Tormented prophets of apocalyptic art

Schiele and Soutine both used art to express pathological suffering and confront death

Jeffrey Meyers

Two early 20th-century artists have usually been considered quite separate and distinct: Egon Schiele (1890-1918) in Vienna, a follower of Dürer and Klimt, and Chaim Soutine (1893-1943) in Paris, who rejected the French Cubists and was inspired by Rembrandt and Van Gogh. But both artists were social outcasts who led scandalous lives, swam against the prevailing tides and created figurative art. Alienated from their families, they lived in degrading poverty and had little recognition in their lifetimes. They shared an extreme rejection of classical norms, a tormented vision of life and a savage view of the body in agony.

The personal suffering expressed in the paintings of Schiele and Soutine supplants the traditional mythological images in Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas (Soutine’s raw carcasses look like Marsyas after the jealous Apollo had punished him), and the gruesome religious images in Matthias Grünewald’s Crucifixion and Hans Holbein’s Dead Christ, where suffering is transformed into sacrifice and holiness. The tormented figures of Schiele and Soutine are Christ-like saviours who experience and express the ecstatic pain and emotional intensity of the modern world. Their grotesque, tilted, convulsive distortions emphasise the misery of the human condition and produce in the viewer what Immanuel Kant called the “negative pleasure” of vicarious suffering.

Two contemporary literary descriptions of physical torture put the pathological feelings of the paintings into a clearer perspective: the fictional Anton Ferge’s pleura-shock in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924) and T. E. Lawrence’s torture in Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922). In The Magic Mountain Anton Ferge describes, with excruciating detail, the surgical shock to his pleura during a pneumothorax operation:

The pleura, my friends, is not anything that should be felt of; it does not want to be felt of and it ought not to be. It is taboo. It is covered up with flesh and put away once and for all and nothing ought to come near it. And now he uncovers it and feels all over it. My God, I was sick at my stomach. Horrible, awful; never in my life have I imagined there could be such a sickening feeling, outside hell and its torments.

In Seven Pillars of Wisdom Lawrence, captured by the Turkish enemy during the Arabian campaign, morbidly recounts how a soldier:

. . . began to lash me madly across and across with all his might, while I locked my teeth to endure this thing which lapped itself like flaming wire about my body . . . I could feel only the shapeless weight of pain, not tearing claws, for which I had prepared, but a gradual cracking apart of my whole being by some too-great force whose waves rolled up my spine till they were pent within my brain, to clash terribly together.

“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.

In The Poet (1911) the artist, wearing a large black coat, is flattened against a dark streaked background. His elongated fingers grasp the wrist of one hand, which is held above his chest. His raised knees expose his red-tipped penis. His twisted, almost severed head, barely supported by a reed-thin neck and resting on a white pillow, falls onto his shoulder at an unnaturally sharp right angle. His hair juts straight out, as if he were electrocuted. His forehead is deeply grooved, one ear is flat, the other sticks out, his eyes are half-closed between high-arched crescent eyebrows, his nose is smudged, his lips thick and tight. Schiele was actually a published poet. Like the painter, the poet in his most contorted picture suffers the martyrdom of art.

Death and the Maiden (1915-1916) shows Death, clad in black but with gnarled bare legs, clutching the maiden with his face pressed into the back of her head. Her pencil-thin arms embrace him as she leans forward on bended knees and desperately rests her head on his comfortless chest. The hem of her primitive, Wagnerian-heroine skirt is cut into rough jagged points and seems to cut into her soft thigh. Though doomed, she holds on for dear life.

In Mother with Two Children (1917) the mother is seated before a cloudy orange background, wearing a wide-hooded monkish robe. She has an unmaternal, skull-like, hollow-eyed head and desperately clasps her two small children. The older child, moribund and grey-faced, with bushy black hair, reclines on her lap. The infant, swaddled in a colourful striped suit, has black eyes and a jowly white face. In this ghoulish, spooky picture, strongly influenced by Edvard Munch, the children, in a death grip, seem inevitably doomed.

The parents in The Family (1918) are naked. The handsome muscular husband in the rear, with shoulders tilted downward and right arm dropping over his bent leg, looks straight out at the viewer. The dark-haired full-bosomed wife, leaning against him, also has high bent legs and looks off to the right with a mournful expression. Their bulbous-headed infant sits between his mother’s legs and also gazes off to the right. All three, though not distorted, are physically connected but emotionally detached.

Schiele’s comparatively gentle painting influenced Stanley Spencer’s naked family in Double Nude Portrait: The Artist and His Second Wife (1938). In this version the bespectacled, hairy-chested husband’s dangling sexual parts press against the thigh of his wife. Reclining across the painting, with arms supporting her head and legs spread, she fills the space in front of him. The husband looks down, the wife looks toward the left. As in Schiele, they are physically close but emotionally disconnected.

Soutine, the tenth child of an impoverished clothes-mender, was scarred by his childhood in the Jewish ghetto near Minsk and felt life was nothing but pain and suffering. He endured stomach ulcers and epileptic fits, and was a mass of illnesses, obsessions, delusions, jealousies and fears. Unlike the polite, gentlemanly and well-behaved Schiele, Soutine was a crude, boorish barbarian, a sort of higher primate, whose ugliness, filth and coarse manners became legendary in Montparnasse. Friends recalled, “His dark face and burning eyes created a tormented expression; his body huddled into his coat, he seemed a frightened, suspicious man . . . He was a man in torment. He paints a great deal, but he will suddenly slash at the canvas, tear at it, like one possessed.”

