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“Cardinal and Nun (Caress)”, 1912, by Egon Schiele


Schiele’s confrontation with death, sickness and pathology prepared the way for his art. His biographer Alessandra Comini described his grim background: “His father had contracted syphilis just prior to his marriage. However, he refused to admit that he had the disease, would not have it treated, and soon infected his young wife. A taciturn serious man, but capable of fiery outbursts of temper, he died insane at the age of forty-four, when Egon was fourteen years old.” Schiele remained desperately poor and in January 1911 lamented, “I haven’t been able to work for days. I don’t even have any wrapping paper. I have headaches. I am chained . . . I can’t buy a single canvas; I want to paint but have no colours. I am sick.” In 1912 he was arrested and convicted for obscenity. One of his erotic drawings was ceremonially burnt in the courtroom and he was sent to prison.

Schiele’s landscapes, such as The Small Town, are linear and straight, with peak-roofed houses huddled cosily together on the banks of the Moldau, colourful window shutters and washing hanging peacefully from the clothes lines. But (like Soutine) his portraits, writes Patrick Werkner, “exhaust all the possibilities of bodily expression, every area of ugliness and morbidity, and subjects the organism to a succession of near-terminal ordeals”.

Cardinal and Nun (1912), a reaction against Schiele’s stifling Catholic background, portrays a blasphemous clerical caress. Both figures are bare legged and on their knees as in prayer, clasping each other with their faces almost touching. She is fully clothed in nun’s habit, he wears a cardinal’s regalia, creating a triangular red background to her black garment. His expression is lecherous, hers is fearful, trying vainly to hold back but finally submitting to him.
The howl in Self-Portrait Screaming (1910) is a crucial link between the screams of Edvard Munch and Francis Bacon. Wearing a collarless blue-and-red striped jacket open to his thin bony chest, with his head cut off at the scalp, he has a corrugated forehead, thick raised eyebrows, half-closed eyes and sightless eye-sockets. His turned-up nose and protruding ears accentuate the wide open mouth, showing a thick pink tongue and a single remaining tooth hanging from the upper jaw to emphasise the pain of the human condition.

In the Nude Self-Portrait, Kneeling (1910) his arms and shoulders, and his right leg extended in an impossible yoga-like contortion, form two precariously balanced squares in the upper and lower parts of his tilted body. He has a narrow tubercular chest, oversized head, wild windblown brown hair, closed eyes, handsome nose and mouth, strong chin and jaw. His penis and testicles dangle beneath a blue bush of pubic hair. His right-hand fingers rest on his elongated thigh, and the splayed fingers of his left hand push into the air, as if he were surrendering to unseen forces and helplessly begging for mercy.
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