From opposite ends of the 20th century, from Europe – Vienna – to America – New York, the lives and works of Egon Schiele and Jean-Michel Basquiat are fascinating for their fleetingness and their intensity.
Both died aged 28. In under a decade, they became major figures in the art of their century. They are linked by their destiny and their fortune, that of a short-lived body of work, the impact and permanency of which have few equals.
Their formidable output can be explained by their passion for life which today, in the 21st century, has made them real “icons” for new generations. The vital necessity of art is the main element in these two exceptional bodies of work.
“I will get to a point where one will be alarmed by the greatness of each of my ‘living’ works”, wrote Schiele. Breaking with the academic system, he rejected previous models. For him “there is no modern art, but rather there is only one art that is eternal”*.
For its part, the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, first painted on walls, cannot be understood separately from the revolt which animates it, the will to disrupt the established order and escape from canons and hierarchies. “Royalty, heroism and the streets” were Basquiat’s subjects for his art. Presented separately in two different sequences, these exhibitions respect the specific context of each body of work, two moments which were as rich as they were different from each other.
For Schiele, Vienna in 1900, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire, a leading centre of intellectual and artistic life marked by the Secession, the jugendstil and the birth of an effervescent intellectual and artistic modernity. For Basquiat, New York in the early 1980s, with the vitality of its underground scene, urban downtown culture, and questions relative to art and identity.
In their uniqueness, these two presentations are in line with one of the Collection’s four themes: the subjective and expressionist vision of the artist. As Suzanne Pagé remarked, “Through the permanency of the portrayals, the two exceptionally intense bodies of work dazzlingly and irreducibly translate a deep and deeply incarnated distress, by means of a particularly striking line. With Schiele, a distorted and tortured line raises worrying questions and dares to express crude sexuality by way of implacable introspection and the harsh gaze he trains on himself and on his models, with whom he identified. The premonition of tragedy is everywhere.
With Basquiat, a line infused with youthful impetus and carried by real rage aims to impose the presence of the black figure, following the artist’s painful realisation of its absence in the world of art, and particularly
With Egon Schiele, it is the first time that the Fondation Louis Vuitton has dedicated a monograph to an “historical” artist. It is also the first time that it has hosted a exhibition of this size devoted to a single artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat, a strong presence in the Collection. The Fondation thereby reiterates its will to anchor its commitment to current creation in a historical perspective.
* “Lettre à Leopold Czihaczek”, Je peins la lumière qui vient de tous les corps. Lettres et Poèmes radieux issus des plus sombres tourments du peintre viennois Egon Schiele, Agone Editions, 2016, p. 48-49
A - Egon Schiele (1890-1918)
Egon Schiele’s work is indissociable from the Viennese spirit of the early 20th century. In just a few years, his drawing emerged as one of the peaks of expressionism. At odds with the Academy, which he entered precociously, he founded the Neukunstgruppe in 1909 and, thanks to Gustav Klimt, discovered the work of Van Gogh, Munch and Toorop.
From 1911, in relative isolation, he concentrated on his own work, which is fascinating for the distortion of bodies it depicts, the introspection, the frontal expression of desire and the tragic feeling of life. Before he was struck down by Spanish influenza in 1918, the artist had created some three hundred paintings and several thousand drawings over the course of ten years.
As the first monograph of Schiele in Paris for 25 years, the exhibition includes works of the highest order, such as “Self-Portrait with a Chinese Lantern” (1912), on loan from the Leopold Museum (Vienna), “Pregnant Woman and Death” (1911), from the Národní gallery (Poland), “Portrait of the Artist’s Wife Seated, Holding Her Right Leg” (1917) from the Morgan Library & Museum (New York), “Standing Nude with Blue Sheet” (1914) from the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, “Seated Male Nude” (1910) from the Neue Galerie New York, and “Self-Portrait” (1912) from the National Gallery of Art, Washington.
