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A Draftsman for the Ages : Art review: Egon Schiele intuitively recognized that the spontaneity of an early sketch could be the armature for an art of pressing liveliness. An exhibition of his works has arrived in San Diego.

TIMES ART CRITIC

If Egon Schiele (1890-1918) were alive today--and if he were an American rather than an Austrian artist--he would have a snowball’s chance in hell of qualifying for an NEA grant. The cowardly pooh-bahs of our officious National Council for the Arts would cluck hysterically over possibly offending bovine-brained congressmen and losing their federal appropriation, all for the piddling sake of artistic principle.

Never mind that Schiele ranks as one of the greatest draftsmen of all time, an artist whose work on paper is more powerfully moving than most paintings on canvas a dozen times their diminutive size. Forget that his earliest champion was no less than the revered Gustav Klimt, a founding member of the Vienna Secession and an eclectic master whose work was a catalyst for the blossoming of Expressionist art early in the 20th Century.

Schiele, after all, had the audacity to paint naked men and women. Not nudes--those etherially idealized, conventionally tasteful creatures of bourgeois erotic fantasy--but naked men and women, fellow human beings (including himself) intimately exposed and set adrift in the hostile void of modern life.

If, in the politicized morass of our contemporary cultural life, Schiele certainly couldn’t manage a National Endowment grant, he has nonetheless rated a show at the National Gallery of Art, an eagerly awaited presentation that had its debut last winter. After a stop in Indianapolis (does Dan Quayle know about this?), the exhibition of 13 paintings and 62 drawings and watercolors has now happily arrived at the San Diego Museum of Art, where it concludes its tour Oct. 30.

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Of course, museums are mausoleums where we proudly display artistic remnants of cultures that no longer exist, and Schiele is safely dead. He was born in a small town on the Danube just west of Vienna, where he died 28 years later, a tragically young victim of the influenza then sweeping Europe.

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“Egon Schiele” is the first substantive presentation of its kind in the United States since 1965, when New York’s Guggenheim Museum traced the careers of Klimt and Schiele in a dual exhibition. In some respects these two artists represent a crucial pivot: Klimt as the last shimmer of imperial Vienna before the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Schiele as enunciator of the new and brutal world of the 20th Century.

The San Diego show opens with Schiele’s 1909 “Danae,” the heroine of Greek legend who is ravished by Zeus in the guise of a shower of gold. Obviously indebted to a Klimt painting from two years before, the subject of a mortal laid waste by unfathomable forces would, without the mythological trappings, become a central theme for Schiele. And his version is marked by a flat, graphic simplicity that he would soon refine into a forceful engine for his art.

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Remember that Schiele was all of 19 when he painted “Danae.” The precocious youngster had entered Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts at the unheard of age of 16; the exhibition surveys the output of an extraordinarily gifted artist in his 20s.

Schiele’s stint at the academy may have been unhappy and brief--he left in disgust after two years--but it was not unimportant to what would follow. First, he got endless practice at quickly drawing models from life. Second, he instinctively chafed against the charade of surface propriety demanded of academic art.

Schiele’s drawings disturb partly because they stop at a point that academic convention regards as raw and unfinished. Quick, contour rendering was essential to academic training, but for an academic artist it was just the start of a laborious process, which eventually culminated in a finished painting. Schiele intuitively recognized, not unlike French Impressionist painters some 40 years before, that the spontaneity of an early sketch, if handled eloquently, could be the armature for an art of pressing liveliness.

“Self-Portrait With Outstretched Arms” (1911) is among the earliest of the artist’s great meditations on the poignant isolation of modern life. A few pencil lines describe a head, torso, outstretched arms and truncated legs, as if the flayed figure had been pinned to the sheet for examination, like a scientific specimen to a board or a martyr to a cross. (Schiele was raised a Catholic.) The simplified forms are stained with gouache and watercolor, whose fluid mix of purple, blue, red and ocher endow the exhibited figure with the awful beauty of a tender bruise.

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In this and other drawings, such as “Fighter” (1913) and “Reclining Woman With Green Stockings” (1917), the unpainted areas of the sheet become a modern void, in which solitariness and vulnerability are made acute. Also recurrent is the eccentric pose of crouching or squatting, which yields a primitive, animalistic figure, whose akimbo limbs seem useless appendages and whose genitals are assertively exposed.

Schiele greatly respected the work of his immediate forebear, Vincent van Gogh, who died the year the Austrian was born. The show includes a few landscapes, sunflowers and an exquisite little painting of his humble room that speak clearly of that admiration.

In general, though, his oil paintings are less accomplished than his works on paper. The show’s chief exception may be the famous “Embrace (Lovers II),” Schiele’s 1917 response to fellow Austrian Expressionist Oskar Kokoschka’s 1914 “The Tempest.” Through erotic and emotional coupling, an entwined couple, surrounded by the pure, white, cloud-like womb of a blanket, finds refuge from a swirling, acidically rendered emptiness.

Even here, however, Schiele’s oils tend to describe their content, while his drawings embody it. The fragility of pencil, watercolor and paper surely contributes to the graphic work’s delicate power. It throws off the burden assumed by oil painting, with its weighty tradition of authority, from which the artist otherwise avidly sought escape.

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Nearly two-dozen substitutions have altered the show from its original incarnation at the National Gallery (about 10 of those loaned by Vienna’s Albertina Museum, the great repository of Schiele drawings). Still, curator and Schiele expert Jane Kallir, director of the Galerie St. Etienne in New York, has assembled a smallish but immensely satisfying survey of the artist’s brief career.

There’s even one haunted self-portrait watercolor completed in the late spring of 1912, during the artist’s horrific, 24-day imprisonment following a conviction for “offenses against public morality"--namely, his conviction for making art. Look at the drawings closely. With offensiveness like this, who needs masterpieces?

* San Diego Museum of Art, Balboa Park, (619) 232-9367, through Oct . 30. Closed Mondays.


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