Art is primordially Eternal. 

He wrote in his diary: Primordially eternal is God. Man calls him Buddha, Zoroaster, Osiris, Zeus or Christ. And timeless as God is the godliest thing after Him, which is art. Art can not be modern; art is primordially eternal.

On 23rd April, his 10th day in prison, he writes: Look down here, universal father . . . and consider whether you wish to tolerate that this shameful, debasing torture has been prepared for me . . . is it with your will that I am imprisoned . . . 

The next day's diary entry reads: Not very far from me, so near that he would have to hear my voice if I were to shout, there sits in his magistrate's office a judge, or whatever else he might be. A man, however, who supposes there is something better, who has studied, who has lived in the city, who has visited churches, museums, the theater, concerts, yes, probably even art exhibitions. A man who consequently is numbered among the educated class which has read or at least heard of the life of the artist - and this man permits the fact that I am locked up in a cage.

On 1st May he writes: I dreamt of Trieste, of the sea, of open space. Longing. Oh, longing! For comfort I painted myself a ship, gay coloured and bulgy, like those that rock back and forth on the Adriatic. By this means my longing and my phantasy can sail over the sea, far out, to distant islands where jewel-like birds sing and glide among incredible trees.

On May 8th, the day after his release, he concluded his prison diary: 24 days I was under arrest! Twenty-four days, or five-hundred and seventy-six hours! An eternity! The hearing progressed deplorably. I have however miserably borne unspeakable things. I am terribly punished without a punishment. At the hearing one of the confiscated drawings, the one that had been hung in my bedroom, was solemnly burned over a candle flame by the judge in his robes. Autodafe'! Savonarola! Inquisition! Middle Ages! Castration! Hypocrisy! Go then to the museums and cut up the greatest work of art into little pieces. He who denies sex is a filthy person who smears in the lowest way his own parents . . . 

Schiele was deeply humiliated by his arrest. The effect of the ordeal is apparent in a drawing made later: Self-Portrait with Open Collar.

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These days there is a waymarked footpath dedicated to the artist in the town where he was incarcerated. One of the artworks featured along the way on a signpost is the 1913 painting  The Truth will be Uncovered

Egon Schiele died in Vienna on 31st October 1918 of Spanish flu. He was 28. 


  1. If that is a self portrait I am wondering what his opinion is of himself - interesting to speculate

  2. Definitely not a landscape water colourist type. We shall see as soon as time permits.


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