'There’s no compromise in Schiele, no pandering to the public taste'

Nude Self Portrait, 1910, by Egon Schiele (1890–1918), 17in by 103/4in, Albertina, Vienna, Austria. Bridgeman Images.

John Taylor says:
‘I first saw Schiele’s work at the Neue Galerie on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, together with work by his friend and mentor Gustav Klimt. There’s no compromise in Schiele, no pandering to the public taste. “Here I am,” he seems to say. “Take me or leave me.” My creative awakening as a musician took place in Birmingham in the late 1970s, where I was witness to the phenomenal power of the English punk-rock revolution. I saw the same dark power in Schiele. What angst! I see Schiele as the artist who introduced us to 20th-century man: complex and full of energy and ideas, not all of them wholesome.’

The musician and songwriter John Taylor is best known as the bass-guitarist of Duran Duran.

John McEwen comments:
‘To be an engine driver is probably no longer every boy’s dream as it was in Egon Schiele’s childhood. He never wanted to be one, although he could hardly have had more inducement. A grandfather had been an important railway builder. His father was a stationmaster at Tulln, on a mainline near Vienna. His uncle, also his godfather and, later, his guardian, was a railway engineer. His elder sister worked for the railways and married a railway executive.

Schiele’s earliest surviving drawings, dating from when he was seven, are of trains. They show a remarkably precocious eye for accuracy and detail. But it was drawing, rather than the railway, that was his obsession from even before his second birthday. The art critic Arthur Roessler, his friend, mentor and biographer, wrote: ‘The feeling of loneliness, for him a loneliness that was totally chilling, was in him from childhood onwards.’

At 15, this chilling isolation was compounded by the premature death of his father. Schiele was devastated: ‘I don’t know whether there’s anyone at all who remembers my noble father with such sadness. I don’t know who is able to understand why I visit those places where my father used to be and where I can feel the pain.’ He resented his mother for what he considered her neglect of his father’s memory. As that rare English historian of Teutonic art Frank Whitford, who died recently, wrote in a later biography (Thames & Hudson, 1981), in Schiele’s often harrowing portraits ‘we are never allowed to forget… the skeleton beneath’.

‘Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude’ is at The Courtauld Gallery, London WC2, from October 23 to January 18, 2015 (020–7848 2526; www.courtauld.ac.uk)

THis article was first published in Country Life, July 9, 2014