The critical landscape: Egon Schiele is famed for his figures, but many of his works were landscapes. Elizabeth Clegg reviews the first exhibition devoted to them, at the Leopold Museum, Vienna
Apollo, Jan, 2005 by Elizabeth Clegg
Echoing claims made for the show of landscapes by Gustav Klimt at the Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna (reviewed in APOLLO in February 2003), the case for the survey of landscapes by Egon Schiele at the same city's Leopold Museum insists on the high proportion of the artist's output falling within this category and on earlier commentators' relative, and paradoxical, indifference to it. Both assertions prove better justified in the case of Schiele. Over sixty per cent of the paintings in Jane Kallir's Schiele catalogue raisonne of 1990/98 are defined as 'landscapes'; yet this contribution to the genre has only recently become the subject of a monograph--Kimberly A. Smith's wide-ranging study Between Ruin and Renewal: Egon Schiele's Landscapes--and is only now the focus of an exhibition.
Although this is also the first show to be devoted to Schiele at the Leopold Museum, the private collection of Rudolf Leopold on which this institution is based has long been known for its extensive Schiele holdings. As underlined by the high proportion of items from that collection to be found within the current temporary display--eighteen out of fifty-one paintings on canvas, wood or cardboard and thirteen out of twenty-nine works on paper--varieties of landscape constitute one of its great strengths, with the most outstanding pictures clearly able to hold their own with its major figure paintings by Schiele, such as Hermits of 1912, the large allegorical self-portrait with Klimt. Leopold has, of course, done rather more than 'merely' acquire a good many Schiele landscapes. Of around fifty works newly identified in the catalogue of paintings incorporated within his Schiele monograph of 1972 (not included, that is to say, in the 1930 and 1966 catalogues published by Otto Kallir-Nirenstein) most are classifiable as landscapes, notably of the early years (1906-10).
That monograph may also be said to have pioneered the topographical approach to the study of Schiele's many paintings of his mother's birthplace, the small southern Bohemian town of Krumau (now Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic). And the fruits of this research are now made more vividly accessible to a new generation through the design and layout of the opening section of the exhibition, which seems in part to reflect the clearer topographical exposition of Franz Wischin's 1994 volume on Schiele and Krumau. The conclusions reached in 1972 regarding Schiele's other landscapes, notably his remarkable trees, gathered in the second section of the show, are likewise assumed to have stood the test of time, being restated, sometimes word for word, in the relevant entries in the catalogue.
One of the earliest forerunners of Rudolf Leopold as a keen collector of landscapes by Schiele--the Viennese critic Arthur Roessler, who served as the artist's early champion, tireless mentor, informal 'agent' and influential biographer (the relationship was recently the subject of a path-breaking exhibition at the Wien Museum)--was also one of the first to explain his attraction to this aspect of the oeuvre. Roessler's misgivings about Schiele as a figure painter partially adumbrate those often implicit in the now familiar observations of scholars on the self-consciously 'performative', rather than directly revelatory, character of so many of the figural works. Reviewing the Schiele exhibition held at the Galerie Arnot in the winter of 1914-15, Roessler wrote that 'landscapes such as the one entitled Setting sun' (a complex, lyrical 'treescape', acquired by him in 1913 and sold on to Leopold forty years later) 'and some of the pictures of "old towns" evince such purity and tenderness of emotion and are so melodious in their appeal that one readily prefers them to the ecstatic figural images, which seem to have issued from the painful shuddering of a soul racked by convulsions.' And it was, he implied, precisely because the landscape subjects were essentially 'found', rather than 'staged', that Schiele was able to reveal more of himself through them.