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Concentrated in the center of the canvas, the buildings in Einzelne Häuser (Häuser mit Bergen) take on an almost human quality, recalling the contorted, naked bodies that fill so many of Schiele's figure oils and drawings. The houses in this 1915 painting appear to be huddled together as though for warmth, yet the skeletal angularity of these structures hints at a singular lack of solace or shelter. Schiele's landscapes, especially from the period of 1912 onwards--the years of his full expressionistic maturity--involve a strange and heady mixture of his own deeply personal references, his searingly modern style and the projection of emotions upon the scene before him (fig. 1).
This projection worked on both a personal and a wider scale. As is the case in almost all of Schiele's townscapes, the buildings in Einzelne Häuser appear to represent his mother's hometown, Krumau (now known as Cesky-Krumlov and located in the Czech Republic). Schiele had moved to Krumau only a few years before this picture was painted, but did not live there for long. While there, he was met with relative hostility by the town's inhabitants, partly because he did not attend church, partly because he had lived openly 'in sin' with his lover, Valerie Neuzil (nicknamed Wally), and partly because he was believed to be using young girls as naked models.
As it turned against him, the town came to take on a darker significance in his mind and, more importantly, in his art. Krumau became the Tote Stadt--the 'Dead City.' Its winding medieval streets and dark alleys introduce a frantic, paranoid energy, giving a sense of claustrophobia while also implying that something sinister might lurk around each and every corner (fig. 2). In Einzelne Häuser, the effect of this psychological landscaping is heightened by the strange isolation of this clutch of buildings, around which the barren countryside appears to stretch to the distant, unattainable mountains that peek over the hazy horizon. Within this large space, the jumble of houses becomes a metaphor for vulnerability in its own right (fig. 3). Their frenetic appearance is thrown all the more into relief by their contrast with the structured background, which has a faint grid composition and relies on the repeated horizontal bands of the various layers of the landscape setting, recalling the Parallelism of Ferdinand Hodler (fig. 4). The houses themselves appear tenuously held together, a nervous capsule of fragile life-force within the autumnal setting. Their angularity and impossible perspective--reminiscent of medieval art as much as of the medieval buildings of Krumau--lends the picture a sense of refractedness that even recalls the early Cubism of Picasso in Horta or of Braque.
Schiele's association of Krumau with fear and darkness became all the more overt in his landscapes when he was essentially driven out by its citizens (although he would continue to visit occasionally). His use of townscapes to portray these feelings increased in 1912, when he was arrested after being denounced in Neulengbach, a town near Vienna to which he and Wally had retreated to avoid hostility (fig. 5). It was alleged that he had seduced an under-age girl; while this charge was not upheld, he was incarcerated for some weeks because he was considered to have exposed children to obscene materials, as his pictures--considered pornographic by Neulengbach--were plain to see in the studio. Schiele--who, as a radical and misunderstood artist, already had a martyr complex--considered his imprisonment a trial, an ordeal, a process of purification at the hands of the unknowing philistines. And while he believed that he was pure, embodying the spirit of a new age, the converse was also true of the rest of the world, which he depicted as alien, hostile and decaying. In Einzelne Häuser, this is seen in the deliberately palid palette that marks so much of the work, as well as the almost fungal colors of the trees and the houses themselves, which appear to be crumbling and rotting before us.
Although Schiele was not living in Krumau at the time that Einzelne Häuser was painted, his former hometown, so associated with his family, continued to feature in his pictures. It became an extended metaphor, a template upon which he could project his own feelings and fears. Schiele did not feel the great need to have the motif, which he knew so well, before him. He explained this in a letter to Franz Hauer: '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' (Schiele in 1913, quoted in C.M. Nebehay, Egon Schiele 1890-1918 Leben, Briefe, Gedichte, Vienna, 1979, No. 573). The intention is clearly not to depict the landscape per se, but instead to use it as a sort of vessel to contain a deeper, darker content that is a product of the imagination rather than of the town's topographical appearance.
