Egon Schiele (1890-1918)
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Egon Schiele (1890-1918)


Egon Schiele (1890-1918)
signed and dated 'Egon Schiele' (lower left); signed, inscribed and dated 'Egon Schiele Herbstsonne Wien 1914' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
39 3/8 x 47½ in. (100 x 120.5 cm.)
Painted in 1914
Xaver B. Gmür, Vienna, by whom acquired from the artist, autumn 1914.
Karl Grünwald, Vienna, until 1938.
Confiscated by the Nazi authorities from the Grünwald consignment (Seegmüller) in Strasbourg; included in the illicit sales of the collection in June 1942.
Private collection, France.
Restituted to the heirs of Karl Grünwald in 2006.
Letter from Schiele to Dr Hugo Jung, 3 May 1914.
Letter from Schiele to Dr Hugo Jung, 7 July 1914.
Letter from Schiele to Arthur Roessler, 11 July 1914.
Letter from Schiele to Frau Kuntschik, 4 September 1914.
Letter from Xaver B. Gmür to Schiele, 1918.
Letter from Schiele to Richard Lányi, after 14 July 1918.
O. Nirenstein, Egon Schiele: Persönlichkeit und Werk, Vienna, 1930, no. 143.
O. Kallir, Egon Schiele: Oeuvre-Katalog der Gemälde, Vienna, 1966, no. 202 & XLI0 (illustrated p. 403).
R. Leopold, Egon Schiele: Gemälde, Aquarelle, Zeichnungen, Salzburg, 1972, no. 246 (illustrated p. 581).
K. Mittenzwey, 'Frühjahrs-Ausstellung der Münchner Sezession', Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration, April 1914 (illustrated p. 90).
C. Nebehay, Egon Schiele, 1890-1918: Leben, Briefe, Gedichte, Salzburg/Vienna, 1979, pp. 307, 309-311, 474.
G. Malafarina, L'Opera di Egon Schiele, Milan, 1982, no. 269 (illustrated p. 109).
J. Kallir, Egon Schiele: The Complete Works, London, 1998, no. 280 (illustrated p. 327; titled 'Sonnenblumen; Herbstsonne II').
S. Lillie, Was einmal war, Handbuch der enteigneten Kunstsammlungen Wiens, Vienna, 2003, p. 436 (illustrated p. 434).
R. Leopold, Egon Schiele, Landscapes, Munich, 2005 (illustrated p. 147 and titled 'Sunflowers IV').
Munich, Secession, Frühjahrs-Ausstellung der Münchener
, March - April 1914, no. 289.
Brussels, Palais du Cinquantenaire, Exposition générale des Beaux-Arts: Salon Triennal, May - November 1914, no. 238.
Vienna, Hagenbund and Neue Galerie, Gedächtnisausstellung Egon Schiele, October - November 1928, no. 60 (illustrated in the catalogue).
Paris, Musée du Jeu de Paume, Exposition d'Art Autrichien, May - June 1937, no. 487.
Berne, Kunsthalle, Österreichische Kunst im 20. Jahrhundert, August - September 1937, no. 39.
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Lot Essay

Die Sonnenblumen

Ihr goldenen Sonnenblumen,
Innig zum Sterben geneigt,
Ihr demutsvollen Schwestern
In solcher Stille endet
Helians Jahr
Gebirgiger Kühle.
Da erbleicht von Küssen
Die trunkene Stirn ihm
Inmitten jener goldenen
Blumen der Schwermut
Bestimmt den Geist
Die schweigende Finsternis.

The Sunflowers

You golden sunflowers
Feeling bowed to die
You humble sisters
In such silence
Ends Helian's year
Of mountainous cool.
And the kisses
Make pale his drunken brow
Amidst those golden
Flowers of melancholy
The spirit is ruled
By silent darkness.

Georg Trakl, 1914.

Herbstsonne (Autumn Sun) is a lost masterpiece of Schiele's art unseen since 1942 and thought, until now, to have been destroyed in the Second World War. One of Schiele's most important paintings and among the finest of all his landscapes, it is the culmination of a central theme in Schiele's work that had preoccupied him since first coming to artistic maturity in 1910. Using landscape as an allegory of a human emotion, Herbstsonne is an 'Expressionist' landscape in the truest sense of the word and a masterpiece of the unique and precarious time in which it was made. Painted in March 1914 and depicting a column of sunflowers withering against a dying sunset, its overwhelming atmosphere of both melancholy and decay reflects both the natural spirit of the artist and a prescient sense that the unique and in some ways golden era to which he belonged was also coming to an end.