The exhibition brings together some 120 works - drawings, gouaches, and paintings - over more than 600m2, in the pool-level galleries (Gallery 1). It is organised chronologically across four rooms, following the concept of line and its development in the artist’s work. Dieter Buchhart explains his choice in this way: “Very few artists have approached line and drawing with the same virtuosity and intensity as Schiele. [...] By evolving from the ornamental line towards the expressionist line, combined, in three dimensions, fragmented and amputated, he enabled a borderline dissonant and divergent experience of the line as a sign of human existence.”
The exhibition’s four chapters are entitled:
The Ornamental Line (1908-1909) ; The Existential Line of Expressionism (1910-1911), The Physical Balance of the Combined Line at the Dawn of the First World War (1912-1914), and The Amputated, Fragmented Line during the War Years (1915-1918).
- The Ornamental Line brings together works inspired by the jugendstil, full of fluidity,which makes reference to the discovery of the work of Gustav Klimt, who played a major role in his development.
- The Existential Line of Expressionism is indissociable from the artist’s most expressionist works and his angular and contorted portraits and self-portraits, which are sensual and vibrant, enlivened by touches of pure colour.
- The Physical Balance of the Combined Line at the Dawn of the First World War, from the years before the first global conflict, convey the premonitory fear of war. This group of work is contemporary to, or immediately followed, the artist’s brief period of imprisonment in 1912 in Neulenbach, following accusations of indecency. It is characterised by a less sinuous line and a flatness of drawing which partially frees itself from the former dissonance.
- The Amputated, Fragmented Line during the War Years denotes a significant change: the introduction of formation in the representations of the body. The bodily postures are also more familiar, less aggressive.
B - Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
The work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, one of the most significant painters of the 20th century, is spread over four levels of Frank Gehry’s building. The exhibition covers the
painter’s whole career, from 1980 to 1988, focusing on 120 defining works. With the Heads from 1981-1982, gathered for the first time here, and the presentation of several collaborations between Basquiat and Warhol, the exhibition includes works previously unseen in Europe, essential works such as Obnoxious Liberals (1982), In Italian (1983), and Riding with Death (1988), as well as paintings which have rarely been seen since their first presentations during the artist’s lifetime, such as Offensive Orange (1982), Untitled (Boxer) (1982), and Untitled (Yellow Tar and Feathers) (1982).
At a young age, Jean-Michel Basquiat left school and made his first studio in the streets of New York. Very quickly, his painting achieved great success, which the artist both sought out and felt subjected to. His work refers back to the eruption of modernity, that of the expressionists, but his filiations are numerous. The acuteness of his gaze, his visits to museums, and the reading of a number of books gave him a real sense of culture. Yet his gaze was directed: the absence of black artists being painfully evident, the artist imposed the need to depict African American culture and revolts in equal measure in his work. Basquiat’s death in 1988 interrupted a very prolific body of work, carried out in under a decade, with over one thousand paintings and even more drawings.
The exhibition is spread over nearly 2500m2. It is organised chronologically, but also by groups of works which define themes and invite comparisons. For Dieter Buchhart, “The exhibition follows his work, from the first drawings and monumental works to the later prints, collages and assemblages, shedding light on his inimitable touch, use of words, phrases and enumerations, and his recourse to concrete hip hop poetry. To the image of the African American man threatened by racism, exclusion, oppression and capitalism, he opposed warriors and heroes.”.
The exhibition is presented chronologically.
Pool Level (Gallery 2)
The exhibition opens with the exceptional trilogy of big Heads from 1981-1983. There follows, on the theme of the street - used as a studio, source of inspiration, living body - the presentation of a number of works, mainly from 1981-1982, which are striking for the energy of their composition, the intensity of the urban environment and its language. An example includes Crowns (Peso Neto). This first chapter of the exhibition closes with the great figures painted by the artist, the series of Prophets, and the striking portrait of a black police officer (Irony of a negro policeman).
Ground Floor (Gallery 4)
The second part of the exhibition includes a series of thirty drawings of heads, for the most part made in 1982. This hanging functions as a huge composition of faces which takes up the spectator’s entire field of vision - it highlights the importance of drawing for Basquiat. Further on, the graphic energy of a dozen works presented on the same level expresses all of the rage, protest and revolt of Basquiat. This is symbolised by great African American figures - boxers or fighters - who were also personal heroes: Untitled (Sugar Ray Robinson) (1982), St. Joe Louis surrounded by Snakes (1982), Cassius Clay (1982)... The use of letters, numbers, signs and text in the background shows the complexity of the compositions, for example in Santo #1 (1982), Self-Portrait with Suzanne (1982), Untitled (1982), Portrait of the Artist as a Young Derelict (1982).
