With its three isolated and vibrantly coloured figural elements - an intense, partially sceptical and self-questioning portrait head, an exposed leg and groin and a dramatically splayed reaching hand - all set daringly against the blank page and the simple, graphic and near-abstract outline of a smock, this 1910 work by Egon Schiele is one of the artist's great self-portrait studies. It belongs among an extensive series of radical and pioneering self-portrait watercolours and drawings made by the prodigious twenty-year old artist in this year that collectively served as the basis for a number of large and highly important self-portrait oils (most of which are now lost), and which rank among Schiele's finest artistic achievements.
1910 was the first great year of breakthrough for Schiele - one that marked his emergence as an artist in his own right and the dramatically swift evolution of his work from a Klimt-inspired Jugendstil into his own unique and dynamic form of Expressionism. 'I went by way of Klimt til March' he wrote to his guardian, Dr Josef Czermak at this time, 'Today I believe, I am his very opposite'. (Egon Schiele, letter to Josef Czermak, 1910, cited in R. Steiner, Egon Schiele, The Midnight Soul of the Artist, Cologne, 2004, p. 30). The works that most distinctly catalogue the extraordinary development at this time are the near-obsessive self-portraits he repeatedly made throughout the year.
This self-portrait is one of three known works in which Schiele has depicted himself wearing a smock that is delineated in the Jugendstil-like manner as if it were an abstract form, using only a graphite outline and allowing the emptiness of the blank page to fill it. In direct contrast to this bold emptiness, Schiele's striking and fastidious physical features have been rendered in rich non-naturalistic colour, playing deliberately with these two apparent opposites of intensely observed and expressive figuration and the stylized elegance of Jugendstil abstraction. Inspired by the often pregnant sense of emptiness achieved by Japanese woodblock print artists, Schiele was coming to realise how such an enforced contrast between the bleak emptiness of the page or canvas with isolated and even disparate figurative details could lend his figures a heightened sense of existential weight and psychological intensity.
This tendency in his work was most pronounced in a series of five large one-and-a-half metre square canvases he made in 1910 depicting either himself or his sister Gerti, set alone and naked against a vast and empty white space. Reflecting to some extent the recent influences upon him of the work of his new friend Max Oppenheimer ('Mopp') and of Oskar Kokoschka, (in particular Kokoschka's Die träumenden Knaben), these works concentrated on and appeared to express the naked and youthful human form almost as if it were a zoological specimen under scientific analysis. As in the sequence of watercolour studies that accompanied these works, Schiele's interest was in extreme gestures and poses. In a series of other self-portrait studies he made in 1910 Schiele also depicted himself grimacing and make strange gestures and a series of apparently 'secret' signs. In this, it is often assumed that he was responding to the work and ideas of his influential friend Erwin van Osen who was a mime artist interested in such extremes of physical expression as well as perhaps to the extraordinary work of Austrian sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt.
In this self-portrait, Schiele has adopted a characteristically unique pose, with his fingers dramatically parted and reaching forward out of the picture space. His face betrays a strange expression, seemingly squinting with one eye while the other stares intently and fully open. This contrast between one eye squinting (or sometimes closed) and the other open, becomes a familiar feature of many of Schiele's self-portraits from 1910 and 1911 and seems to have been used by him as a device for hinting at his often mystical notions of an inner life and psychology as well of his own mystic perspicacity in this respect.
The expression Schiele wears on his face in this work closely resembles, for example, that of the foremost figure in his first great allegorical self-portrait of this time, the now lost Die Selbstseher I (The Self-Seers I), in which Schiele depicted himself as a double staring at his own self-image, his fingers parted in a doubling gesture and his two naked bodies emerging from a single dark smock. Tirelessly fascinated by what he clearly felt to be the intrinsic relationship between the inner emotions and psyche of man with the outward form of his body, Schiele's depictions of himself most of all, represent his notion of the Self as a landscape of the soul and of the portrait as a viable expression of such human drama. With its heightened colour and commanding composition magnificently rendered by an artist with extraordinary facility and command of his medium, this probing watercolour self-portrait is one of the very first of all Schiele's works to successfully suggest such possibilities.