A chronological study of Wally Neuzil’s impact on Egon Schiele’s artistic style and approach to female body
Egon Schiele, the enfant terrible of his time, had a short, but eventful life. He died of Spanish flu in 1918, being only 28 years old, but the impact his artworks had is still visible today. His works appear to be engaging and controversial even to a modern viewer since they point out tensions and issues that occurred in Viennese art world in the beginning of the twentieth century. Schiele challenged the distinction between art and pornography, beauty and ugliness, personal and public, normal and abnormal. Vienna in the beginning of the twentieth century, the city where Schiele lived and worked, nowadays is perceived as a synthesised myth, associated with controversial theories of Sigmund Freud, enchanting nude paintings of Gustave Klimt, curvy Jugendstil architecture, etc. However, this idealised view on the city conceals such significant social matters as prostitution, crime, anti-Semitism, political frictions, etc. Vienna that is now seen as pleasing and charming city, once was a place where “grinding poverty rubbed shoulders with ostentatious wealth” and where traditional Catholic order that dominated in Austria, incessantly tried to stigmatise certain issues. To grasp the meaning of Schiele’s art, his “shameless” and controversial approach to human body, it is vital to examine his artworks in the context of his time. However, it is notable that in a modern viewer’s eyes, “along with the moral coercions and habitual taboos, the shamelessness manifest in Schiele’s art, which was its essential aesthetic principle, has disappeared”. Nevertheless, even though today his artworks cannot be seen as “a real experience … in either sensual or emotional terms”, it is still fascinating to see what heritage this artist has left, how his radical approach to human body has changed the way nudity and eroticism in art was perceived. It is evident that Schiele was working and improving his skills very quickly; styles, subjects of artworks and techniques were shifting from month to month. Besides, his oil artworks differed from drawings and watercolours since they took longer to create, were directed to a larger audience and had “less dramatic stylistic transitions and serve different purposes”. Therefore, it is challenging to talk about Schiele’s art as a whole, without emphasising a time period and media used. His personal life also influenced his works since “Each woman or group of women represents a particular phase, a particular approach to the subject at hand”. This work is going to focus on Valburga (Wally) Neuzil, Schiele’s muse, lover and a loyal companion throughout approximately four years, who influenced the way Schiele treated female body in his artworks and his view on sexuality and eroticism.
Schiele began exploring “the expressive potential of the human figure” during life drawing classes in the Academy of Fine Arts in 1909. However, his works, first quite traditional and classic, soon became very different from what was characteristic for the Academy. Schiele decided to leave the institution, which gave him an opportunity to explore his artistic skills and interests more freely. This also gave Schiele an opportunity to choose his own models. Notably, he was certainly aware of social classes and knew that models could be picked according to the “degree of shamelessness”. This meant that only prostitutes or women of lower classes would agree to undress for money and be painted in certain exposing poses. His teacher at that time, Gustav Klimt, certainly influenced Schiele’s approach to choosing and depicting models in his artworks. Klimt was well-known for painting nude women, depicting them in various roles including “sex goddess, dangerous temptress, pathetic whore, … pristine Madonna…”. It was also suspected that Klimt was sleeping with many of his models, who then gave birth to his illegitimate children. Due to Klimt’s reputation, it is rumoured that Wally, who modelled for him when she was around seventeen, had intimate relations with him as well. However, Klimt soon “gave” Wally to Schiele, so she could model for him instead, which could indicate how artists at that time treated their models, seeing them as their objects or tools rather than individuals. Just like other artists’ models, Wally “was socially no better than a prostitute”. She was poorly educated, not smart and was not financially secure. She was illegitimate child of a day labourer and elementary school assistant teacher and lived with her mother in a poor district on the outskirts of Vienna. She could be best described as susses Madel (a sweet young thing), a term that would usually be applied to “lower-class girl from the suburbs, seduced, and then abandoned by the gentry”. Wally did not apply to conventional beauty standards and it is noticeable that in Schiele’s artworks Wally appeared more beautiful than on the photographs capturing her. Schiele’s relationship with Wally was complex, dynamic and intense, which is expressed in the artist’s artworks depicting his lover throughout the years.