Herbstsonne was painted only three months before the outbreak of the First World War, and while Schiele evidently had no foresight of the nature of the abyss into which Europe was about to sink, an unspoken awareness of an oncoming cataclysm was common to many people in Europe at this time. Indeed many artists, Schiele among them, have been posthumously credited with the art of prophecy. From the Expressionist poems of Jacob Van Hoddis and Georg Heym to the apocalyptic paintings of Franz Marc, Wassily Kandinsky or Ludwig Meidner, a sense and even a desire for a war as a change to the established order, a purifying fire or 'hygiene' pervaded much of pre-war avant-garde thinking. In Vienna, which in the last years of the nineteenth century had been enjoying its 'Sacred Spring', the veneer of carefree gaiety and beauty was finally cracking, giving way to revelations of a darker and more neurotic human nature existing beneath the glittering surfaces of the tottering Austro-Hungarian Empire. Nowhere is this transition perhaps better seen than in the comparison between Gustav Klimt's sensual and elegant nudes and those of his only real protégé Egon Schiele. Any glimpse at the thin, neurotic but deeply human figures of Schiele's paintings or indeed, the penetrating and incisive psychological portraits that his contemporary Oskar Kokoschka was also making at this time makes it clear that the 'Ver Sacrum' of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was in fact, more of a golden autumn.

The death of Schiele's father in 1904 when Schiele was just fourteen years old, seems to have prompted a natural state of melancholy and longing in the artist which accompanied him for the rest of his life. 'I seek out those places where my father was, in order to deliberately experience my pain in melancholy hours', Schiele wrote to his friend and future brother in law Anton Peschka nine years after his father's death and only a year before Herbstsonne was painted. 'I believe in the immortality of all beings... Why did I paint graves? And many similar pictures? Because this memory continues to live intensely within me' (Egon Schiele letter to Anton Peschka 1913, cited in C.M. Nebehay, Egon Schiele 1890-1918, Leben, Briefe, Gedichte, Vienna, 1979, no. 544, p. 264). The death of Schiele's father and his recognition that this death continued to live within him appears to have stimulated in Schiele a keen awareness of the ever-presence of death within all life. At school, in the aftermath of his father's death and to the consternation of his teachers, Schiele increasingly retreated from his studies in order to draw in solitude in the surrounding fields, evidently finding in nature both a comfort and a reflection of his own state of mind. Such studies also led to a profound revelation which he later expressed in poetry,

'I come into the red-black cathedral of the dense pine-forest,
which lives noiselessly and watches itself, mimicking.
Trunks with eyes spread out thickly and exhale the visible, damp air.
How lovely -
Everything is living dead'

(Egon Schiele, cited in C.M. Nebehay, op. cit., no. 167).

Such awareness of the omnipresence of death in life brought home to him by the natural cycle of growth, death and decay prompted in the young artist an intellectual interest in the duality of Eros and Thanatos as the twin driving forces of existence. Perhaps also inspired by the work of Nietzsche, Schiele's natural as well as strong personal interest in the twin parameters of sex and death as keys to understanding life, made this otherwise quite traditional artist, both modern and a man of his time. While Schiele, in his numerous studies of the human form, often sought to express the dynamic driving force of life as a sexual energy motivating, and even manipulating his figures like puppets, he was also drawn to the natural forms of trees, plants and even the crumbling facades of old villages and townscapes, as alternate physical expressions of the same elemental forces. In contrast to his paintings and drawings of human figures, but in keeping with his deeply Romantic nature, in his studies from Nature Schiele preferred to work from his imagination, moulding his vision into an anthropomorphic view of landscape as a kind of pastoral expression of the human soul. In a letter to his friend Franz Hauer witten in 1913, in which he describes his aim of capturing the 'intense experience' of 'melancholy' that he was later to achieve in Herbstsonne, Schiele explained; 'I also do studies, but I find, and know, that copying from nature is meaningless to me, because I paint better pictures from memory, as a vision of landscape - now, I mainly observe the physical movement of mountains, water, trees, and flowers. Everywhere one is reminded of similar movements made by human bodies, similar strings of pleasure and pain in plants. Painting is not enough for me; I am aware that one can use colours to establish qualities. When one sees a tree in autumnal summer, it is an intense experience that involves one's whole heart and being: and I should like to paint that melancholy' (cited in C.M. Nebehay, op. cit., no. 573).

