Selbstbildnis mit Modell belongs to a series of bold religious allegories, in which Egon Schiele portrayed himself together with his lover and model, Valerie Walburga Neuzil, called "Wally." The present painting ranks among the most accomplished and ambitious of all of the artist's paintings. Painted in 1913, in the aftermath of Schiele's imprisonment in 1912 on charges of moral corruption, it is a work that captures the artist's burgeoning sense of his own mystical identity as an artist.
Almost 8 feet long, Selbstbildnis mit Modell depicts Schiele and Wally raptured in a somnambulistic trance. On the right, Schiele reaches out his arms into a rigid, contrived pose, while staring into the void, his eyelids half-closed. At the end of his fingertips Wally huddles her arms, counteracting the outward gesture of her partner, her gaze also staring into the distance. While Schiele appears standing upright, against a multifaceted background of colours, her inclined body seems to be sliding down towards a black abyss. Although apparently oblivious to each other, the two figures appear to be deeply connected through a secret language of mysterious hand gestures that seals between them a special bond, perhaps the clue to a symbolic message.
Selbstbildnis mit Modell develops further the role Wally played in Schiele's art as both his muse and his accomplice in a series of allegorical paintings. The year before Selbstbildnis mit Modell was painted, for instance, Wally had been portrayed with Schiele in the artist's deliberately sacrilegious and provocative painting, Cardinal and Nun (fig. 1), which depicts the couple wearing clerical costumes while caught into a carnal embrace. In the bold iconography of this picture--in which church and sex are graphically merged-- Cardinal and Nun aimed at confronting and scorning the bigoted society that had condemned Schiele's drawings on a charged of pornography earlier that year. Lacking the sexual charge and the provocative sense of retaliation intended by Cardinal and Nun, Selbstbildnis mit Modell continues this theme of religious union. Mysterious and esoteric, Wally forms the gravitational center of this image. More than a simple model, she appears as the muse towards whom Schiele's hands are protracted in a gesture of desire and perhaps need. While in Cardinal and Nun Wally figured as Schiele's partner-in-crime in his vengeance, in Selbstbildnis mit Modell she is given a more substantial role, complementing, and to a certain extent directing, the symbolic meaning of the picture.
In the present work, Schiele appears in character--his tonsure and shapeless tunic identify him as a monk. His emaciated face and his hypnotic stare merge this identity with that of a hermit or prophet, living in poverty on the edge of society--a man outcast for his discomforting visions. The dramatic distance emphasized between the two figures in this painting also divides the image into two parts: one artistic, embodied by the figure of Wally as muse, the other spiritual/religious, symbolized by Schiele the hermetic artist/monk. Schiele's arm, thrown across the canvas and on which the drapery appears to have the heaviness of stone, bridges the gap. He is the vehicle, the picture suggests, the medium able to reach and interpret Wally the muse. At the same time Wally as muse has chosen Schiele to be the receptacle of her message, bestowing onto him the spiritual identity of the seer. Their hermetic gestures seem to reinforce this echoing one another. As Schiele reaches out to Wally, she replies with an open split hand--the main attribute of Schiele's self-portraiture--which he reciprocates. Mysterious and symbolic, Selbstbildnis mit Modell seems to celebrate in this way a mystical doubling in the form of the artist and his muse.
Selbstbildnis mit Modell is the continuation of a series of self-depictions as a monk that Schiele made between 1912 and 1915. In 1912, the artist had first portrayed himself as a monk in two other major paintings: The Hermits (fig. 2) and Agony (fig. 3). Both these works articulated a dualistic relationship of artists between Schiele and Gustav Klimt. In addition to defining Schiele's artistic position vis à vis of his revered mentor and rival Klimt, these works are important as they also define the symbolic meaning of the merging of the figure of the artist with that of the monk in Schiele's art. In both paintings, the two artists are represented as united in a monastic asceticism, which is to be understood not in a material sense, but through their transcendental devotion to art. Schiele and Klimt, these works assert, are artists who have abdicated a world unable to grasp the sanctity of their endeavours.