When Wally just started modelling for Schiele’s works of art, she could hardly be recognised in them since Schiele did not put her name in the titles and hardly attempted to make her appearance seem special and individualised. For instance, in Two Naked Girls with Black Stockings (1910) (Figure I), Wally can vaguely be identified by her hairstyle and bright red hair colour. However, it is rather the fact that this painting was included in the “Wally Neuzil: Her Life with Egon Schiele” exhibition in Leopold Museum in 2015 that indicates that a model in the painting is Wally Neuzil, rather than her appearance in this particular painting. Both models in the painting appear pale and ailing; their bodies look mangled, deformed and covered in dirt. Their arms are depicted unnaturally long with big tentacle-like fingers, some of which Schiele visually “amputated” from left hands of both models. The dark-haired model on the left appears to be slim and almost child-like, her face expression seems to be naïve and innocent. Her body language, the gesture of putting a hand to her chest are reinforcing the idea that she is young and, perhaps, not experienced. Whereas the model on the right, which is believed to be Wally, seems to be more alluring and sexualised since her hips are rounder, her thighs and breasts are bigger, even though she is covering them with her arm. Besides, her plump lips are bright red contrasting with the pale body, whereas the lips of a model on the left are painted with gentler pink colour, which is also subtly used on her cheeks, creating a blushing effect. The details of Wally’s portrayal could suggest that Schiele was sexually attracted to her when the artwork was created. Her face resembles the one of a corpse or of an extremely ill patient, with her red and swollen eyes and her face painted in brown and orange hues. Notably, lightly painted circles around Wally’s mouth and eyes resemble the structure of a human skull or a mask. This mask or grimace could be interpreted as the elimination of “the Utopian ideal of achieved communication that is evoked by eye-contact”, hiding the real individual behind it. Wally’s look in the artwork is certainly not a look of a young girl, it is a tired and heavy look of a woman, even though at the moment this painting was created Wally was only sixteen years old. However, it could simply be a role that Schiele gave Wally in the painting, considering that Schiele also had a tendency of depicting himself as different characters.
A possible reason why Schiele’s became interested in pathology, diseases and death could have been his agreement with his friend Dr. Ewin von Graff, who allowed Schiele to portray patients in Women’s Clinic of Vienna University. Alternatively, the artist could have seen medical journals showing people with physical disabilities. Besides, his friend Max Oppenheimer could have inspired Schiele to explore works of Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer and, thus, he could have started experimenting with the idea that there is a connection between “convulsive gestures and psychological states” and other influential theories of that time. However, there is no evidence that Schiele read their works since, reportedly, he never truly enjoyed reading books. Another reason why Schiele depicted bodies in an unhealthy and mangled way could be his experience with drawing proletarian children. He was fascinated with “the curious changes in the skin, through whose flaccid vessels thin, watery blood and polluted juices trickle sluggishly; at the green eyes that avoided the light behind red-rimmed lids, the scrofulous finger joints and jaws, the slobbering mouths – and the souls that inhabit these ruined bodies”. It is visible that these themes related to disease and pathology resonated with the artist since from 1910 and onwards he begins portraying himself as “an image of abject misery – a cripple”. Arthur Roessler, Austrian art critic and Schiele’s friend, stated that Schiele’s self-portraits depicted “a mangled soul in a mangled body”. It is evident in Schiele’s 1911 painting The Red Host, which depicts the artist himself and, supposedly, Wally. In the painting Schiele portrays himself as weak, deadly ill and almost “rotting”, reinforcing this feeling by painting “dirty” brown and red hues on his face and body. By using bright red colour, Schiele draws attention to his inflamed and exaggerated in size phallos, which could be interpreted as a source of the artist’s “illness”. Perhaps, in this painting the phallos could symbolise Schiele’s unconscious fear of sexuality or reflect a popular at that time belief that sexual matters are closely linked with mental and physical diseases, thus, are strictly stigmatised. Notably, insights and tendencies that are revealed while studying Schiele’s self-portraits can assist in analysing and understanding paintings of Schiele’s models. For instance, in the Red Host Schiele deforms and distorts his and Wally’s bodies, abolishing” every antique ideal” and “the entire concept of an ‘artworthy’ body”, which can be seen in many of Schiele’s artworks. Contemplating what role Wally played in Schiele’s life, this painting can be used as an ambiguous evidence that Wally could have been more that just a model and a lover. She is holding and “supporting” the most vulnerable part of his body, being positioned between the artist’s legs. Besides, Wally’s appearance stands in a stark contrast with Schiele’s, which could indicate that for him she symbolised hope, light or liberation from his anxieties; Her body seems to be porcelain-like, with light blue hues on her face, breasts and waist.
