PRINT January 1964

An Early Sketchbook of Egon Schiele

THE EARLIEST KNOWN SKETCHBOOK of the Viennese artist Egon Schiele came to light recently in Daly City, California. It pushes back to an even earlier age the appearance of his phenomenal talent, and it gives us additional insights into its rapid development.

The sketchbook is in the possession of Mr. Morris Weiss, who was a classmate of Schiele in 1904–05 at the Realgymnazium in Klosterneuberg, a town just up the Danube from Vienna.* When Mr. Weiss was forced to leave Austria in 1938, he saw confiscated his home and his little wine-press factory, which had supplied the villagers with their own hand-operated home presses; he also lost most of his possessions, among them two paintings by his friend Schiele. Upon his arrival in California, Mr. Weiss was heartened to find that American wine producers were charmed by his ingenious little hand-crafted wine presses, but he soon learned that they were scarcely inclined to substitute them for their giant hydraulic machines. He managed to survive in his adopted country anyway, still clinging to a few souvenirs and photographs of Klosterneuberg—and also clinging to the sketchbook given him by his boyhood friend.

When Morris Weiss and Egon Schiele were friends in the Second Class, Schiele was fourteen and, because his overwhelming passion for drawing had driven him to neglect his studies, was three years older than his classmates. He spent much of his time at the Weiss’s “heurigen,” the little outdoor wine garden at the edge of the village, where the two boys could draw while smoking cigarettes and drinking the new white wine that Papa Weiss had produced with his own press. His school record shows many absences and failing grades in all the academic subjects, but he received the highest marks, “Excellent” and “Praiseworthy,” in the few in which he was deeply interested, freehand drawing, calligraphy and gymnastics.

Schiele had shown from infancy the unmistakable marks of an extraordinarily precocious talent. His sister remembers that when he was five he crawled with his sketchbook out of an upstairs window onto the roof in order better to draw the trains that passed below, and at seven he hung his first exhibition in the family living room. Fortunately, he found a sympathetic guide in the professor of drawing at the Gymnazium, L. K. Strauch, an academic landscape painter of local reputation. Although he was a harsh disciplinarian in the conduct of his classes, Strauch, recognizing the exceptional gifts of the boy, called Schiele his “Wunderkind” and taught him to paint on his own. That Schiele also believed in the Wunderkind idea is forcefully evident when we discover that at the age of twelve he had already organized two young friends into an artists’ group for producing and exhibiting their work. He writes in 1903 to Max Karpfen, one of his colleagues:

. . . how industriously I have been working on the entries for the “Union Art Exhibition.” Had I had more time for drawing and painting, I would produce three times that amount. Since our discussion of the 28th of this month, I have undertaken to produce five works per day. I kindly urge you to remain true to our agreement so that our plan for the future may result in praise for us and fame for the illustrious city of Klosterneuberg. . . .

Hail! your true companion
Egon Schiele.

Our address from now on is:
E. Schiele and Co.
Union Art Drawing and Painting Institute.

The Weiss sketchbook contains two types of drawings which reveal, even at the age of fourteen, an essential characteristic of Schiele’s attitude toward his work. There are a number of copies of diagrams from botanical textbooks, which were made as class exercises and approved by the professor, and there are other studies of plants and of landscapes which were made independently and from nature. The copies demonstrate Schiele’s firm hand and his mastery of minute detail. He had always been obsessed with detail of all kinds, memorizing and copying lengthy railroad timetables and making detailed maps of villages with the same exactitude he exhibited in the botanical diagrams. His drawing of the pistil and seed pods of a flower (1.) is entirely faithful to the scientific accuracy of the model, even though it bears the impress of a strong and individual hand. And when he draws an iris from nature (2.), he still remembers the clear, rational structure as seen in the diagrams. Even when Schiele’s line begins to crackle with the tense energy which we know better from his drawings of 1910 and after, he still refers, as in the Laburnum (3.), to the knowledge of ideal “types” he acquired from studying the diagrams. When he sketches the buildings of a coal mine (4), he adds beneath the earth a schematic drawing of how the shafts and tunnels must have looked, including even the miners at work.

Thus even at the age of fourteen he seems to have conceived his drawings in terms of an ideal, abstract model which gave him the form and the proportions, and in terms of the object before him, which gave his work its astounding vitality.

Forces of which we still know very little drove Schiele three or four years later suddenly to burst from this conventional style into a unique expressionism charged with a vibrant and intense sensuality. He became at the same time obsessed by the nude female figure. Although with his vision he caressed and probed every part of the female body, and although he implied or depicted every possible function, normal or abnormal, of it, he continued to see it as a rationally proportioned structure based upon nature. This distinguishes the expressionism of Schiele from the German Expressionists, who, ignoring anatomy, violently distorted the body, transmuted it into other substances, and forcefully imposed their own feelings upon the entire fabric of the picture. Schiele, by remembering the ideal figure and by maintaining close contact with nature, produced an expressionist art that drew a new kind of vitality from nerves, sensations of skin and hair, and the soft and turgid secret parts of the body. In this exploration he appeals to our eyes today as one who would understand the contemporary “Cult of the Self” and its obsession with intimate and personal sensations.

Herschel B. Chipp



*An expanded version of Dr. Chipp’s essay on the Weiss Sketchbook is scheduled to appear in the “Albertina Studium,” Vienna.