A Woman’s Touch: The Dialogue between Female Sexuality and the Concept of Artist as Genius in Egon Schiele’s “Observed in a Dream” and “Preacher”

Written by Erika Kindsfather
Edited by Gabby Marcuzzi Herie

Fin-de-siècle Vienna was the site of a thriving young philosophical and artistic milieu, yet the individuals contributing to these intellectual circles were predominantly male.[i] With the exclusion of women from male-dominated intellectual circles, their schools of thought gave rise to misogynistic theories. Working as an artist at the start of the twentieth century, Egon Schiele held professional connections to these circles throughout his career.[ii] After Schiele’s debut exhibition in 1909 as the leading member of the Neukunstgruppe,[iii] a collective the young artist formed with a group of classmates at Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts that defied traditional art historical values and practices, the general public received his art with anxiety and hostility. The Neue Freie Presse, a Viennese newspaper of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, asserted that Schiele aimed “to depict obscene objectives and activities.”[iv] As many contemporary discussions of modern art history acknowledge, views such as theses are a result of the traditional bourgeois attitudes that permeated the Viennese press and public sphere in the early twentieth century.

Aware of the opposition that Schiele faced during his lifetime,[v] male art historian Tobias Natter adopts a glorifying tone while discussing Schiele and his contemporaries,[vi] suggesting that the bourgeois press’s hostility in response to their work now attests to their artistic genius. I will problematize the concept of male artistic genius and subvert eulogizing accounts of Egon Schiele and his body of work by examining his treatment of himself as a subject in comparison to his representation of women. I will argue that Schiele saw himself as a deliverer of truths about humanity and gender difference through his depiction of the body in isolated space. As the body became a site that was evidential of a human’s internal consciousness for fin-de-siècle scholars, I will show how Schiele handled his own body to emphasize a spiritual layer of manhood, while his renderings of nude women lacked this psychologized complexity.

Natter asserts that “the naked body for Schiele was multifaceted, and was a great deal more than merely a vehicle for the expression of erotic desire.”[vii] This is a generalist perspective on Schiele’s portrayal of the nude body that neglects to differentiate his representation of women in comparison to that of men and also fails to take social consequences of gender into account. Natter continues to exclude female voices from his discussion of Schiele and his mentor Gustav Klimt, going so far as to reject what he deems “so-called feminist research”[viii] for its criticism of Klimt’s work as reducing women to passive, sexualized symbols and objects of erotic desire.[ix] Feminist interventions in fin-de-siècle art historical scholarship are not welcome by Natter, who preoccupies himself with the objective of asserting the bohemian male artist as a martyr and victim of the confining canon of pre-modern bourgeois culture. Natter’s only passing mention of female scholarship is his contemptuous dismissal of feminist research, particularly that which was critical of the implications of the male artist’s gaze directed at the female nude. The rest of his evidentiary sources come from letters and writings about Schiele by male-dominated early twentieth century publications and correspondences between the artist and his male supporters.[x]

To situate the discourse of gender in early twentieth century Austro-Hungary, I will examine the views of philosopher Otto Weininger’s writing about human sexuality and consciousness. Though many sources exist on the topic,[xi] Weininger worked out of Vienna during roughly the same period as Schiele and can thus provide insight into gender discourses during Schiele’s career. In his 1903 dissertation Geschlecht und Charakter (Sex and Character) Weininger wrote,

“woman is only sexual, man is also sexual… man is accordingly aware of his sexuality, while woman is totally unaware of hers… because she is nothing but sexuality, because she is sexuality itself… Put very bluntly: man possesses his penis, but woman is possessed by her vagina.”[xii]

This demonstrates Weininger’s preoccupation with grounding gender difference in the physical body, namely genitalia. In Weininger’s writing, a woman is robbed of agency over her sexuality and essentially becomes a vessel through which her sexual impulses act. When a woman’s psyche does not exist uninfluenced by her physicality, womanhood becomes conflated with the sex organs that she no longer simply possesses, but rather becomes.

