In 1910, at the age of twenty, Schiele hurtled across the threshold of artistic maturity into an independent and intensely personal style. With astonishing alacrity, he transformed himself from an innocuous protégé of Klimt into an enfant terrible on par with the notorious Kokoschka. "The speed and extremity of Schiele's development in 1910 are such that his work leaves all prior efforts behind," Jane Kallir has written (op. cit., p. 391). Schiele himself described his sudden metamorphosis in a letter dated 1910: "I went by way of Klimt until March. Today, I believe, I am his very opposite" (quoted in R. Steiner, Egon Schiele, The Midnight Soul of the Artist, Cologne, 2004, p. 30).
The previous year, Schiele had left the Vienna Academy and participated in the Kunstschau, a major invitational exhibition with an international cast. Here, he encountered works by Kokoschka, Munch, Van Gogh, and the Belgian sculptor Georges Minne, artists whose commitment to expressive intensity provided a powerfully fresh alternative to the refined elegance of the Jugendstil manner. Within the course of only a few months, Schiele divested himself of Klimt's influence and emerged with a bold expressionist idiom all his own. In place of the mellifluous Jugendstil contour, his lines became taut, razor-sharp, and nervously inflected to an acute degree. Most startling of all, he shed the Klimtian decorative surround and dove headlong into the gaping, vertiginous void of the blank page, transforming this vast negative space into a powerful element in the kinetic tension between figure and ground. Kallir has written, "A metamorphosis was thus completed: by substituting emotional effect for decorative effect... Schiele unmasked the sensual, sinister world that had always lain imbedded in Klimt's ornamental crust" (op. cit., p. 68).
The most radical works that Schiele produced during this year are a long series of self-portrait drawings, in which he subjected himself to a process of relentless and unflinching scrutiny. Working in front of two movable, standing mirrors that he kept in his studio, Schiele sometimes depicted himself full-length, his contorted postures and theatrically exaggerated gestures suggesting that he is gripped by such powerful emotions that even his very physiognomy is affected. In other self-portraits, Schiele focused in on his head, relying upon facial expression alone to externalize the complex, conflicting emotions that seethed within him. By turns, he appears vain and preening, shy and vulnerable, angry and confrontational, or wracked with--a feverish and histrionic multitude of selves that reflected the extreme self-absorption of adolescence, heightened by the decadent and anxious atmosphere of fin-de-siècle Vienna, the city of Sigmund Freud. Kallir has explained, "As both vehicle and emblem, the artist simultaneously conducted and recorded his own psychological biopsy. With fearless virtuosity, he combined equal parts agonized introspection and self-conscious posturing" (ibid., p. 75).
In the present work, the emphasis is on the eyes, with their dramatic contrast between the dark, kohl-colored rims and the ghostly white accents on the lids and the bridge of the nose. The left brow is slightly arched and the lips pursed in an attitude of self-possessed bemusement; the right eye, in contrast, is narrowed and sunken more deeply in shadow, adding a touch of the sinister to the gaze. The full shock of hair stands away from the head as though electrified, while the jarring juxtaposition of the olive-gray flesh tones and bright orange-red ears further heightens the expressive intensity of the portrait.
In facial expression, physiognomy, and the head-on intensity of the gaze, this image is closely related to the first of Schiele's great double self-portraits, The Self-Seers I of late 1910, in which the artist is paired with a projection of his subconscious self, simultaneously of him and antithetical to him (Kallir, no. 174). Schiele explained to the painting's first owner Oskar Reichel, "If I look at myself as a whole, I shall have to see myself, to know what I want myself, what is not only happening within me but the extent to which I possess the ability to see" (quoted in Egon Schiele: Self-Portraits and Portraits, exh. cat., Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, 2011, p. 25).
(fig. 1) Egon Schiele, The Self-Seers I, 1910. Present location unknown. BARCODE: 28859703