Schiele’s and Wally’s relationship continued to develop as in the spring of 1911 they moved to picturesque Krumau, Czech Republic. Nonetheless, Schiele ensured that Wally kept her apartment in Vienna, attempting to maintain the distance between them and not get emotionally attached. It is evident that Schiele’s depiction of Wally started to change as they relationship evolved. Wally was the person that inspired Schiele to experiment and explore sexual topics more in his artworks since she was open-minded, supportive and sexually liberated, which could be due to her social status. Perhaps, their relationship was so productive for Schiele and his art since he failed to see Wally in a serious way, always perceiving her as carefree, light-minded and “unworthy” of marriage. Thus, it could mean that Wally supported him in becoming more liberal, free from judgments and able to explore matters that were considered strict taboos in bourgeois Viennese society. Nonetheless, it didn’t mean that Schiele did not have feelings for Wally since his depiction of Wally slowly transformed into more intimate one. For example, in Sitting young woman, half nude with blue skirt (1911),Schiele is using the same unique techniques as he used in previous analysed paintings – Wally’s body is deformed and disproportionate, with her hands being “amputated” by the artist. Nonetheless, the atmosphere of the painting is shifting since here Wally is depicted alone, looking directly at the viewer with a calm, peaceful and confident glance. The background of the painting is clear, a chair that Wally possibly sits on is eliminated since Schiele deliberately “adopted unusual viewing positions to emphasise his spatial association and sexual connection with the model as the object of his gaze”. Wally here is isolated from the real world; Schiele’s attention is focused on her body and his emotions towards the model, rather than her character and experience. By cutting off the body it is implied that Schiele was close to the model and could examine her in detail, direct her pose the way he desired. Therefore, as stated by Schroder, Schiele was not simply a voyeur that observed a woman from a distance, but was involved in the process – “touching as well as drawing”. This created a special connection between the artist and the model, where “the female body was represented as continually reacting to that of the artist-spectator”. In this particular painting Schiele turns away from a filthy an earthy colour palette characteristic for his 1911 oeuvre. The cold blue colour is enveloping and shaping Wally’s body, starting from the blue cloth covering her legs and lightly touching her arms, breasts and face. Notably, the blue in Wally’s eyes is more intense and deeper than in the rest of the painting. Schiele also puts emphasis on her nipples and lips, painting them with a different colour than Wally’s bright red hair. Here, again, Schiele emphasises “part-objects”, which in psychoanalysis mean “parts of the body such as the breast carved out by the drives as their special objects”. In other words, such parts of the body as mouth and breasts are connected with sexual drives and by boldly expressing his desires and interest in sexual matters, (mixed with fear), Schiele provoked a strong reaction from the public.
Egon Schiele, Two Naked Girls with Black Stockings (1910)
Credits: Private Collection Vienna / Photo: Private Collection Vienna.
Egon Schiele, The Red Host (1911)
Credits : Private Collection, Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne / Photo : Private Collection, Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne
Egon Schiele, Sitting young woman, half nude with blue skirt (1911)
Credits: Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag | Photo: Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag
 Judging from the year the painting was produced, eye-colour, hairstyle and hair colour of the model it is believed to be Wally Neuzil.
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