San Francisco

“Viennese Expressionism, 1910–1924”

University Art Gallery, University of California, Berkeley

Egon Schiele’s drawings and paintings (ninety of them) dominate an excellent show that gives multiple insights into the brief moment of Viennese expressionism. Although the exhibit contains few oils, it manages to indicate what happened when art nouveau collided with expressionism in gilded, collapsing Vienna. At the same time it renders at least an outline of Schiele’s agonized image of man and demonstrates his impressive skill as draftsman and colorist.

Schiele did not bother with “composition” in the academic sense, but that does not prevent his drawings from having the finesse one normally expects from finished works. His sexual, labyrinthine line is always given room in which to function. Each line, whether it circumscribes a quivering arm or a grasping hand, is restrained by a buffer zone of space that thereby becomes meaningful. In Schiele’s watercolors, gouaches and oils the vigorous linear activity performs inside large simple color blocks, while the face and body are barely indicated. This happens particularly in his studies of young women. The frightening possibilities of this technique are realized in two figure paintings (“Portrait of Dr. Von Graf,” 1910; “The Prophet,” 1911).

The exhibit does not point up great changes in Schiele’s style from 1910 to 1918 (the period the show actually covers). The drawings and paintings done in the last four years of his life seem less bothered; his line relaxes slightly. His landscapes become very disciplined and his figures more tender. A 1910 oil, “Red Earth,” is a straightforward mineral analogy to torn skin, but in 1913 he paints a bridge in calm monotone. A beautiful canvas, “Houses With Drying Laundry” (1917), sums up Egon Schiele’s ability to link gaudy, impasto color to linear control. The gay bits of wash flapping against the tenements disclose a gentle side to Schiele’s sanguine art.

The show is not without its weaknesses. For one, there are too few paintings. In part, this could not be helped; Schiele only painted for ten years. Much of the work of Gustav Klimt was destroyed in World War II. The gallery had to assemble the show from material in this country. It is, therefore, understandable, if unfortunate, that only one oil typical of Klimt’s important period (“Troubled Waters,” 1902) is offered, and that there is little correlation between Schiele’s paintings and drawings.

However, there is no excuse for the poor Kokoschka showing. The catalog states that “only his earliest work while still a student was touched by the Secessionstil of the Klimt school,” but, surrounded by his fellow Viennese, Kokoschka’s affinities to them appear much stronger than that. The catalog stresses how the embryonic Viennese expressionism was cut short by history. There is also some indication that the growth and abrupt abandonment of this movement was compelled by its own inner dynamics; no younger artists tried to prolong the style. A better Kokoschka section would have provided a telling visual comment on the end of Viennese expressionism.

Nevertheless, Dr. Herschel B. Chipp, the director of the exhibition, has put together a fine show and an elegant catalog.

Joanna C. Magloff