Drawn to landscape painting as a conceit expressing the inner world of human emotion, from an early age Schiele found in the anthropomorphic sunflower a particularly powerful symbol of human life and aspiration. He was certainly aware of Vincent Van Gogh's sunflowers - those celebrations of the colour and vitality of life in the South of France - which he may have seen at the Galerie Miethke exhibition in 1906. In his numerous paintings of what was often only a single sunflower, Schiele was however, evidently more influenced by the paintings of Gustav Klimt, who, in response to seeing Van Gogh's sunflowers had created his own versions, showing a triumphant column of sunflowers towering over a densely packed field of colour (see Farm Garden with Sunflowers 1905-6 and The Sunflower 1906-7). Klimt's sunflowers, like his portraits of society women, depict triumphant regal beings amidst a glorious panoply of decorative colour and gaiety. In contrast, but no less typical of his own art, Schiele's sunflower paintings from 1907 onwards depict more intense, earthier even introspective-looking plants. They are essentially lone beings all infused with a pervasive atmosphere of melancholy and decay. Almost always depicted in the process of wilting, their heads beginning to bow, Schiele's sunflower paintings are a natural, physical and highly anthropomorphic embodiment of his belief in the sublime truth that 'Everything is living dead'.

In Herbstsonne with its golden landscape at sunset and its pale autumn sun already dimmed with the cold of winter, Schiele does not just present the wilting sunflower as a symbol of the melancholic mystery of existence but he has also created a potent metaphor for the age in which he lived. Schiele was not alone in understanding the inherent decadence and decay within Viennese fin-de-siècle society, nor was he, in fact, the only artist to compare the seemingly inevitable decline of this golden era to the withering of glorious sunflowers in an autumn sun. The subject of death had been an integral part of the art of fin-de-siècle Vienna from its inception, indeed so much so that as early as 1900 the critic Alfred Gold had written in Die Zeit that Viennese culture had developed an entire 'aesthetic of dying'. The shadow of death seemed to haunt even its most fanciful, glorious or decorative of its creations - creations which in the fanaticism of their surfaces seemed themselves to be almost exercises in the denial of reality and of the crumbling edifices of their society. Certainly it was the insidious and ever-present nature of decay that Schiele magnified in his own work in the neurotic features and pathological expressions of his models and in the decaying melancholy of his dying landscapes and 'dead cities'. Like his Viennese contemporary, the Expressionist poet Georg Trakl, Schiele's art to some degree reflected his own love-hate relationship with the Austrian capital, the city that Trakl even went so far as to describe as a place 'in which lives a putrefied species cold and evil.' Like Schiele, an almost constant theme in Trakl's poetry of the pre-war period is that of the gentle melancholy of a decaying world - a theme which he also expressed on numerous occasions through the metaphor of sunflowers wilting in an autumn sun. Apart from a poem dedicated to them, sunflowers appear repeatedly as anthropomorphic metaphors of melancholy in poems such as Im Herbst (In Autumn), Unterwergs (Along the Way), Sonja, Melancholie (Melancholy) and in his prose poem of February 1914 entitled Traum und Umnachtung (Dream and Derangement), where they, like other features of nature, are used to describe an atmosphere of ghostly autumn melancholy. 'The sunflower sank golden over the garden fence when the summer came. O, the diligence of bees and the green leaves of the walnut tree; the thunderstorms passing by. The poppy also bloomed silverly, bore our nocturnal starry dreams in a green bud. O, how silent the house was when the father passed away into darkness.'

