Self-Portrait Pulling Down an Eyelid, 1910
Chalk, watercolor, and opaque color
44.3 x 30.5 cm
I have it in me to record . . . to want to explore, to invent, to discover, with all the means at my disposal, which already threaten to ignite and consume themselves . . . and to shed light on the darkest eternities of our little world. . . . So I am constantly creating more, seemingly endless new works out of myself. . . . I am so rich that I must give myself away.
—Egon Schiele (1)
Images of the human body predominate in the works on paper of Egon Schiele (1890, Tulln, Austria–1918, Vienna). These self-portraits and depictions of female nudes do not follow one conventional approach. Rather his nudes in particular revolutionized the art world through his elevation of the erotic to the level of high art from its former designation as pornography or use in caricature. His interest in self-portraits was unusual for the time and reflected a preoccupation with his own life and mind. The artist developed an instantly recognizable, personal style of Expressionism that nonetheless borrows from the Vienna Secession (1897–1939) in its “decorative use of flat surfaces and flowing ornamental lines.” (2)
Schiele did not derive much encouragement of his artistic talents from his family who expected him to follow in his father’s footsteps as a railroad official. Instead, he sought out the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt (1862–1918). Twenty-eight years older than the artist, Klimt became a father figure to Schiele both in terms of his art and his lifestyle. Their approaches to portraiture share undeniable compositional similarities, including the long format, flowing lines, ornamental elements, and even types of clothing. However, while Klimt used color decoratively, often on his subjects’ apparel, Schiele deployed it to express internal, psychic moods. With their contorted bodies, asymmetrical poses, and jagged contours, Schiele’s works also show greater concern for structure and line. Though Klimt’s paintings often celebrate beauty, Schiele’s intentionally underscore ugliness, explicit sexuality, or morbidity.
From early on Schiele was interested in self-portraiture. Before he even passed the exam for entry into the Akademie der Bildenden Künste (Academy of Fine Arts) in Vienna in 1906, he had painted ten portraits of himself. Many of his self-portraits are considered symbolic for he often depicted himself as a monk or hermit, and after 1914, as a martyred saint. (3) Self-Portrait Pulling Down an Eyelid, (Selbstbildnis mit herabgezogenem Augenlid, 1910) exemplifies his simultaneous indebtedness to and departure from Klimt’s work. He used bright, decorative colors reminiscent of Klimt for his clothing while posing with a new expressive body language. His v-shaped fingers sink into his face, pulling down his eye, cheek, and mouth. Along with the tilted head, the placement of the figure on the right side also produces compositional asymmetry. The gesture suggests the weight of Schiele’s thoughts and feelings. Other self-portraits reveal Schiele’s preoccupations with death, love, sex, and the process of becoming an artist.
1. Egon Schiele, quoted in Egon Schiele: The Leopold Collection, Vienna, exh. cat. (Cologne: DuMont; New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1998), p. 32.
2. “Egon Schiele, 7 December 2005–19 March 2006,” Albertina, Vienna.
3. Egon Schiele, p. 23.
Look together at Egon Schiele’s Self-Portrait Pulling Down an Eyelid (1910). Ask students what they notice about the portrait. How would they describe the color and decorative elements that Schiele used? How would they describe his clothing?
Next ask students to think about the facial expression and body language in this portrait. Describe the pose. Have a student to volunteer to stand like this man. Does the stance look comfortable, anxious, or relaxed? What do they think this man is feeling?
Schiele’s mentor was Gustav Klimt. Ask students to look up images of Klimt’s portraits and compare them to this artwork. What do they see that is similar or different?
How did Schiele use line? Students can try to draw the most distinct lines in the portrait. (They can even imitate these lines in the air with imaginary paintbrushes.) How would they describe them? Talk together about how the blocks of color contrast with his use of line.
Tell your students that this work is a self-portrait. Do they think of the work differently? Many have described the gesture of the fingers pulling down the eyelid as disharmonious, destabilizing, and as representative of the weight of his thoughts and feelings. What do students think about this interpretation? If the artist could say one thing, what do students think it would be?
Ask students how they would depict themselves in a self-portrait. What kinds of colors and lines would they use? What would they want their pose or facial expression to express?
