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You Give Me Fever: Egon Schiele’s Orange Obsession

Egon Schiele, Crouching female nude with bended head, 1918, Leopold Museum, Vienna

Expressionism

You Give Me Fever: Egon Schiele’s Orange Obsession

I’m sure that our dedicated readers and Instagram followers have already realized that recently we feature Egon Schiele and the Viennese Leopold Museum quite a lot. Today is going to be no different, since I did too visit the Museum to see the centenary Schiele show and I found myself asking: WHY HAVE I NEVER REALIZED SCHIELE’S ORANGE OBSESSION?!

(If you’re fed up with Vienna of the 1900s, I recommend a read about something less Expressionistic, not as restless and disturbing as Schiele’s painting can be, for example, these calm gardens?)

Schiele and the colour

Egon Schiele, Portrait of a lady (Valerie Neuzil), 1912, Heidi Horten collection, schiele orange obsession

Egon Schiele, Portrait of a lady (Valerie Neuzil), 1912, Heidi Horten collection

Alright, we know that Schiele was one of the first Viennese painters to abandon Klimt’s Secessionist style (Kokoschka is the second one) and to develop a very personal way of painting which today we describe as Expressionistic. Nevertheless, his Expressionism was totally different from the Expressionism associated with the Brucke group. How was it different?

Contorted Expressionism

Egon Schiele, Mother and Daughter, 1913 © Leopold Museum, schiele orange obsession

Egon Schiele, Mother and Daughter, 1913,  Leopold Museum, Vienna


While Kirschner and the crew composed their works out of patches of bright and very saturated colours (often contained by a strong black outline), colour is not the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Schiele’s work, is it? He rather expressed emotion through disegno, his drawing often reduced to a single continuous line constructing contorted and disturbing bodies which expressed sexual frustrations, angst, restlessness. His way of expressing was through reducing, and then, maybe, sometimes, adding a single or maximum two colours.

Dressed in Orange

Egon Schiele, Hindering the Artist is a Crime, It is Murdering Life in the Bud, 1912, Private collection, schiele orange obsession

Egon Schiele, Hindering the Artist is a Crime, It is Murdering Life in the Bud, 1912, private collection

When it comes to many of his portraits and self-portraits, they were created with earth colours which often carried a ‘dirty’ quality such as dark browns, dirty whites, swamp greens, and black. The yellowish and greenish hues of his sitters skins suggest some sort of malaise which permeates his entire body of work.

Orange Dominion

Egon Schiele, Kneeling Female in Orange-Red Dress, 1910, Leopold Museum, schiele orange obsession

Egon Schiele, Kneeling Female in Orange-Red Dress, 1910, Leopold Museum, Vienna


Yet, at some point, I realized that the sickening colours are not the only ones he picked. In fact, there is a colour that Schiele used extensively and repeatedly throughout his career (leaving aside the last two years of his activity in which he quite changed his style and made it more colourful, who knows how it would have developed further had he not suddenly died). And this special colour was red, often brightened to reach varied hues of orange. 

 Red of the Martyrdom

Egon Schiele, Standing Figure with Halo, 1913, private collection, schiele orange obsession

Egon Schiele, Standing Figure with Halo, 1913, private collection

I found myself asking why he picked red so often. Was it for its association with anger, blood, or even sacrifice? Schiele believed that a real artist is a chosen man who misunderstood by the society experiences ceaseless torment and often has to sacrifice himself for the sake of eternal beauty which is art (this is why we often come across such themes as saints, spirituality, contemplation in his work).

Suppressed Red, Desired Orange

Egon Schiele, Standing Woman in Red, 1913, private collection, schiele's orange obsession

Egon Schiele, Standing Woman in Red, 1913, private collection


Or was it rather for red’s symbolism of sex – think of its association with prostitutes and brothels (red-light districts), and hence guilt and sin? Schiele had a very profound relationship with his mother since his father died young and Schiele from an early age was expected by his mother to take up his father’s role of the head of the family- Schiele had two other sisters. This relationship led to many emotional troubles such as suppressed sexual instincts of a young boy, who subsequently found an outlet in painting.

Egon Schiele, Composition with Three Male Figures (Self Portrait), 1911, private collection, schiele's orange obsession

Egon Schiele, Composition with Three Male Figures (Self Portrait), 1911, private collection

I believe it’s both for the symbolism and for the expressive force of red. Since it is such a strong colour (several studies indicate that red causes the strongest physical reaction out of all the colours, with the level of reaction decreasing gradually with orange, yellow, and white), it also allowed Schiele to “scream” his pain right onto the canvas.

And The Truth Was Revealed

Egon Schiele, The Truth was Revealed, 1913, private collection, schiele's orange obsession

Egon Schiele, The Truth was Revealed, 1913, private collection


If you have any thoughts on Schiele’s extensive use of orange and red, do not suppress your red anger or orange frustration and drop me a line. If you are curious about another painterly obsession, how about fish this time?

Find out more:

  

Magda, art historian and Italianist, she writes about art because she cannot make it herself. She loves committed and political artists like Ai Weiwei or the Futurists; like Joseph Beuys she believes that art can change us and we can change the world.

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