To avoid positioning Weininger’s undertaking of ‘decoding’ female sexuality and consciousness as an isolated case in Viennese scholarship, I will examine the persistence of misogynistic philosophical assertions made by male scholars working in Vienna, particularly in the case of twentieth-century Viennese psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. In Freud’s essay On Female Sexuality,[xiii] written in 1931, seventeen years after Schiele’s death, he seeks to reveal realities of gender difference with theories on the status of female sexuality. His work to address the enigma of female consciousness and ground his claims by substantiating the otherness of woman reveals male anxiety toward her changing status in modernity, which threatened patriarchal norms [xiv]. The male intellectual’s continued interest in subjugating the potential of female sexual autonomy by defining and differentiating the sexual nature of women in clinical terms reaffirms the pervasiveness of twentieth-century male scholarship on sexuality and consciousness.

Figure 1. Egon Schiele, “Die Traum Beschaute (Observed in a Dream), 1911. ouache, watercolour, pencil, 47 x 32 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

In the watercolor and pencil work titled Die Traum Beschaute (Observed in a Dream) from 1911 (Fig. 1), Schiele paints a nude woman viewed from the front on a centrally positioned white and black surface. The side confines of the picture plane cut off the woman’s open legs so that only her thighs, a pink garter strap (on her left thigh), and the top of her pink stockings are visible. Schiele renders her head with contrasting patches of pink and white, which suggest a rosy flush or makeup. She closes one eye while the other is hidden behind a black cloth that is partially draped over her tilted head. Schiele places the woman’s hands on either side of her vulva, holding open her labia minora, which occupies the center of the picture plane and has been rendered in a bright red-orange color.

Schiele’s titling of this work identifies the beholder as a voyeur looking at the nude woman, who is unaware of our gaze as she dreams, and, as Schiele implies, masturbates. I argue that Die Traum Beschaute (Observed in a Dream) not only demonstrates Schiele’s interest in “such taboo subjects as masturbation”[xv] but also serves as a projection of his own sexual fantasies and desire to depict female eroticism for his own pleasure. The woman observed holds her labia open but does not seem to engage in any masturbatory action, though the pink flush of her face and hands could suggest arousal. I read this as Schiele’s desire to make her sex organs fully available to the viewer, while implying that the eroticism of the woman’s dream is for male consumption rather than her own pleasure. Because Schiele is projecting his own fantasies onto his rendering of the model’s nude body, his gaze is inherently objectifying as he strays from “his models’ genuine responses”.[xvi] His use of pink to guide the beholder’s eye diagonally from the line on the model’s stockings to the pinks of her fingers and finally upwards to her erect nipples and rosy cheeks provides the viewer with a unified reading of her body as hyper-sexualized in its entirety. Schiele’s use of stockings and jewelry to code the eroticism of the female body plays into Weininger’s theory on sexuality as engulfing the female’s selfhood by equating femininity and femaleness. With the signifiers of femininity also serving as the symbols of the woman’s eroticism, femininity becomes conflated with female sexuality entirely. The visual guides of pink centralize the woman’s anatomy, which sits at the point of the triangular diagonals created by the line from her stockings to her fingertips. This movement from artificial visual codes of femininity to the centrality of female sex organs shows Schiele’s objective to conflate the woman with the visual language of an available vagina and hyper-eroticized body, thus visualizing Weininger’s idea that a woman’s sexuality and personality are one and the same.

Returning to Freud’s scholarship, Schiele’s subject of the dream in his art becomes significant beyond its implications of a voyeuristic audience. Freud’s work Interpretation of Dreams, which preceded Schiele’s Die Traum Beschaute (Observed in a Dream), details the psychoanalyst’s theory that dreams reveal the desires of the unconscious, or the essence of the self that one suppresses.[xvii] As this theory would assert, the woman’s eroticized dreaming (and potentially masturbating) body reveals that her sexuality is at the essence of her unconscious state. Because Schiele depicts a dreaming woman in such a hyper-sexualized way, I suggest that he perceives or projects his own desire for sexuality to be at the core of the female existence – placing the control of the nude body entirely in the fantasies of the male artist’s gaze. Natter’s generous assertion that “the naked body for Schiele… was a great deal more than merely a vehicle for the expression of erotic desire”[xviii] is not supported by the visual and cultural implications of Die Traum Beschaute (Observed in a Dream).

