Leopold Museum by William Boyd

William Boyd
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THE LEOPOLD MUSEUM

By William Boyd


In 1969, when I was seventeen and sitting my Art 'A' level (I had dreams of becoming a painter, then), my constant book of reference was A Dictionary of Modern Painting, published by Methuen. This was a highly eclectic and scholarly A-to-Z (from Apollinaire to Zandomeneghi) some 400 pages long with contributions from thirty-odd eminent art historians. I still have the book in its edition of 1964.  Most intriguingly, there is no entry for Egon Schiele. He doesn’t appear either in the entry on the Viennese Secession nor in the entry on Oskar Kokoschka, his exact contemporary. His solitary mention occurs in the piece on Gustav Klimt where it is noted, in passing, that 'Klimt was much admired by E. Schiele'.

I cite all this as both an illustration of the vagaries and random character of art history and as a telling indication of the comparatively recent nature of Schiele’s by now vast reputation.  The fact that Schiele’s work is reproduced everywhere and known to a huge public and that his critical standing now overshadows both Klimt’s and Kokoschka’s, is due to the efforts of one man, the art historian and collector Rudolph Leopold. 

Rudolph Leopold, born in 1924, began buying the work of Schiele (and some of the other artists of the Viennese Secession school) in the 1950s – an astute move of unrivalled prescience -- steadily building up the largest collection of Schiele’s paintings and drawings in the world.  Leopold was then a young opthalmologist of modest means -- no art-loving plutocrat -- and his passionate collecting was a straightforward labour of love. His publication of Schiele’s catalogue raisonné in 1972 probably marks the beginning of Schiele’s rapid ascent to artistic prominence.

This must have been the time when I first became aware of Schiele – I remember buying postcards and a small monograph of reproductions while I was at university.  I became utterly compelled by the Schiele style, with its jagged, graphic elongations, its mannered distortions, and for a couple of years I tried to draw like Schiele -- and failed, of course (my dreams of being an artist still not entirely moribund). However, he has remained for me one of the permanent artists in my personal pantheon.

This largely explains why the Leopold Museum in Vienna is my favourite art gallery: not only does it house the world’s outstanding collection of Schiele’s work – with many masterworks on its walls – but it is also, haphazardly and wholly inadvertently, a storehouse of my own youthful ambitions to live the life of an artist.  Seeing Schiele’s work acts as a kind of infallible Proustian trigger for me, providing a fast re-wind to my teenage years and its fervid dreams. Whenever I’m in Vienna I visit it, even for ten minutes or so, and it never fails to entrance, delight and, because the hang of Rudolph Leopold’s collection is forever changing in subtle ways, there is always some new revelation.

For example, when I went back to Vienna and the Leopold Museum for this article there was a room full of Schiele’s landscapes, many of which I had not seen before, and landscape is not a form of painting one immediately associates with him.  That March day in Vienna was cool and sunny and the gallery itself – a great square creamy-stone art-bunker, set in its corner of the MuseumsQuartier’s huge courtyard – was looking massive and secure, as if it had always been there.  Each time I go I try to imagine what it must be like for Rudolph Leopold to have his 'own' museum, to see his name carved on its limestone facade.  It was opened in 2001, funded by the Austrian state and designed by the architects Laurids and Manfred Ortner. It stands as the most extraordinary vindication of one man’s personal taste and dedication and it is an extra frisson to think that Rudolph Leopold has an office in the building and is still actively involved in its exhibitions, acquisitions and administration. And one can’t help fantasising further, wondering -- if shades existed -- what the shade of Egon Schiele would be feeling if he could see his immortality thus enshrined…

Schiele’s short, tormented life has its own bitter and dark romance.   The amazingly gifted young artist, born in 1890, nurtured in the spirit of Austria’s Secession movement (a rejection of the Beaux-Arts classic style and its stuffy 'salon' mediocrity), was inspired by Klimt’s decorative eroticism and, in the first decade of the 20th century, turned it into a form of daring, expressionistic figuration -- supercharging its eroticism in the process. The work Schiele produced in the last ten years of his life was as powerful and individual as late Van Gogh – it was as if Arthur Rimbaud had turned painter.  The outrage and bourgeois horror provoked by the overt carnality of his skinny, distorted male and female nudes was predictable. Prosecution for perversion of minors less so.  In 1912, Schiele, then living in a small provincial town, made the mistake of inviting pubescent girls to his studio and using them as his nude models. His eventual prosecution and imprisonment (for some twenty-four days) before he was acquitted had a profound and disturbing effect on him.

However, despite this scandal, by the end of the First World War his reputation was growing and he was just beginning to be spoken of as the natural heir to Gustav Klimt when in October 1918 the worldwide flu pandemic claimed, first, the life of his heavily pregnant wife, Edith, and then, three day’s later, the artist’s own.  Egon Schiele, dead and forgotten at 28 years old, but with already an astonishing body of work behind him, waiting for Rudolph Leopold to discover it and present it to the world.

The Leopold Museum itself is purpose-built and something of an illusion. From the outside it appears impregnable, almost fortress-like with its high stone façade pierced with the occasional asymmetrically placed windows.  However, inside there is a wide, tall, glass-roofed atrium, with the galleries set out on all four sides around it.  On the upper floors huge plate-glass windows look out over the roofscapes of old Vienna and you can see the towers of the Rathaus and the domes of the Hofburg. 

