Egon Schiele’s Einzelne Häuser (Häuser mit Bergen), which features in Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale in London on 27 June, is a personal, melancholic expression of a single house, or a group of houses, withstanding the ravages of time and nature. Painted in 1915, this existential landscape was made at a time when the newly married artist was just about to go off to war.
The work was one of a select number of major paintings that Schiele chose to represent him at what was to prove the triumphant showing of his work at the 49th Viennese Secession exhibition in March 1918, some seven months before his death. Schiele organised the exhibition, selecting the artists and many of the works on show. He even designed the poster. In the wake of Klimt’s recent death, it established him as the leading avant-garde artist in Vienna.
The origins for this work can be traced back to 1911, when Schiele had sought a break from Vienna and moved to the small medieval town of Krumau on the Moldau River, in south Bohemia. Krumau was the birthplace of his mother, and Schiele knew it well. The stay was far from successful, however: the inhabitants took issue with the fact that Schiele lived ‘in sin’ with his lover, Walburga ‘Wally’ Neuzil, with his failure to attend church, and with his fondness for using local girls as naked models. Before long, Schiele and Wally moved on.
Ever since first painting the dark, empty medieval streets of Krumau in 1911 — a series of pictures he entitled ‘Dead Cities’ — Schiele had tended to anthropomorphise scenes from the world around him, particularly when depicting villages or houses. Trees and buildings, for instance, often served, like the bodies of Schiele’s sitters, to project a distinct psychology or mood — usually one of melancholy and decay.
Einzelne Häuser (Häuser mit Bergen) is possibly based on a house Schiele knew in Krumau or some other similar town on the Danube; the title in English means ‘Individual Houses (Houses with Mountains)’. In the crooked and weather-beaten forms of the dwellings, Schiele saw something distinctly human being expressed — a unique personality or character.
‘Everything in Schiele always comes back to human presence,’ confirms Jay Vincze, Head of Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s. ‘And when there aren’t people in the scene, as in this case, he anthropomorphises. Here it’s the houses that take on human form — and not a terribly healthy form at that. The precarious houses are probably a reflection on the world at large at that time.’
This work is one of the finest of Schiele’s great series of psychological landscapes, created at a time when the First World War was raging across Europe. The canvas was painted in a short spell between Schiele receiving a call-up to the Austrian army and his actually joining in July, around the time of the artist’s marriage to Edith Harms.
Einzelne Häuser (Häuser mit Bergen) articulates the artist’s mood of of existential melancholy. ‘We live in the most phenomenal times the world has ever seen,’ he wrote in a letter to his sister Gertrude, in November 1914. ‘We each must endure our fate... What existed before 1914 belongs to another world.’
If Schiele’s landscapes appear to articulate an individual psychology — his trees speaking of either youth or ageing, and his mountains of far-off dreams or impossible ideals — then his towns and houses appear to talk of lives suffered and endured. It might be argued, therefore, that Einzelne Häuser, with its closely knit cluster of houses and a landscape stretching far off into the distance, expresses a sentiment similar to that expressed by Schiele in the letter to his sister.
‘I’m a human — I love death and I love life,’ Schiele once said. This sentiment was echoed in a poem he wrote called Pine Forest, declaring in an oft-quoted line, ‘How lovely: everything is living dead’. For Schiele, every organism simultaneously conformed to the elemental processes of life and death. It was a certainty he seems to have found a degree of comfort and stability in. He captured this duality in his copious paintings of nudes, which boast the erotic driving force of life and the pale, emaciating presence of death co-existing in one body.
As the products of human construction, towns could — by extension — be said to ‘live’ and ‘die’, too. Schiele himself would not live long after showing Einzelne Häuser (Häuser mit Bergen) at the 49th Viennese Secession. Although he avoided active service in World War I, spending most of his time as a clerk in a prisoner-of-war camp, he died in October 1918 from the pandemic of Spanish flu that swept across Europe and claimed millions of lives. He was 28.