Schiele’s own writings ground the validity of my use of these fin-de-siècle Viennese philosophical texts. In his prose poem of 1910, titled Portrait of the Pale, Silent Girl, Schiele writes, “The girl came along. I discovered her face, her subconscious, her workings girl’s hands, I loved everything about her…”[xix] This passage reveals that Schiele was not only aware of the concept of the subconscious proposed by Freud, but also perceived a woman’s as discoverable by the male eye. The poem, written one year before his creation of Die Traum Beschaute (Observed in a Dream) and ten years after Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams,[xx] confirms Schiele’s awareness of the discourses circulating in the Viennese intellectual milieu of his time.

That being said, Otto Weininger also addresses the concept of genius in Geschlecht und Charakter (Sex and Character), reserving the identity for men only. He states;

“there are women with undoubted traits of genius, but there is no female genius, and there never has been one… and there never can be one. Those who are in favour of laxity in these matters, and are anxious to extend and enlarge the idea of genius in order to make it possible to include women, would simply by such action destroy the concept of genius.”[xxi]

With women systematically excluded from the title of genius (both in their limited access to education and fields of study that yielded these male “geniuses” as well as the theorization of the notion of genius itself), it is important to analyze how Egon Schiele saw himself as belonging to this category. In his letter to his uncle Leopold Czihaczek, Schiele muses,

“my contact with reality enables me to say this: small-minded people are vain, and too small-minded to be capable of pride, and great people are too great to be capable of vanity…the most precious thing in my view is my own greatness.”[xxii]

This narcissistic perception of himself as a great man and artist translates into his self-portraiture, where he often used religious visual language that suggests the martyrdom of the artist who suffered for his work.[xxiii]

Figure 2. Egon Schiele, “Prediger (Preacher)” 1912. Gouache, watercolour, pencil. 47 x 30.8 cm.

In his 1913 watercolor Prediger (Preacher: Nude Self-portrait in a Blue-green Shirt) (Fig. 2), Schiele depicts himself from the side in a standing pose, wearing blocky blue-green fabric that covers part of his arms – leaving his torso and legs completely bare. His left arm hangs at his side while his right arm bends outwardly at the elbow. He renders his hands and body using sharp black lines and fills in his flesh with muted beige paint, supplemented with highlighting rips of orange. He casts his gaze downward and tilts his head outward toward the viewer. His eyes are open and his facial features are blocky and sharp.

Schiele’s deliberate titling of the work Prediger (Preacher) draws certain visual elements to attention. In the visual culture of German art history, hands play a significant role in portraying religious meaning. This is exemplified in Albrecht Dürer’s Schiele’s hands, therefore, function as a signifier of the spiritual layer of his character. The concept of himself as a preacher also delivers a message of how Schiele understood his role as an artist in society. Considering his self-serving statement, “my paintings will have to be hung in edifices that look like temples”,[xxiv] which appears in the same letter to his uncle as his claims of his own greatness, I conclude that Schiele saw himself as a deliverer of sacred conversations to the public through his work as an artist. As an artist using religious references in his self-portraiture, Schiele could have been referencing Dürer’s Selbstbildnis im Pelzrock (Self Portrait in a Fur Stole) (Fig. 3) directly with the symbolism of his hands. Dürer’s hands also exemplify the idea of the divine hand of the artist, or the mythologizing of the artist’s talent as God-given. Judging by Schiele’s egotistic perception of himself, reflected in his letters and poems, Schiele’s intention could have been to assign himself the persona of an artistic genius with God-given skill.

Figure 3. Albrecht Dürer, “Selbstbildnis im Pelzrock (Self Portrait in a Fur Stole)” 1500. Oil on basewood, 67 x 48 cm.