Model and Artist
In Schiele’s portraits, the bodies of his subjects—even that of his long-time girlfriend and model Walburga “Wally” Neuzil and later his wife Edith—are often contorted. Ask students how they would feel to be portrayed this way. Divide the class into groups of two and give each pair a Schiele portrait. Students should act out a brief dialogue between the model and the artist. How would the model have reacted when she or he saw it? What changes, if any, might she or he have requested? (For instance, the subject might have asked him to paint it from a different perspective.) How might Schiele defend his work?
Schiele was influenced by many artists who came before him. He borrowed an important technique called “continuous drawing” from the French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840–1917). Trained in realist drawing and sculpture, Rodin broke free of this neoclassical approach to explore more loose and spontaneous draftsmanship. He attempted to capture the human form in motion through quick sketches made without taking his eyes off the model. (1) Look at Schiele’s Self-Portrait Pulling Down an Eyelid. Which aspects of the drawing do students think relate to this technique of continuous drawing?
Now challenge students to make their own continuous drawings in two activities. First students will pair up. One student should choose an action such as drinking tea, laughing, or running that the other student must draw him or her performing. The student who is sketching cannot look down at the paper and must watch the student in motion the entire time.
For the second challenge, one student can draw the other student with a continuous line—without picking up the pencil—while the other student sits still or is in motion. Ask students what they thought of these tasks. What did they like? What did they not like? How do the results differ from their usual drawings?
This activity (2) is related to continuous drawing. Schiele made many counteur drawings, or pencil drawings that concentrate only on the subject’s outline. Use a pencil and a simple object such as a pear to explore the contour-drawing process below.
Students should imagine that a piece of glass separates them from the object. On that invisible plane, they will pretend to trace the object’s form by moving their eyes and hands in unison.
Once they are comfortable with the process, they will place a pad and piece of paper on their laps and focus on one single point in the object. Now they will move their eyes along the object’s contours and keep their hands at the same rate of speed across the paper. They should not look at the paper and keep the speed slow to synchronize the movement of their hands with their eyes.
Which parts of the drawing are detailed and which lack detail? How can students imagine expanding on the drawing? Schiele’s portrait, Dr. Ernst Wagner (1918), provides of a good example of contour drawing. If there is time, encourage students to continue by adding shading, color, or decorative elements.
In this activity, the class will experiment with contortion, asymmetry, or disproportionate elements in self-portraiture by using digital-photo technology. Photographs of students need to be available on classroom computers whether taken by and uploaded from digital cameras or camera-enabled phones in class, e-mailed from home, or brought to class and scanned. Students will use Photoshop to distort their bodies and faces. They should think together about which parts of the body are symmetrical and what proportional relationships we expect to see. Then they should use Photoshop tools such as the blur, dodge, and brush tools to distort the pictures. Ask students to share their original self-portraits and their altered ones with a classmate. What did they change? How did it affect the mood of the image? As an additional challenge, give students the option to add color to their images, a process that can further modify the symmetry and proportion of their pieces.
1. Clare Vincent, “Auguste Rodin (1840–1917),” Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
2. This activity is adapted from “The Figure Drawing Lab,” University of Evansville, United States.
Continuous Drawing: an attempt to capture the human form through quick sketches without taking one’s eyes off of the model.
Expressionism: an early-20th-century movement that emphasized subjective expression of the artist’s inner experiences.
Neoclassicism: an 18th- and 19th-century revival of classicism in architecture and art, especially the decorative arts, that was characterized by order, symmetry, and simplicity of style.
Vienna Secession: a late-19th- and early-20th-century movement in art and architecture that rejected prevailing academic styles in favor of newer, more experimental approaches.
The Artist and His Work, Museum of Modern Art, New York
Egon Schiele, Neue Galerie, New York
Biography of Egon Schiele, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
Klimt Museum: A virtual museum of Gustav Klimt
Musée Rodin, Paris
Rodin Museum, Philadelphia
German Expressionism, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Arty Factory: Learn more about proportions, features, shading, and qualities of portraits
Egon Schiele (December 7, 2005–March 19, 2006), Albertina, Vienna
Egon Schiele: The Leopold Collection, Vienna, exh. cat. Cologne: DuMont; New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1998.
“The Figure Drawing Lab.” University of Evansville, United States
Friedel, Helmut, and Helena Perena, eds. Egon Schiele: The Unsalvageable Ego: Works from the Albertina, exh. cat. Cologne: Wienand, 2012
Vincent, Clare. “Auguste Rodin (1840–1917)” Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York