Self-Portrait Pulling Down an Eyelid, 1910
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?