By adopting this image of the artist-monk in Selbstbildnis mit Modell Schiele places his relationship with Wally into a similar sphere of artistic communion, detached from the rest of society. In their state of trance, Wally and Schiele are placed somewhere else than the here and now of the viewer, they linger in a world to which commoners have no access. The way Schiele has abstracted the space into a kaleidoscopic surface of colors reinforces this dimension of the work. It has been argued that this geometric fracturing of space into colours- which closely relates Selbstbildnis mit Modell to Agony--expressed Schiele's mild response to Cubism. Schiele's strong and determined artistic ego, however, too focused to be distracted, turned this weak influence into a symbolically coherent element of his works. In Selbstbildnis mit Modell, the colorful abstraction of the background evokes the existence of an emotional space, enhancing the prophetic dimension of the image. At the same time, evading all element of spatial and temporal dimension, it accentuates the transcendental nature of the artist. The allegory of the painting appears then as a celebration of the union of the artist with his muse and as a proclamation of the special status of the artist.
Pictorially, Schiele's body occupies three quarters of the composition. The viewer is thereby obliged to look up at the artist as a towering figure inspiring awe, as much as respect. Despite his somnambulistic state, Schiele seems to be presenting himself insistently and with calculated theatricality: one has to only imagine his left arm outstretched to perceive in him the image of the suffering Christ on the cross, his tonsure transformed into a crown of thorns. The development of himself as a martyred seer would come about in Schiele's art in 1915 when, again in the garb of a monk, the artist was to depict himself as the martyred St. Sebastian.
The urgency to present himself as both a superior and ostracized figure, was almost certainly exacerbated by Schiele's imprisonment in 1912, when he was accused of moral corruption on account of sexual overtones of his drawings. The public humiliation of his trial brought to the fore Schiele's already pronounced notion of the artist as a mistreated, mystical figure. Viewed in this perspective, Selbstbildnis mit Modell is a work that acquires a cathartic dimension. Veiled under the ascetic image of the prophetic monk, it restores Schiele's blameless identity as an artist, after the trauma of the imprisonment. It also anticipates Schiele's later propagandistic efforts to reach out to a larger audience. Although caught into a somnambulistic trance, Schiele's gaze is directed towards the beholder in this work. While before Cardinal and Nun its viewers stood as intrusive voyeurs or objects of mockery, with Selbstbildnis mit Modell they are called to empathize with the transcendental act of artistic communion that takes place under their eyes. In its appeal for fellowship, Selbstbildnis mit Modell expresses Schiele's desire for acceptance, recognition and finally reverence, as it asks its viewer to bow in front of the sanctity of art, greeting the prophetic figures of the artist and his muse. In its dense and hermetic symbolism, it does not only stand as an important expression of Schiele's narcissistic and complex world of self-representation, but it also captures the artist's coming to age, as he started to articulate a more outward-looking and public image of himself as artist.
Selbstbildnis mit Modell belongs to a period in Schiele's art distinguished by large, ambitious canvases and fresco-like compositions that collectively seem to cry out for a wider public. The year he painted Selbstbildnis mit Modell, Schiele attempted another major self-portrait now lost, The Encounter. This work was conceived as the centerpiece of a large, epic composition, planned as a frieze of monastic disciples, following and emulating one central figure: Schiele himself. In The Encounter Schiele, dressed as a monk, steps into the image of a Saint, in a sort of final, public apotheosis of the martyred artist. His hands clasped in prayer, he turns his head towards the viewer, gazing insistently as to encourage his submission to the image. Although the project was never completed, its idea encapsulates Schiele's fantasy of an epic and mystical congregation of artists-seers, all devoted and led by his own sacred image. One of a number of fragments Schiele executed that year in view of this frieze, Selbstbildnis mit Modell forms a part of Schiele's monumental allegory. The painting articulates, in fact, a similar ambition of conversion: Wally herself could be interpreted also as the first and foremost of the converted, a sort of Mary Magdalene of the arts, here presented as an exemplary disciple to the viewers, while exhorting their own submission to Schiele. Sublimated in a mysterious, solemn allegory, Selbstbildnis mit Modell expresses Schiele's pictorial ambition as a mature artist, as well as his growing desire to acquire a public place in the society that he felt had disowned him.
Egon Schiele and Valerie Neuzil, 1913, Photograph courtesy Alessandra Comiti.
(fig. 1) Egon Schiele, Kardinal und Nonne (Liebkosung), 1912. Leopold Museum, Vienna.
(fig. 2) Egon Schiele, Die Eremiten, 1912. Leopold Museum, Vienna.
(fig. 3) Egon Schiele, Agonie, 1912. Neue Pinakothek, Munich.
(fig. 4) Egon Schiele with Begegnung (Selbstbildnis mit der Figur eines Heiligen), 1913. Present whereabouts unknown.
(fig. 5) Egon Schiele,Heilige Familie, 1913. Private collection.