Self-portrait with Chinese Lanterns (1912) by Egon Schiele. As reproduced in 30,000 Years of Art

The sexy, deathly gaze of Egon Schiele

30,000 Years of Art looks at the Freudian impulses in the great 20th century Viennese artist - born today in 1890

We might think of the subconscious pull of sex and death as something first truly explored by the Surrealists in the 1920s and 30s, but Freudian impulses were quite apparent in the work of earlier artists, such as Egon Schiele, who was born on this day, 12 June, in 1890.

By the time Schiele painted this self-portrait (above), Freud had published ten books, filled with material that was ripe for artistic interpretation.

“Death haunted the vision of life held by Egon Schiele, as did a profound cynicism concerning human nature,” explains our book, 30,000 Years of Art. “In Self-portrait with Chinese Lanterns, Schiele – like his fellow Viennese Expressionist Gustav Klimt – drew upon the psychoanalytic theories of his Viennese compatriot Sigmund Freud to put the psyche of his subject, in this case himself, under the interpretive analysis of the viewer.

“He painted the human body in contorted poses, creating gaunt and emaciated figures, and relied on a subdued, earthy palette broken with strong accents of blood red, as can be seen here in the eponymous Chinese lantern flowers. Their tone reverberates in the mottled red marks on the artist’s neck and his lips, while the emphatically painted dark shirt balances the blotchy textures of his physiognomy.


30,000 Years of Art
30,000 Years of Art

“Despite his premature death, Egon Schiele was a leader of Austrian Expressionism. He was friendly with and influenced by Klimt and his early output shows considerable awareness of the decorative trends of Jugendstil, the German and Austrian version of Art Nouveau, alongside such sources as Japanese woodcuts. More visceral than Klimt, Schiele’s handling of sexuality highlights aggression and the concomitant suffering and isolation it can cause. The essence of Schiele’s achievement was to make the human figure, and sometimes even landscape, a vehicle for the starkest expression of emotion.”

For more on late 19th and early 20th century Viennese art get Art in Vienna 1898-1918; for more on Schiele’s place in the wider sweep of human creativity get 30,000 Years of Art.