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Schiele, Hermits

Egon Schiele, Hermits, 1912, oil on canvas, 71-1/4 x 71-1/4 inches (Leopold Museum, Vienna). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music playing) Steven: We're in the Leopold Museum in Vienna and we're looking at Egon Schiele's The Hermits. It's a large, almost perfectly square canvas. Beth: This dates from 1912 when Schiele was only 22. He was an incredibly precocious painter. Steven: I would say so. It's a really bleak image. You have two figures that are so closely entwined, they almost seem to have merged. They're on this barest reference of a ground and then in back of them, there's a kind of fractured atmosphere that almost reminds you of a stained glass window. Beth: It's hard to call it an atmosphere because it's mostly golds and browns. It almost evokes a medieval altar piece and from that grounds that you just referred to, sprouts two wilted, very small flowers right next to the artist's signature. Steven: Well, that signature is interesting. The artist has scratched his name in, not once, but three times, suggesting that there are almost three authors to this painting. We're not sure about the identity of the two figures nor are we even sure that they're meant to be specific figures. Beth: The figure on the left does look like Schiele, in the way that we often see him posing in photographs. Steven: And some art historians have suggested that the figure to the right, the older bearded figure might be Gustav Klimt, but for me it's a very Christ-like figure, a very much of a kind of father figure. Beth: The bearded figure doesn't really have eyes, so there's a way in which he looks skull-like to me and perhaps dead or sleeping. And the eyes of the other figure are so prominent and alert. Steven: You know, there's a long tradition of painting the blind as seers, as people who actually have a kind of extraordinary vision. Beth: A kind of inner vision. Steven: That's right. Beth: This painting is certainly meant not to be naturalistic, but to rather be a kind of poetic representation of an inner vision or a summing up of Schiele's experiences. In fact, that's how he described it in a letter. Steven: There's a sense that he is fracturing the visual world. Not only is the atmosphere fractured, the figures feel fractured. Beth: It's interesting that there are two heads, only two hands and one foot and that foot is really planted in the ground or what seems to be a ground and so it seems like a root from which these two figures emerge. Steven: It's true. Beth: Schiele is really calling attention to the materiality of the paint. There's a real sense of the activity of the artist here. Steven: It's true, that culminates in a kind of agitation and becomes almost a kind of psychic state. Beth: What we see in the early 20th century, is this interest in expressionism, right, an interest in representing those inner states and experiences and interest in anxiety and tension. Steven: You know, it's so interesting because here we are, looking at this Austrian artist, this member of the Austrian avant-garde in the early 20th century and this moment of deep anxiety, but one who is going back to the byzantine tradition in some ways. You could be gone by saying look at the way in which the background almost functions as a gold field. It reminds me of byzantine icons and the way in which those medieval paintings were attempts to deal with anxiety and fear, in a sense that being brought here to the modern world, to our own modern anxieties. Beth; The title is Hermits and so these art religious figures who've retreated into the desert or into the wilderness into some kind of private space for meditation and so there is a joining of the religious and the psychic here. Steven: But in the early 20th century, for the group of artists that Schiele was working with, the idea of the religious could be a cultural religion. Beth: Or the artist as prophet in the modern era. (piano music playing)