During the year 1910, Schiele--then only twenty years old--produced his famously radical figure compositions and self-portraits, in a dozen oil paintings and scores of drawings and watercolors. He had crossed the threshold to a distinctively personal style and revealed the qualities that would define his artistic maturity. Within the course of only a few months, he divested his work of the decoration and ornament he had taken from his mentor Gustav Klimt, the reigning master of the Viennese Jugendstil manner. Schiele went his own way. He pared his art down to the barest essentials. He flayed the human figure almost to the bone, saving only the most trenchantly expressive features--wiry hair, sinewy muscles, protuberant ribs and joints, concavities of emaciated flesh. He drew in lines that were taut, razor-sharp and nervously inflected to an acute degree. Most startling of all, Schiele dove headlong into the gaping, vertiginous void that lay before him on the blank sheet of paper. He embraced the emptiness of this vast negative space, and transformed it into a powerful element in the kinetic tension between figure and ground.
Coming of age in the deliriously decadent and anxious environment of early 20th century Vienna, the city of Dr. Sigmund Freud, Schiele felt compelled to probe his inner self, and the complex and conflicting emotions that seethed within him. He possessed an irrepressible urge to test the limits in everything that he did, to defy and antagonize all icons of authority, and to transgress any social mores that obstructed his quest. He would go beyond the pale if he must to make the reality of his true self the stuff of his art. In his drawings and watercolors of 1910, the artist revealed himself to the world in a feverish, histrionic and nearly schizophrenic multitude of guises. These uninhibited pictures set the stage for even more extreme displays of willful self-absorption and exhibitionism during the following year, when he painted the present work.
Bruised and discouraged by the resistance he encountered, Schiele began to withdraw, as 1910 came to a close, from the life of the city and his artistic milieu. He left Vienna in the spring of 1911 to live in two small towns in the city environs. His growing sense of isolation and alienation may have further exacerbated his obsessions, and in this state he painted two unprecedented watercolors of the most private kind, in which he depicted himself blatantly engaged in auto-erotic activity (Kallir, nos. 947 and 948). He inscribed one of these sheets with the word "Eros." Schiele appears to have intended some measure of irony here--the artist's facial expression in one work is that of a wild man, and in the other he is downcast and shamefaced. This solitary, utterly self-involved release of sexual tension is hardly convincing as the ultimate and definitive expression of human physical love.
The present work may be viewed in light of this remarkable episode, as an epilogue of sorts. Here the artist lies stretched out, exhausted and detumescent, his right leg drawn up, with his head tilted over the side of the bed, his eyelids shuttered in his lingering private ecstasy. It is an astonishing display of erotic candor and vulnerability. At the same time, the daring of the artist's pictorial conception and his high-wire performance as a draughtsman are wonders to behold. Jane Kallir has written: "While exploring his psyche, Schiele nonetheless always remains conscious of the image he is presenting to the public; he is object as well as subject. The
self-portraits thus evoke a tantalizing combination of sincerity and
affectation. Even in the most unabashedly self-revelatory of the works, the element of artifice rescues the presentation from emotional excess. This dualism was a tightrope that Schiele walked with the fearless
grace of a somnambulist, risking mannerism on one side, bathos on the
other" (Kallir, op. cit., 1998, p. 68).