Ultimately, Schiele equates his physical body with his self-fashioned narrative using religious visual codes. His body becomes a sacred space responsible for the delivery of messages to humanity on the level of a biblical preacher. Though he is nude, he does not place emphasis on his sexuality, but rather on his status as an artistic genius. Schiele handles the female body without the same attention to subject detail, instead focusing on the sexual nature of the exposed female body for the consumption of the male voyeur. Though his portrayal of himself as a nude religious figure is nuanced and ‘multifaceted’, as Tobias Natter would say,[xxv] Die Traum Beschaute (Observed in a Dream) lacks any mythologizing narrative or ambiguity. It is problematic for the art historian to make generalizing claims about nude figures that group male and female nudes together, as this approach disregards the historical inequalities that the patriarchal social construct of gender creates in society. Judith Butler’s theory of gender as a “performative act”[xxvi] is evident in the fashioning of the gendered bodies of the nude woman in Die Traum Beschaute (Observed in a Dream) and Schiele’s intentional masculine conflation of himself with the identity of a deified genius in Prediger (Preacher). That being said, in handling representations of nude bodies from the twentieth-century it is crucial to take into account gendered discourses of the time, which have the power to shape the artist’s view of consciousness and gender.

[i] Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt, Tobias G. Natter, and Max Hollein. The Naked Truth: Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka and Other Scandals. München: Prestel. 2005. 42.
[ii] Jane Kallir and Egon Schiele. Egon Schiele: life and work. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003.
[iii] Jane Kallir and Egon Schiele. “The Break: 1909-10” in Egon Schiele: life and work. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003. 77.
[iv] Neue Freie Presse, 1 December 1909. Quoted in: Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt, Tobias G. Natter, and Max Hollein. The Naked Truth: Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka and Other Scandals. München: Prestel. 2005. 38.
[v] Namely the Neuglenbach Affair, imprisonment, etc. Alessandra Comini. Schiele in prison. Greenwich, Conn: New York Graphic Society. 1973.
[vi] Tobias G. Natter, “On the Limits of the Exibitable: The Naked Body and Public Space in Viennese Art Around 1900” in The Naked Truth: Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka and Other Scandals. München: Prestel. 2005. 38.
[vii] Ibid, 6.
[viii] Ibid.
[ix] Ibid.
[x] Ibid.
[xi]Christina von Braun, “Shame and Shamelessness” in The Naked Truth: Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka and Other Scandals. München: Prestel. 2005.  43-54.
[xii] Otto Weininger. Geschlecht Und Charakter: Eine Prinzipielle Untersuchung. Wien, 1903. Quoted in: Christina von Braun, “Shame and Shamelessness” in The Naked Truth: Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka and Other Scandals. München: Prestel. 2005.  43-54.
[xiii] Sarah Kofman, “The Other” in The enigma of woman: woman in Freud’s writings. Translated by Catharine Porter. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1985. 33-36.
[xiv] Ibid. 13.
[xv] Kallir, “ On His Own: 1911-12” in Egon Schiele: life and work, 111.
[xvi] Ibid. 15.
[xvii] Sigmund Freud, and Peter Gay. ”The Interpretation of Dreams” in The Freud Reader. New York: W.W. Norton, 1989. 129-142.
[xviii] Ibid. 6.
[xix] Egon Schiele. “Sketch for a Self-Portrait” Quoted in: Jean-Louis Gaillemin, and Egon Schiele. “Documents” in Egon Schiele: the egoist. London: Thames & Hudson, 2006. 131.
[xx] Ibid. 17.
[xxi] Otto Weininger. Geschlecht Und Charakter: Eine Prinzipielle Untersuchung. Wien, 1903. (Authorized Translation from the Sixth German Edition). 115.
[xxii] Egon Schiele. September 1, 1911. Quoted in: Jean-Louis Gaillemin, and Egon Schiele. “Documents” in Egon Schiele: the egoist. London: Thames & Hudson, 2006. 139.
[xxiii] Jean-Louis Gaillemin, and Egon Schiele. “From Paradise to Prison” in Egon Schiele: the egoist. London: Thames & Hudson, 2006. 70.
[xxiv] Ibid. 22.
[xxv] Ibid. 6.
[xxvi] Judith Butler. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” in Theatre Journal 40.4 (1988): 519. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. Dec. 2015.

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