This essay is part of an extended and detailed series by Jeanne Willette. You can find other pieces in this series (to date) in the Avant-Garde section of this website.

Key Series: Art and Aesthetics

By Jeanne Willette

According to the late Michel Foucault, an authority on the subject of sex, the repression of what must have been a paradise of free-flowing sexual behavior can be traced back to the seventeenth century. Foucault, a belated Marxist, linked the repression of basic human instincts with the rise of capitalism and the need for a disciplined labor force. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the human race seems to have accepted the total suppression of the drive towards pleasure. Despite this dismal state of affairs, people somehow managed to be fruitful and multiply at alarming rates, so we can assume that sex was carrying on: in England women laid back and thought of their country, in France men spent most of their adult lives in brothels, in Germany, according to Marsden Hartley, Berlin was suffering repressed homosexual desire. But it was only in Vienna, the city that kept Sigmund Freud in business for forty years, that human sexuality emerged as a factor in avant-garde art.

Avant-garde art of the early twentieth century was supposed to be a reflection of modernity, but the artists tended to elide the topic of the modern human condition. Therefore to note the exceptionalism of Vienna is to call attention to the sterility of the other avant-garde movements. Although Matisse loved sensual women, Fauvism in general was mostly a landscape movement, although Picasso had many lovers, as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon suggested, pre-war Cubism was a meditation on artistic vocabularies, and Futurism was all about speed and dynamism. The Die Brücke artists in Dresden came close to the sexual in their paintings of cavorting young nudes frolicking in the glades. The oeuvre of Marcel Duchamp was focused on human or to be more precise, upon male sexuality, but his art lived underground until the sixties. In Vienna, the discourse that Freud was writing emerged visually in the works of two artists in Vienna who were willing to break the social silence on sex, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele.

The willingness of avant-garde artists in Vienna to explore personal behavior and human instincts was a breach of public protocol. As Foucault wrote:

If sex is repressed, that is, condemned to prohibition, nonexistence, and silence, then the mere fact that one is speaking about it has the appearance of a deliberate transgression. A person who holds forth in such language places himself to a certain extent outside the reach of power; he upsets established law; he somehow anticipates the coming freedom. [i]

So it was in 1894 that the Ministry of Education, perhaps unwisely, gave a commission to Gustav Klimt to create “allegories” of selected “faculties” or disciplines for the ceiling of the University of Vienna and Klimt complied in a way that caused an earthquake of consternation from those who preferred that sex stay behind closed doors (or on the couch of the good Dr. Freud) where it belonged. In fact, regardless of the irrefutable presence of human behavior not to mention the human body in the requested disciplines, Medicine, Jurisprudence and Philosophy, Klimt was expected to put humanity sous rature. If one follows Foucault’s definition of transgression, Klimt’s allegory of Philosophy previewed in the 1900 Secession exhibition was “outside the law,” as was Medicine shown in 1901 and Jurisprudence in 1903, both seen at Secession salons. It was the undoubted intention of the University to show the progress of rational thought and science at the beginning of a new century. Instead, Klimt viewed modernity as a passive drift of humanity, devoid of individual agency, plagued by eternal unsolved maladies, disease and old age and hopelessness. Men and women were allegorically nude but stripped of dignity and defense. The nudity was not seen as the eternal state of humanity but was construed by angry critics as nakedness and hence “pornographic,” possibly due to the frank manifestation of female pubic hair, which aroused cries of obscenity.

Gustav Klimt. The University Paintings_ Philosophy, Medicine, Jurisprudence (1899-1907)

Gustav Klimt, The University Paintings: Philosophy, Medicine, Jurisprudence (1899-1907)

It is possible to make a strong argument that a university education is too abstract and too discursive, lacking the very humanity that gives the disciplines of law, medicine, and philosophy their purpose. But the University was none too pleased with the disconcerting human presences and with Klimt’s assessment of the state of modern humans in the (unenlightened) Empire of Austro-Hungary. So intense was the debate over the fate of the paintings that the issue reached the Parliament of Austria. The authorities were unable to resolve the standoff between the University and the artist who refused to be censored and resigned his commission. With funds from his patron, August Lederer, the artist purchased his own works from the government. Lederer received Philosophy in return for his help, and Klimt’s friend Koloman Moser acquired Jurisprudence and Medicine. The fate of this obscene and scandalous “pornographic” trilogy was a tragic one. Because of the Jewish ownership of these works, they were seized by the Nazis and stored along with the rest of the Lederer collection “for safety” at Schloss Immendorf, the residence of a Wehrmacht officer, Baron Rudolf Freudenthan. In 1945, with defeat on their heels, the retreating Nazis cravenly set fire to the Schloss in 1945, leaving us with only black and white photographs of the University paintings.

But the question of the place of human sexuality in the arts continued to be a topic in avant-garde Vienna and, with the younger generation, was knitted into their art. The question is why did human sexuality – i.e., the male response to sexual needs and anxieties – rise to the surface in Vienna and not in other cities? Without psychoanalyzing an entire city, it would be safe to say that, as with the artists of Dresden, the artistic and aesthetic conditions were favorable to such an exploration. In Paris, as is often pointed out, the artists were locked into a public progression of seceding styles that had long ago moved away from the human body. Vienna was not impacted in any meaningful way by Cézanne or Cubism, and in that city, the artists created their own version of “inwardness.” In Vienna, inwardness meant self-examination or self-analysis.