The atrium is a beautiful, empty space.  On the day I was there the sunlight shone through the glass roof creating lucent abstract patterns on the sheer limestone interior walls. In fact you could go as far as saying that the atrium interior of the Leopold Museum, in certain lights, is something of a work of art itself, a luminescent installation, the stone walls containing a refugent volume of air.

But it’s what is hanging in the galleries that lures you away.  Reproductions are wonderful – and all very well – but there is nothing like seeing famous works of art up close, in the real.  Schiele’s famous Seated Male Nude of 1910 is a case in point. The first thing that startles is its scale – just bigger than life-size. As with many of Schiele’s paintings a form of thought experiment is required to try and imagine the effect of seeing them when they were first displayed.  This gaunt full-frontal nude self-portrait, its skin hued in bilious tones of green and yellow, stylised and footless, with its orange-red nipples and one red eye must have seemed like some kind of terrifying apparition.  Indeed the same shock-effect is true of all of Schiele’s portraits: skin is rendered with shades of blue or scumbled rose, the eyes start, wide and exophthalmic, staring out at the viewer.  They are as starkly powerful as anything by Francis Bacon or Lucien Freud -- and one notes they were painted more than half a century earlier.

Two small self-portraits sit adjacently in the right angle of a wall of one gallery, almost facing each other, inadvertently depicting the Jekyll and Hyde character of Schiele and his art. One – constantly reproduced – is the serenely knowing Self-portrait with Winter Cherry (1912).  The other is Self-portrait with Head Inclined (1912).  This second one is masterfully rendered: the painting of the face and the hand is thin, oil paint made semi-transparent with turpentine, contrasted with the thick impasto white of the shirt and background. Most unusually, Schiele has a moustache in this portrait – the only image of him moustachioed that I can recall. Luckily for posterity, Schiele was fond of being photographed and in all the many photographs we have of him he appears clean-shaven. I don’t mean to be facetious, but Austro-Hungarian Vienna was, amongst everything else, the city of facial hair. Was it a mark of rebellion not to grow a beard or a moustache in those days and thus distinguish yourself from the hirsute complacent burghers and whiskered bemedalled soldiers? I think of another of Schiele’s Vienna contemporaries, another harbinger of the modern 20th century and a ground-breaker in his field, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstien – lean, ascetic and permanently clean-shaven, like Schiele.  Does the demonic stare in this portrait, the added black stripe of the moustache, gesture towards the schizophrenic nature of Viennese society in those days before the Great War?  This may be the wisdom of hindsight but another contemporary of Schiele’s (and of Wittgenstein’s and Freud’s) in pre-war Vienna was Adolf Hitler, then an embittered and near-destitute down-and-out, roaming the streets, living in squalid hostels, nurturing his paranoid fantasies. Twenty years later he would be Chancellor of Germany.

If Schiele’s Mr Hyde-persona can be found in his near-pornographic nudes and contorted, emaciated figures with their skull-heads then his gentler Dr Jekyll-self can be seen in his landscapes and townscapes and his still lifes – particularly in his drawings.  Schiele was a marvellously gifted draughtsman and the confidence of his graphic line is remarkable. It’s interesting to contrast Schiele’s drawings with Klimt’s, also on display in the Leopold Museum.  Set Schiele’s dark, assured, emphatic pencil sketches beside Klimt’s fine, tentative, wispy, evanescent drawings and you see the two distinct artistic personalities rendered immediately visible.

The Leopold is a sizeable museum – it has rooms devoted to furniture and design as well as its collection of Schiele, Klimt and other Austrian artists of that generation – but one of its attractions is its scale. It does not daunt or induce art-fatigue; its delights can be savoured in a morning or an afternoon. To this degree it reminds me of another favourite museum of mine – the Whitney in New York, on Madison Avenue in the Upper East Side – again solidly modern and streamlined in design but accessible and containable, also.  The Whitney was named after Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, but what it doesn’t possess is the presiding presence of its founder and its founder’s collection that the Leopold so effectively and entrancingly displays. 

And of course you step out of the modern Whitney into the brash modernity of Manhattan. The Leopold’s huge and unspoken asset is its context in the ancient city of Vienna, that astonishingly beautiful and well-preserved haven of centuries of culture. Vienna, as it has sometimes been dubbed, is a total work of art itself: Gesamtkunstwerk Wien. The Leopold Museum deserves that title also – a 'total work of art'.

I leave the Leopold and wander out of the Museum Quarter and down Gumpendorfer Strasse to the Café Sperl, one of Vienna’s great and grand old cafés, founded at the end of the 19th century.  I have re-encountered Schiele and, through his art, the crowding memories of my younger self. I order a glass of Riesling and wonder if Schiele ever came in here to eat or drink.  It’s entirely possible, I suppose, the place appears hardly to have changed since it was established.  Did Freud come here, did Wittgenstein or Klimt?  After visiting the Leopold Museum, I feel it doesn’t seem ghoulish to be summoning up these revenants to meet in my imagination at the Café Sperl – individuals who never encountered each other in real life – in fact it seems entirely apt and natural. Vienna is a city of ghosts, after all, why not enjoy their company?

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