Jean Chardin’s 18th-century The Rayfish (c.1728) shows Soutine was inspired by a great predecessor. In Soutine’s Still Life with Rayfish, his fish stands upright and unsupported, its dangerous sting-tail hidden, not flattened but humanised. It has a pointed head, drooping eyes, open mouth and wide wing-like supplicating arms. The red in the fish is accentuated by the jumbled pile of tomatoes on a wavy cloth in the foreground. Even this triangular fish, soon to be killed and eaten, has an anguished and tormented expression.

Soutine’s paintings are molten, horrific, demonic explosions of cadmium red and haemorrhages of carmine colour. His uniformed cooks and page boys look like madmen in an Edgar Poe House of Usher hotel. Pastry Cook (1923) portrays the young man’s large forehead, high wing-like ears that could carry him aloft, drooping asymmetrical eyes, long thin nose, pursed red lips and narrow pointed chin. He is seated in a fragile wooden chair that reaches the height of his tight white cap adorned with a cloudy flopping top and is encased in a huge billowing white uniform, buttoned on the left side, with broad square shoulders. His hands, extending out of the puffy sleeves and holding a red handkerchief, are folded on his lap. Exhausted and miserable, he looks ready to collapse in a hospital. By contrast to this weak and pathetic creature, August Sander’s contemporary photograph of a bald, stout pastry cook in a Cologne hotel in 1928 seems well-fed, satisfied and proud of his calling.

The Madwoman (c.1919) is executed with violent slashes of paint that suggest her disturbed condition. She is twisted and contorted, her neckless head is hunched into her wide sloping shoulders, her left hand is defensively crossed against her unnaturally long right arm, which hangs down to her right thigh. She wears a tilted, misshapen green hat, and has straggling strands of black hair, widely-set eyes, flat nose, twisted mouth and low squared-off chin. The poor creature, the very essence of fear and misery, is in a hopeless and incurable condition.

Soutine’s Self-Portrait is a grotesque caricature of his unusually crude and ugly face. Sitting sideways and turned toward the viewer, he wears a hideous greeny-yellowy jacket with a high round shoulder and an elongated right arm. He boasts thick pasted-down black hair, one black and one obscured eye, a huge nose that juts out like a clown’s, thick protruding lips and battered boxer’s ears. Maurice Tuchman called this study in humiliation, “a pitiless, ruthless mask, ridden with self-contempt.” His portrayal of himself as a lump of deformity looks more idiotic than his 1919 painting of The Village Idiot.

Page Boy at Maxim’s (c.1927) portrays the hotel servant dressed in fiery red uniform with a tilted flat red cap on his black hair and shiny gold buttons down the centre of his jacket. His left shoulder is jerked high above the right. His eyes are blackened as if he were blind, his nose and ears are twisted. He sports a small, square Hitler moustache and his narrow chin is propped up by a high tight collar. He stands with legs apart and knees slightly bent in a deferential pose, and with one palm open as if obsequiously soliciting a tip. Attractive uniforms give the servants prestige but also mark their menial status. These servants do not, like Thomas Mann’s handsome and charming eponymous waiter in The Confessions of Felix Krull (1954), enjoy culinary treats and sexual favors in a grand Frankfurt hotel. Soutine’s underlings are more like those in Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, which portrays a luxurious Paris hotel in the 1930s and servants who express contempt for the upper classes they serve. The cook routinely spits in the soup, the waiters dip their greasy fingers in the gravy. “Roughly speaking,” Orwell wrote, “the more one pays for food, the more sweat and spittle one is obliged to eat with it.”

The figure in Seated Choirboy (1927-28), dressed like a future cardinal, wears a long brilliant red cassock that reaches to the floor and, like the hotel servants, a cap on the back of his head. Portrayed in a three-quarter view, looking to the right and seated on a rickety chair, he hides his clasped hands in his wide sleeves. He has large eyes and a long nose protruding over his tight red lips. His tense and timorous expression suggests uneasiness in his spiritual role.

Soutine influenced the Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning, who admired his thick impasto texture and wrote that he “builds up a surface that looks like a material, like a substance. There’s a kind of transfiguration, a certain fleshiness in his work . . . His pictures had a glow that came from within the paintings — it was another kind of light.” De Kooning’s biographers concluded that “Soutine helped give him the fortitude to make art that disappointed taste and stood outside the fashion of the time.”

The psychologically penetrating paintings of Schiele and Soutine reflect the inexorable movement toward destruction in the First and Second World Wars. War weakened Schiele, who served in the Austrian army but never saw action and died in the 1918 influenza pandemic, and victimised Soutine, who could not get proper medical treatment for his perforated ulcer while hiding in occupied France. Their pictures foreshadow the horrors of the Gulag and of Auschwitz. Schiele’s emaciated bodies — entangled, twisted and tormented — look like concentration camp survivors. Soutine would have been sent to a death camp if the Nazis had caught him.

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