What’s interesting to recount, moreover, is how in 2014 the Courtauld Gallery mounted an exhibition of the erotic paintings by Egon Schiele one hundred years after their execution. The author of The Guardian article on the show, Jonathan Jones, announced that the artist “loved vaginas”. The paintings and drawings on display certainly exhibited Schiele’s interest in female anatomy. While Klimt was a womanizer par excellence, Schiele limited himself to two women, his wife and his mistress, or three women, if one counts his sister, and quite a few little girls. Recently, Eric Kandel[ii] suggested that Schiele’s obsession with his own psyche was due to his experience watching his father go mad from syphilis. This link between sexuality, death and madness was common in the nineteenth century, but while Schiele’s childhood was not unusual in that time, he was rare in that he drew and painted his anxieties about sexuality as if to work through his fears.

Egon Schiele. Seated Woman with Bent Knee (1917)

“Seated Woman with Bent Knee” by Egon Schiele (1917)

Far more than Klimt, who took a kindly interest in the troubled young man, Schiele was defiant and anti-authoritarian, unwilling to cultivate patrons in an art world that existed through networks of benefactors. Unlike Klimt who took care to make sure that his fashionable sitters were surrounded in a cloud of chic, Schiele had no inclination to flatter prospective collectors. He moved away from Vienna to consider his options. Between 1911 and 1912 his self-imposed task was to study the sexual tensions between men and women, and whether Schiele did so because he was part of the “city of analysis” or if he obsessively studied women in suggestive poses because he was attempting to come to terms with the dangers of sex, all we are left with is an extraordinary outpouring of a man’s mind. The “evidence”, if you will, of his psychoanalytic approach to art was hundreds of drawings and paintings, an outpouring of an anxious sensibility of a very brief life.[iii] Such personal research brought trouble for the artist who had moved to the small town of Krumau in 1911, where he lived with his mistress. Schiele was unsparing of himself, endlessly posing before mirrors, studying and examining his own visage and body: twisting and turning, agonizes and masturbating, looking at his own piercing eyes in the mirror. He subjected women and young girls to the same scrutiny, uncovering the secret that dared not speak its name—that women were sexual beings, even the young ones. The villagers did not approve of his unconventional lifestyle, and Schiele’s next stop was Neulengbach. Here in 1912 he faced numerous criminal charges on at least two occasions, although some of the charges were dropped. Charged with public immorality and indecency and rape, he eventually spent twenty-four days in jail.

These two years were probably the years in which a young artist, obsessed with his own sexuality – as are most young men in their early twenties, explored the topic – outgrew the subject and moved on to more adult concerns. Given that he started and stopped and restarted his career in Vienna, Schiele never quite found his place in the art world. The model of patronage set by Klimt was a model that Schiele would not emulate, but he did follow in the older artist’s footsteps in touching the third rail of Viennese life: sex – that great topic that was not to be thought of, whose name was not to be spoken. As Foucault would point out a hundred years later, the vast volume of writing on sex during the great silence attests to a deep awareness of the subject. Like literature and scholarship, art was and is a means of expressing what is floating up to the consciousness of the culture. It is here where Klimt and Schiele meet Freud, and the Jewish doctor practicing the dark of psychoanalysis was hearing stories that the artists were illustrating in a strange partnership of avant-garde provocations. Both Klimt and Schiele died in 1918, ending an era of self-consciousness.

Notes and references

[i] Michel Foucault. The History of Sexuality. An Introduction (New York: Random House, 1978)

[ii] Eric Kandel. ‪The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present (New York: Random House Publishing Group, 1912)

[iii] Jennifer Dyer. Serial Images: The Modern Art of Iteration (LIT Verlag Münster, 2011)

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Jeanne Willette

Jeanne Willette

Art historian and art critic, Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette lives and works in Los Angeles. An art historian at Otis College of Art and Design, the widely published author covers the local art scene and is the publisher of the website Art History Unstuffed. With an international audience, this website and its accompanying podcasts provides the 21st version of learning about art, history, philosophy and theory. Synthesizing the most updated research and commentary on topics in modern and contemporary art and theory, the website issues weekly posts which explain challenging concepts for an audience of art history peers and advanced students of art and philosophy. Designed to built knowledge for the reader, the posts are arranged chronologically and categorically. Beginning art history students are invited to view a series of almost thirty videos, written and produced by Dr. Willette, on the survey of art, an Art History Timeline, from the Caves through Romanticism, accessed through iTunesU and YouTube by thousands of readers. In addition to Art History Unstuffed, Dr. Willette has published a book of her podcasts, Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts is available through the iBooks. Long interested in the creation and construction of discourses, Dr. Willette has published a book on the intellectual matrix of original art critical response to Cubism, The Writing of Cubism: The Construction of a Discourse 1910-1914 and New Artwriting. Creating a Culture of Cyber Criticism, an examination of the production of knowledge in a postmodern age of “little narratives,” both available on her Amazon page.