Text Angelica Carrara
Egon Schiele and Jean-Michel Basquiat are the stars of simultaneous exhibitions at the Louis Vuitton Foundation, running from 3 October to 14 January. Here in west Paris, in the building erected on public land by architect Frank Gehry, the LVMH group has sustained art since 2006, exhibiting artworks from the twentieth and twenty-first century. Now it is Schiele and Basquiat’s turn. Both died at the age of twenty- eight, but seventy years apart. The aura of the greats, perhaps too fragile to cope with world criticism, or even success. Genius and wildness. Luck or damnation. In music there is a metaphorical 27 Club, that lists artists who died at the age of twenty-seven. Kurt Cobain, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse. In art, there should be a 27 Club – plus one.
The early twentieth century. Vienna, the centre of modernity, where artists delved into dreams and the unconscious. In cafés and on the streets – Arthur Schnitzler, Adolf Loos, Gustav Klimt and Hugo von Hofmannstal. The scandalous, censored paintings by a young artist, Egon Schiele. One hundred years ago, in 1918, the Habsburg Empire ended. Klimt, Kolo Moser, Otto Wagner and Egon Schiele passed away. A century has gone by since the Austrian painter died, yet his art is still controversial. His meeting at the Cafè Museum with Gustav Klimt. The shared interest in depicting the human body and in male sexuality. The torment. The physical appearance that is figurative distortion. Sensuality and eroticism mixed with illness and death. Nudes using adolescent models. In 1912, Schiele was accused of having seduced, abducted and debauched one of his girls. Awaiting trial, he was imprisoned for one month. He was later let go, but one hundred and twenty-five of his drawings, considered pornographic, were seized. He succeeded in capturing his models’ soul, tormented by an age of ferment and war. And he married one of them, Edit Harms, despite his illicit affair with Valerie Neuzil, better known as Wally. Schiele survived and kept on painting, although stationed on the military front. But he didn’t manage to avoid the Spanish flu pandemic that killed him at the age of twenty-eight.
Written on the facade of the Secession Building in Vienna is: “To every age its art, to every art its freedom”. The motto coined in 1897 has been translated into a hashtag: #ToArtItsFreedom. London Underground’s response to censorship – “Sorry, 100 years old but still daring today” is the message covering the private parts of the subjects depicted in Schiele’s art all over the tube. Having asserted the artist’s role in defending freedom of expression from constrictions and conditions for an art accused of obscenity, one must ask how Viennese modernism is acceptable today. Twisted, tormented and tortured bodies – nudes, scandalised the world and cost Schiele incarceration. His gallery owner at the time thus complained in a letter, “Who could ever buy these paintings? I haven’t much hope.”
Distance. In time and expressive styles which have not prevented any affinity: Egon Schiele and Jean-Michel Basquiat, sharing artistic explorations that expressed the emotional complexity of existence in a cry of rebellion.
“Basquiat recalls Lou Reed singing about heroin to nice clean-cut college kids”, to use a paragon by Jeffrey Deitch. There is a clear image of Jean-Michel Basquiat on the cover of the New York Times in 1985; the photo is by Lizzie Himmel. He is wearing a dark suit by Giorgio Armani, a white shirt and tie, and he is sitting on a chair, with one bare foot on another chair, and the other on the floor. The combination of the suit and the bare feet – the way in which he defined his image, is slightly unconventional. The title of the piece by Cathleen McGuigan – New Art, New Money, talks about Basquiat in Manhattan, at Mr Chow, drinking kir royal and chatting to Keith Haring, while Warhol dined with Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes at the next table.
Handsome and black in a predominantly white New York. His paintings full of colour and primitive figures, masks and crowns, arrows, rockets, skyscrapers, childish figures, cartoons and words. “There are about thirty words around you all the time – like thread or exit – I use them like brushstrokes,” said Basquiat. He was given Gray’s Anatomy as a gift, and became absorbed by the human body, its shapeless form and its beastliness. At age twenty, he had made his first million. Kissed by success and killed by the system– and by drugs, he died of an overdose at the age of twenty-eight. His first sale – the painting Cadillac Moon, was to Debbie Harry, Blondie’s frontwoman, in 1981. Two hundred dollars. The history of the American Eighties grew around him. Clubs, drugs and graffiti in the subway. His rise to East Village and an art market that morphed into a financial market. Auctions worth billions, openings in galleries, packed like discotheques, and the works of a group of superstar artists dictating new rules and tastes. His works, as wild as a protest, full of words like poetry, expressed his inconclusive world. Basquiat was baffled by his success. Aware of his position as one of the few African Americans in a world of white art, where some regarded him as little more than an imposter.
In 1979, he moved to Manhattan, and signed walls with the message SAMO – same old shit, the name that sprung from his alliance with the writer Al Diaz. He lived, in an apartment on East 12th Street, with his girlfriend Alexis Adler – Ms Adler still lives there – and since he couldn’t afford canvases, he painted on the walls, on the floor, on Alexis’s clothes. The only object that remained untouched was the stereo: it had a place of honour on a shelf. When Basquiat was at home, music was always playing. Curtis Mayfield, Donna Summer, Bach, Beethoven, David Byrne, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, the album Metal Box by Public Image Ltd. His favourite songs, Low by Bowie and side two of Heroes. David Bowie, writing after the death of Basquiat, spoke of him like a kindred spirit whose sensibility belonged as much to rock as it did to art. “He seemed to digest the frenetic flow of images and experiences that pass, processing them with a sort of internal organisation and covering the canvas with the resulting network of possibilities.”
Egon Schiele – Jean-Michel Basquiat
from 03 October 2018 to 14 January 2019
Bois de Boulogne – 8 avenue du Mahatma Gandhi – 75016 Paris