Herbstsonne represents the coming together of two central themes in Schiele's work; his paintings of sunflowers and of melancholic autumn landscapes. Unlike his paintings of the human figure, in his landscape painting Schiele gradually moved away from working directly from nature in favour of creating what he described as 'a vision of landscape'. Like some of his paintings of single trees, the paintings of sunflowers which Schiele began painting with the art-nouveau inspired single study of 1907, in many ways stand at the forefront of this development translating the anthropomorphic sunflower into a poignant and expressive symbol of melancholy. In his early work the season depicted in his landscapes always conformed with the actual period in which it had been made, but, as he matured, this connection dissolved in favour of using the painting solely as an expression of mood. The last oil painting of sunflowers that Schiele made, Herbstsonne was painted in the spring and draws together several subjects explored in earlier landscapes, combining them into a combined expression of grandeur and tragedy.

In the forefront of the painting, the column of sunflowers is thrust up close to the viewer in an extraordinarily bold, almost photographic-like use of composition that may owe something to Japanese influence. Cropped at the top and the bottom, the column forces itself into the presence of the viewer asserting the sunflowers own material identity and the myriad pattern of their form through Schiele's magnificent line and the mottled texture of his brushwork. Here, Schiele has used a thin paint applied over the chalky ground of the picture. The thick, earthy nature of the crisp drying sunflower leaves has been rendered with broad angular brushstrokes that have both smeared paint onto the surface and, using a dry brush, also pulled it off so as to create a convincing textural resemblance. This column of natural form creates a golden façade (not unlike that of the crown of Vienna's Seccession building) standing in front of a landscape consisting solely of two hills and a carpet of small flowers similar to those that populate the floor of Gustav Klimt's paintings of sunflowers. Indeed, in some ways Herbstsonne could be considered a melancholic coda to Klimt's sunflowers, depicting the once great but now wilting flowers that still tower above all their miniscule companions but whose prime is clearly past.

The recent rediscovery of Herbstsonne has revealed that, in keeping with most his major paintings, Schiele signed and titled this work himself on the back of the stretcher, clearly naming the painting 'Herbstsonne'. Until its recent rediscovery Herbstsonne was known and catalogued under the twin titles of Wilted Sunflowers and Autumn Sun II. This was because, as Rudolph Leopold discovered, Schiele had referred to this picture more loosely as both 'Sunflowers' and 'Autumn Sun' in a letter (see R. Leopold, exh. cat. Egon Schiele Landscapes, Vienna, 2004, p. 146). The title of Autumn Sun II was bestowed upon the work at this time because of another painting also entitled Herbstsonne (Autumn Sun) or Autumn Sun I which Schiele had painted in 1912. This earlier painting also makes use of the miniature colourful and decorative flowers common to Secessionist painting and also displays metaphorical echoes of Schiele's relationship with Gustav Klimt, depicting a mature tree producing golden fruit standing isolated against a mountain sunrise next to a young sapling also beginning to bloom. Schiele often likened the role of an artist to that of a fruit bearing tree, even writing to his mother on one occasion in 1913 that 'I shall be the fruit which will leave eternal vitality behind even after its decay' (Schiele's letter to his mother, March 1913, cited in F. Whitford, Egon Schiele, London, 1981, p. 120).

The theme of optimism and youth expressed in the earlier painting of 1912 stands in complete contrast however, to the more appropriate autumnal sense of melancholy and age expressed in the present work. Thematic opposites, but sharing the same title, these two works are not as connected as one might suppose. The present work from 1914 is by far the more substantial, mature and ambitious of the two paintings. A unique work from the years of Schiele's maturity when he finally developed his own inimitable style, it is a far more powerful and emotive painting aimed at inducing the feeling of melancholy in the viewer rather than in merely symbolising it. In this respect it is more of an Expressionist painting than the clearly Secessionist-derived work of 1912 and bears a closer resemblance to the last of Schiele's great landscapes, Vier Bäume of 1917. This celebrated painting now housed in the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere in Vienna expresses a similar theme and employs the same Ferdinand Hodler-inspired sunset with banded sky as Schiele has used in Herbstsonne. The sunset of Herbstsonne is bleaker, more mournful and seemingly far colder than the warm red-disk disappearing into the wintry sky of Vier Bäume. It is also a feature of the work that caused some debate between the Schiele experts Rudolph Leopold and Otto Kallir, because, in this painting, the sunflowers had not turned towards the sun, as they would do in nature. On account of this, Kallir originally believed that the pale disc in this work represented the moon, while Leopold, correctly as it turns out, maintained that Schiele had here either subsumed the realities of nature for the sake of his vision or actually intended to show that the rays of the pale sun in this were so feeble as to have not caused the dying flowers to move (see R. Leopold, op. cit., p. 146).