The atmosphere of imminent mortality that haunts Einzelne Häuser was a result of Schiele's own personal feelings, but also reflected his wider attitudes towards death and the world at large. By 1915, his vision of a rotting landscape was all the more pertinent as the First World War raged across Europe, threatening all the old hierarchies and status quos. Schiele was fascinated not only with the death of the old order but also with the chance for renewal, both personal and on a grander scale, that it would perhaps bring. It was because of this that landscapes such as Einzelne Häuser took on such an autumnal quality, his palette recalling damp wood and leaves falling. Towns in particular, as the direct result of centuries of human creative force and spirit, were the perfect theme for Schiele. His friend Arthur Roessler claimed to recall Schiele stating that he had sought out,
...the sadness and destitution of dying towns and landscapes with a happy heart... not out of perversity, not because I wanted vainly to flatter myself with the power of the dead, but because I am conscious of my humanity, because I know there is much more misery in our existence and because I find Autumn much more beautiful than every other season... not only as a season but also as a condition of man and things-- therefore of towns, also. It fills the heart with grief and reminds us that we are but pilgrims on this earth... the builder of the first town was Cain, Cain who slew his brother Abel' (Schiele, quoted in F. Whitford, Egon Schiele, London, 1981, p. 104).
This passage reflects Schiele's own feelings of vulnerability as well as his wider vision of the world as tainted by the autumnal touch of mortality, a feeling that haunted all of his landscapes and which was encapsulated in the words of one of his poems: 'How good!-- Everything is living dead' (Schiele, quoted in Whitford, op.cit, 1981, p. 136). Einzelne Häuser has little in common with the quest for the aesthetic that had driven so many of the artists in fin de siècle Vienna, the Klimt-like search for peace and the sublime (fig. 6). This striving for beauty has been replaced by a franker, more pessimistic view of life shaped by Schiele's own experiences of human nature as well as the wider problems, conflicts and tensions of a world being torn apart by war. The First World War came into Schiele's life directly when he was called up for service, only days after his marriage to Edith Harms--the brief period of happiness that had been brought about by their liaison was disrupted by the very real possibility of active or dangerous duties. Schiele's anxieties would eventually be allayed, and he managed to avoid any overly active service, yet his fear at the beginning of being sent into action--before he was given a posting--was very real, exposing the artist to the grim realities of war. Einzelne Häuser reflects the upsets, the ups and downs, the angst-ridden times through which Schiele was living in 1915.
It is perhaps another reflection of the hardships and realities of war that Schiele painted Einzelne Häuser on the reverse of a fragment of an older picture. On the verso is a fragment, known as Mönch I, that dates from 1913 (fig. 7). This is believed to have possibly formed a part of one of Schiele's largest attempted projects, Bekehrung ('Conversion'), and is certainly linked to the two monumental allegories that he produced that year of which only fragments, sketches and occasional photographic evidence are now known. In these allegorical paintings, Schiele used a mixture of overtly sexual imagery and religious iconography in order to present his own philosophy: these are images that concern sex, the enlightened state of pure sexual abandon, the pure life-force that sears through those who are joined in sexual union. The figure of the monk in this work would have played a part in a larger-scale composition exploring these themes, echoing for example the celebrated 1912 painting Kardinal und Nonne (Liebkosung). These themes of conversion, of the spiritual epiphany, of religious encounters and so forth helped to portray Schiele as a martyr and a prophet, a theme which had become all the more important to him following his persecution in Neulengbach.
(fig. 1) Photograph of Egon Schiele. By Anton Josef Trcka, 1914.
(fig. 2) Albrecht Dürer, The Prodigal Son, circa 1496,
Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe.
(fig. 3) Egon Schiele, Houses with Drying Laundry, 1917. Private
(fig. 4) Ferdinand Hodler, Sonnenuntergang am Genfersee, 1915.
(fig. 5) Egon Schiele, Windows, 1914. Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna.
(fig. 6) Gustav Klimt, Schloss Kammer am Attersee II, 1909, Private collection.