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A Cultural and Historical Study of Schiele and Klimt

Vienna Modernism (the art movement) took place between 1890-1910, during which, the best representatives of this era were Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. Although they were compatriots in the art world, their style of art is very different; Klimt leaning more in the direction of decorative frontal perspectives and Schiele experimenting with lines, and more specifically the representation of the human form. Despite such differences, both artists contributed greatly to Vienna Modernism, and in this regard, their works represent a great historical moment.

This paper will seek to tie in the history of Vienna during 1890’s through 1910, and to reveal historical events as interpreted by either artist’s work. Vienna Modernism was a practice in polarity; this means that it founded great art, but also conservative nature (Ackerl 6). One aspect that is particularly of interest to the dissection of these two great artists is the role of women during this age. The oppression of women is a common story through most of documented history.

The decline of the matriarch is well documented from Greek times, where women were not even allowed to vote – a story which remains true even in America until the inclusion of the 19th Amendment in 1920. During Vienna Modernism the role of women was drastically changing, as Ackerl writes, “ For the French Germanist Jacques Le Rider Modernism also contains aspects of uprooting and crisis. Le Rider calls it the crisis of liberalism, the crisis of masculinity and the crisis of Jewish identity.

After the stock-exchange crash of 1873, liberalism – to which all the major proponents of Vienna Modernism were committed – had lost ground and had been ousted from power by the political parties for the masses. Men were put into a state of uncertainty both by the ideas of the theoretician of matriarchy, Bachofen, who prophesied that there would be a clearly noticeable return to the feminine element in culture, and by the vehemently expressed striving for emancipation of a contemporaneous women’s movement.

The reaction was a hatred of women in all shades and colours. (Ackerl 5). Therefore, the previous exclusion of women from certain societal roles, were about to be reversed. Since artists are the typical leaders of changes in a society, or even indicators of that change, it makes sense that during the timeframe between 1890 and 1910 that Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt had a plethora of women as their subjects.

The historical significance or the paintings of these artists as indications of a change for women and society has prevalent evidence: not only in literature or Freud’s discoveries into the human psyche (which is epitomized in dissolution in Schiele’s work) but in painting, the representation of women undergoes a very distinct change during Vienna Modernism. The role of women was realizing a small apocalypse; that is to say that women were becoming vastly successful in their fields. This change back into a matriarch society was daunting to many political views, as well as social norms.

As with most societies, the rejection of change is the norm. The lead up to discussing either artist’s work is entailed with the political scene at work during their period of affluence. It is imperative to understand how society was functioning at the time of the paintings inception in order to better understand the political, sociological and at times psychological (for Vienna Modernism also saw the rise of Sigmund Freud) significance of the painting. To better demonstrate the society of Vienna during these two decades, Ackerl states,

The state and society were moving from stability to instability. People lived their lives in a saturated feeling of security, because, from the late 1860’s, they experienced an unusually long period of peace. Moreover, relative affluence made many look to the future with confidence. And yet, under the untroubled surface, there was seething unrest: there were a number of unresolved political and social problems – such as the issue of nationalities or the issue of social inequalities which was festering at all levels. (Ackerl 6).

It is because of these remarkable prejudices in society that many artists, especially Klimt and Schiele, saw Vienna as a ‘hindrance’ and not as a place that embraced or even propelled their art into the world (Ackerl 8). However, it must duly be noted that Vienna was flourishing in these two decades. One documented reason for this ‘springtime of creativity’ is due in large part to the Catholic Church. The stance of the Church was to automatically reject anything new, anything of a different school of thought than the established Renaissance development of art.

Since rebellion and art have historically walked hand in hand, it is no surprise that this stance made by the Church had the opposite affect on Viennese culture; “The state and its helpers, the aristocracy and the church, were a clearly defined power club, and the population had learned to live with it. As society became increasingly secularized and segmented, a loss of orientation occurred and the removal of distinctive differences made people doubt everything and everyone” (Ackerl 10).

Thus, the art work developed out of such Spartan resistance was met with such open arms. Therefore, since women are part of the main focal icon of either artist’s work, the once prejudiced feelings of the return to a matriarch society (and meeting with opposition of this sentiment in the art world) the growth of women’s role in society was more accepted (Ackerl 8). Klimt experimented with Egyptian stylistic stances of women, and joined together vibrant colors and emotional situations in which he depicted these women.

It is through these depictions that women were more fully realized as equals in an encumbered society (Warlick 115). In Klimt’s work, the viewer quickly recognizes that men do not hold a focal point. It is even in the absence or the downplaying of masculinity that Klimt’s work represents the sentiments of society and its changing face in both gender ideas and the rejection of the Church; The gender issue played an important part in the intellectual climate of the city. In Vienna, as everywhere else in the world, women were laying claim to a better place in a male-dominated world.

