1909 was the year of Egon Schiele’s great breakthrough to artistic maturity. Although only nineteen years old and, until the summer of the year, still a student at the Viennese Academy of Art, Schiele’s prodigious talent had already asserted itself to the point where he had become recognised by Gustav Klimt and many others as one of the greatest hopes for the future of Austrian art. Selbstbildnis mit gespreizten Fingern (Self-Portrait with Spread Fingers) is an important early work from late 1909 that reveals Schiele already beginning to move beyond the dominant influence of his mentor Klimt towards a new, more existentially aware Expressionist art.
In the summer of 1909 Schiele had been given the great honour of being invited by Klimt to partake in that year’s International Kunstschau - the Secessionist exhibition at which, one year before, the young Oskar Kokoschka had triumphed and established himself as the leading young artist in the city. In the 1909 Kunstschau Schiele exhibited four paintings that not only demonstrated his artistic maturity but which also established his reputation as a successor of Klimt and a keen rival for Kokoschka.
Selbstbildnis mit gespreizten Fingern was painted in the immediate aftermath of this exhibition and shortly before the ‘Neukünstler’ exhibition on which Arthur Roessler reported on Schiele in the following glowing terms: ‘The new artists... come from the area mapped out by the Kunstschau... The influence specifically of Klimt is unmistakable... Probably many of these artists will not complete the course, but there are some nevertheless whom I consider inwardly and outwardly strong enough to win through. I regard one of them as the extraordinarily gifted Egon Schiele’ (A. Roessler, review of the ‘Neukünstler’ group show December 1909, in Arbeiter Zeitung, quoted in F. Whitford, Egon Schiele, London, 1981, p. 64). In many ways Schiele’s self-portrait, with its self-conscious depiction of the artist’s features emerging from a typical gold-ground Secessionist background is an announcement of Schiele’s arrival into the contemporary art world of Vienna - a picture that announces a new character taking the stage.
In what is the artist’s first self-portrait oil made for public display Schiele has dramatically isolated his head and hands against a simple and sparse decorative background that owes much to the then prevalent pictorial tendencies of Viennese Jugendstil painting and the Wiener Werkstätte. Running down the left hand side of the painting, like a set of colourful piano keys, is a sequential abstract pattern of rectangular colours. In this use of overt decoration and in the thin elongated format of the painting, Schiele reveals how he is still reliant on Klimt’s example and in particular perhaps upon one of Klimt’s most recent paintings - Judith II also of 1909 - which took a very similar format to this self-portrait. Like Judith II, but going even further in a way that anticipates much of Schiele’s later work, the young artist has chosen to render his self-image solely through a representation of his face and his gesticulating hands - almost as if he is saying that his identity and his ability to create are the only essential things that need to be introduced. For, unlike Klimt, who has concentrated on these features in Judith II but incorporated them into a sumptuous decorative motif of high Secessionist style, Schiele completely isolates these two features and starkly contrasts them against a black, void-like background. Indeed, it has been suggested that Schiele’s isolating of his head in this self-portrait may even be an extension of, or a playful gesture upon, Klimt’s similar depiction of the decapitated head of Judith’s victim, Holofernes, isolated against a black background in Judith II.
In fact, however, Schiele’s dramatic isolating of his head and hands against a theatrical darkness is a move that anticipates his later abandoning of Secessionist décor in favour of a variety of empty backgrounds so as to lend his compositions an added expressive weight that highlights the persona of Schiele as both a unique and exceptional individual and as a kind of performer in his art. Here, for the first time, the artist is clearly playing a role within the picture. As in Klimt’s Judith II his face appears to be made-up with cosmetics, his cheeks rouged and his lips are reddened. Earlier photographs of the painting reveal that Schiele’s face in this work also at one time sported a beauty-spot just like Klimt’s Judith. In Selbstbildnis mit gespreizten Fingern, as in so many other later paintings by Schiele, the notion of self and of masquerade have become all wrapped up together within the strange logic of the picture plane.
Most indicative of this move towards self-dramatisation is the depiction of Schiele’s hands. While his head is framed by a crown or a halo-like corner of gold, Schiele’s hands are shown gesticulating a clear directional path from the right side of the painting to the left. Schiele here presents himself, in the manner of a theatrical performer or mime artist, someone visually signifying a strong sense of psychological purpose and intent. It is also, once again, the first, but not the last time that Schiele would depict himself in such a way that the gestural positioning of his hands appears to hint at a hidden code or symbolism. As in so many of the ‘doubled’ self-portraits that Schiele would make between 1910 and 1911, the mirrored position of the hands in this self-portrait appears to indicate a dual nature. This is further emphasised by their sign-like positioning, one behind the other, as well as by the mirrored nature of each gesture with its splayed fingers, themselves also seemingly split into pairs of outer and inner.
In all these aspects, as well as in the quite radical stylistic reduction of this portrait, Selbstbildnis mit gespreizten Fingern is a clear statement of how Schiele saw himself as working ‘through’ or ‘by way’ of Klimt and the Seccession, towards a newer more transcendent style all of his own. The painting is therefore, like Picasso’s self-proclamatory self-portrait Yo Picasso for example, or, ?more relevantly perhaps, Kokoschka’s recent grandstanding as a Christ-like martyr with shaved head at the 1909 Kunstschau, very much an announcement by Schiele of his own sense of artistic identity and destiny.