Level 1 (Gallery 5)
“Heroes and Warriors” opens this sequence. A frontal figure of a black boxer, Untitled (Boxer) (1982), an iconic masterpiece, provides the link with the preceding section. The heroic figures wear haloes, crowns, or crowns of thorns… The emancipatory figure of Samson appears in Obnoxious Liberals (1982). The exhibition continues with paintings linking a long history and archetypes to the artist’s immediate surroundings, in compositions enriched with stories and fragmented text, such as Price of Gasoline in the Third World (1982) or Slave Auction (1982), which directly addresses the slave trade.
Another key painting, In Italian (1983), bears witness to Basquiat’s talent as a colourist. The concluding part of Gallery 5 is organised around music, and especially the figure of the jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, one of Basquiat’s heroes. Five works depict the legendary figure, whom he considers to be an alter-ego: CPRKR (1982), Horn Players (1983), Charles the First (1982), Discography (One) (1983), Now’s the Time (1985).
Level 1 (Gallery 6)
The room gathers together six paintings in which writing plays a central role, including Museum Security (Broadway Meltdown) (1983) and Hollywood Africans in Front of the Chinese Theater with Footprints of Movie Stars (1983), which depicts the painter surrounded by friends.
Level 1 (Gallery 7)
The space of Gallery 7 enables a grouping of four pieces - Lye (1983), Flash in Naples (1983), Napoleonic Stereotype (1983), Red Savoy (1983) - based on a similar motif: a grid on which the figures are superimposed, borrowed from history, art history or the artists’ immediate surroundings.
Level 2 (Gallery 9)
Two major groups of work are on display in this room. The first shows related paintings around the monumental Grillo (1984), including Gold Griot. These works include references to African culture which have been reinterpreted and spread by the diaspora, where the black figure is omnipresent.
The second group focuses on the relationship between Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. The portrait painted by Basquiat in 1982, Dos Cabezas, marked the beginning of this mutual fascination and introduces a series of works painted by both artists together from 1984. Warhol and Basquiat collaborated by freely mixing drawing and printing.
Level 2 (Galleries 10 and 11)
The last rooms are organised into two sections. One is centred around the large formats of the 1985-1987 period, mixing acrylic, oil pastel and collage. Graphic procedures which recall musical techniques of sampling create dense surfaces and shattered compositions, suggesting a multitude of different readings. The other section, whose title, Unbreakable, is drawn from the title of a piece from 1987, includes some of the artist’s last works, including the stunning Riding with Death (1988). The painting bears witness to the artist’s complex pictorial heritage, which mixes references to Renaissance art with iconic painting and the more radical currents of the 20th century, but which above all conveys a feeling of disarticulation in the furious and desperate rush into the void.
The exhibition of Jean-Michel Basquiat has been made possible through the collaboration of the Fondation Louis Vuitton and the Brant Foundation.
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Acrylic, oil, glued papers, grease pencil and nails on wood. 243,8 x 537,2 x 47 cm.
Fondation Louis Vuitton
© Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York.
© Fondation Louis Vuitton / Marc Domage
Self-Portrait with Peacock Waistcoat, Standing, 1911
Gouache, watercolor, and black crayon on paper, mounted on cardboard. 51,5 x 34,5 cm
Collection of Ernst Ploil, Vienna
Acrylic and grease pencil on canvas
205,7 x 175,9 cm
© Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat Licensed by Artestar, New York ; Mention obligatoire : The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection © Douglas M. Parker Studio, Los Angeles
Standing Female Nude with Blue Cloth, 1914
Opaque color, watercolor, graphite on vellum paper
48.3 x 32.2 cm
© Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg
Irony of a Negro Police Man, 1981
Acrylic and crayon on canvas
183 x 122 cm
© Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat Licensed by Artestar, New York ; Mention obligatoire : AMA Collection