In emancipatory movements, they expressed their desire for more education, more self determination and more civic and political rights. In many cases, women at that time were still denied their subjectivity, their existence as human beings in their own right. (Ackerl 18) Klimt realized that the role of women was changing and his used his models to emphasize the need for this change “…Klimt often used images of hope (expectation) and fulfillment to overshadow more threatening ones” (Warlick 115).

Klimt was a rebel. Vienna’s movement away from the traditions which the Catholic Church so loved, marked in Klimt a personal rebellion against art he saw as static, too stoic, and altogether without social sanction, “Klimt’s revolt against the art of his forebears, against the apostles of the Ringstrasse era began with his spectacular exodus from the Kunstlerhaus, Austria’s leading artists’ association” (Ackerl 24). The essence of Klimt’s work was to capture human character.

Klimt saw women’s changing role in society as something that should be celebrated, and adorned with ritualistic grandeur (thus the common use of gold in his painting, an element which signifies religious rites of passage – and was a rare element to come by, thus making its use symbolism something regal in nature). The interesting element of not in Klimt’s depiction of women during Vienna Modernism, is that he didn’t solely study women of high social standing, but delved into the derelict depths of society’s gutters and found beauty there (much as Schiele did).

He found even the mundane women (i. e. young girls, or market women) worthy of artistic praise, “Klimt’s subject was woman. He depicted women of a fascinating variety of types, ranging from the “aloof, high society woman” to the “sweet young girl” (Ackerl 25). Even when Klimt was designing dresses for his platonic friend Emilie Floge, he made the dresses in opposition of society’s mores regarding how women should dress – in bodices and corsets – Klimt’s dresses on the other hand encouraged free movement and were made from loose materials (Ackerl 23).

It is not only how Klimt depicted these women, and how he desired for them to dress in opposition to society, but his love of women is what truly encompasses his canvases. He so adored women (possibly as a rebel against the Viennese Catholic Church) that his work depicted the spectrum in which women’s roles abound; He ventured onto forbidden ground, daring to depict taboo subjects in a manner never seen before: He painted pregnant women in the nude without any intention of depicting something ungainly or repulsive.

His sensitive and reverent attitude to life prompted him to choose “Hope” as the title of one of these paintings. Nor did he shy back from depicting female homo-eroticism or from painting to rid himself of his fear of the all-powerful woman, of the magna mater, of those demonic, malevolent female figures with androgynous attributes. (Ackerl 25)

Since the Catholic Church sought to maintain women as secondary citizen’s and Viennese society was struggling with women’s new roles (despite the growth of women’s importance as depicted in artists’ work) Schiele explored all roles of women; he did not exclude vacancy (which some women had toward their changing identities in Vienna) blatant sexuality, and his work was constantly exploring the roles of asceticism and dissolution.

It is in Schiele’s work that women who had been matriarch beauties in Renaissance art would not become an altogether different beauty, “…Schiele’s art: it’s voyeuristic self-obsessed quality as of an artist furtively spying on his own psyche” (Vergo 130). Along with Klimt, Schiele rejected classical beauty (Klimt did this in his Egyptian style of women and his use of angular faces). With this rejection, the artist was able to better fulfill his role as supporter of women having multiple roles in society, not just motherly aspirations.

Schiele, “…annihilated the concept of beauty upheld by the Jugendstil artitsts, at the same time abandoning the concept of goodness inherent in the concept of beauty” (Ackerl 26). The point of Schiele’s work was to reflect how women were advancing their sexuality, or freedom of sexual nature in Vienna, “…Schiele violated the prevailing artistic canon both in form and substance. There is nothing he finds embarrassing and especially his nude drawings are blatantly realistic” (Ackerl 27).

In conclusion, the rejection of the canon of beauty as established by Renaissance artists and upheld by the Catholic Church found no following with the rebel artists in Vienna. The artwork of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele joined together new views of women and beauty, and thus found their own truth in art. Vienna Modernism objected to Secessionist’s views of truth and thereby the aesthetics of the art world changed, along with the great changes of women in society (Ackerl 26).

It is the artists’ depiction of women with the motif of hope paired with the theme of sexual nature that defines the art period of Vienna Modernism. For the artists of this time, there was no reconciliation between Church and female sexuality as there had been during the Renaissance.


Ackerl, Isabella. (1999). Vienna Modernism: 1890-1910. Transl. Erika Obermayer. Federal Press Service. Vienna. Janson, H. W. and Anthony F.Janson: History of Art. Prentice Hall, INC. , and Harry N. Abrams, INC. , Publishers. New Jersey. 1991. Vergo, Peter. (Feb. 1991). Egon Schiele and His Contemporaries. London Royal Academy. The Burlington Magazine. Vol. 133, No. 1055. P. 130. Warlick, M. E. (March 1992). Mythic Rebirth in Gustav Klimt’s Stoclet Frieze: New Consideration of Its Egyptianizing Form and Content. The Art Bulletin. Vol. 74 No. 1. pp. 115-154.

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