The barren spectre of this fire-less sunset is one of the most haunting features of this painting and indeed, combined with the dominant presence of the disintegrating anthropomorphic tower of sunflowers at the very forefront of the picture, combines to create a universal sense of melancholic meltdown and apocalyptic finality. It is not just the sunflowers that are wilting, the sky too seems to be withering away. The landscape seems permeated with a sense of finality as if this were a picture of the last ever sunset, and it is this that perhaps makes the work appear so prophetic of the tragic and desolate representations of no-man's land that were soon to haunt the conscience of modern man. The fact that this extraordinary landscape of melancholy was painted on the eve of the war that would bring about an end to both the era and the empire to which Klimt and Schiele - who were both to die in 1918 - belonged, makes this sublime and mournful painting all the more poignant. As Hans Tietze wrote after the artist's death, the great melancholy that Schiele managed to evoke in the paintings that he made during his short life seemed to reveal that he possessed a deeply piercing awareness of the horrible which slumbers under the visible smooth surface of things...Now with the tragic occurrence of his death - which is one part of the apocalyptic atrocities surrounding us on all sides - all that seems like demonic perception, like the instinctive knowledge of a chosen artist who perceived the forbidden and the shadows of death in all things' (H. Tietze 'Nekrolog', in A. Roessler ed., In Memoriam Egon Schiele, Vienna, 1921, p. 57).

As extraordinary as the seemingly prophetic nature of Herbstsonne is, the story of this great painting's turbulent journey through the rest of the twentieth century is equally so. Completed in March 1914, Herbstsonne was sent by Schiele to Brussels for exhibition at the Salon Triennial where it was subsequently bought by Mrs Xavier Gmür. The outbreak of the First World War in the summer of that year seems to have delayed the payment of 3000 francs from Mrs Gmür and in 1917 when the picture was returned to Schiele, he, presuming the original sale had fallen through, sold it to another collector Richard Lányi. After the war, the Gmürs reasserted their claim to the painting and were able to acquire it. It remained in their collection for a few years until it was bought from them by the Viennese textile merchant Karl Grünwald. Grünwald had become a keen collector of Schiele's work after getting to know him while serving in the army. Formerly a First Lieutenant, Grünwald had, in 1917, been instrumental in keeping Schiele away from any hazardous or strenuous duty and ultimately arranged for the artist's much-longed for transfer to Vienna. Grünwald worked for a division of the army known as the 'Imperial and Royal Military Supply' - a kind of consumer co-operative in the Austrian army - organised by Hans von Rosé in Vienna - which supplied officers serving at the front with food and, mainly, wine. This operation had storehouses and depots in the Tyrol and South Tyrol regions and Schiele and Grünwald became friends during a tour of inspection they made there in June 1917. Admiring Schiele's talent Grünwald even commissioned from the artist a series of drawings for an army 'Festschrift'. Schiele also painted a large oil portrait of Grünwald at this time and the two men remained friends until the artist's death in October 1918.

In the 1920s, Grünwald sought to acquire a number of works by Schiele as part of his by-now fast-growing collection of art. It was at this time that he acquired Herbstsonne from the Gmürs. The painting remained with Grünwald in Vienna until 1938 when, with the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany, he, as a Jew, and like so many other Viennese collectors, was obliged to flee the country. He settled in France and managed to take fifty paintings, including Herbstsonne, with him. For safe-keeping these works were held in storage in Strasbourg. When the Nazis invaded France in 1940, Grünwald managed to escape once again and ultimately survived the war. His paintings however, were seized and Herbstsonne amongst others was last seen in public at a Nazi auction of confiscated art in 1942.

From this point onwards all trace of the painting disappeared and despite Karl Grünwald's strenuous attempts to find it right up until his death in November 1964, the prevailing assumption was that tragically, the work had not survived the war. Grünwald's family never believed this to be the case however, particulary Karl's son Fred who never gave up searching for it. The painting has until now only been known through black and white reproductions and a good-quality but inaccurate colour reproduction that was first published by Rudolph Leopold in his monograph on Schiele's landscapes in 2004. Like many other great paintings of its time, Herbstsonne seemed to have been consigned to the status of 'lost masterpiece' for ever.

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