For the fourth piece in our Authors on Museums series, William Boyd celebrates the Leopold Museum in Vienna, which is a shrine to his favourite artist—and a tribute to the vision of an art-loving ophthalmologist ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Summer 2009

Forty years ago, I was sitting my art A-level and dreaming of becoming a painter. My constant book of reference was “A Dictionary of Modern Painting”, published by Methuen: 400 pages of eclectic scholarship, from Apollinaire to Zandomeneghi, with contributions from 30 eminent art historians. I still have the book in its 1964 edition, and there is no entry for Egon Schiele. He doesn’t even appear in the entry on the Viennese Secession or the one 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 both to illustrate the vagaries of art history and to show the comparatively recent nature of Schiele’s now-vast reputation. His work is reproduced everywhere and known to a huge public and his critical standing now overshadows both Klimt’s and Kokoschka’s. This is due to the efforts of one man, the art historian and collector Rudolf Leopold.

Born in 1925, Leopold 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 ophthalmologist 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 (dreams of being an artist not entirely moribund). However, he has remained for me one of the permanent artists in my personal pantheon.

Leopold MuseumThis 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 rewind to my teenage years and their 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 Rudolf 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. I always try to imagine what it must be like for Rudolf Leopold to have his “own” museum, to see his name carved on its limestone façade. 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 Rudolf 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…

Leopold MuseumSchiele’s short, tormented life has its own bitter and dark romance. This amazingly gifted young artist, born in 1890, was nurtured in the spirit of Austria’s Secession movement—a rejection of the Beaux Arts classic style and the stuffy mediocrity of the salons. He 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 it 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. He was eventually acquitted of child abuse but found guilty of having erotic images around children and imprisoned for 24 days. The experience had a profound and disturbing effect on him.

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 the 1918 flu pandemic claimed in October, first, the life of his heavily pregnant wife, Edith, and then, three days later, the artist’s own. Egon Schiele was dead and forgotten at 28, but with an astonishing body of work behind him, waiting for Rudolf Leopold to discover it and present it to the world.

Leopold MuseumThe 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 asymmetrical 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.

Leopold MuseumBut 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 Lucian Freud—and they were painted about 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.

Leopold MuseumMost 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, among 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 Wittgenstein—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 (and of Wittgenstein and Freud) 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 on Madison Avenue in New York—again solidly modern and streamlined in design but accessible and containable. 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 has sometimes been dubbed “Gesamtkunstwerk Wien”. The Leopold Museum deserves that title also—a total work of art. 

HOW  TO  ENJOY THE LEOPOLD (compiled by Julia Belluz)

When to go  Now—Vienna is warm from June to August, when the parks are resplendent and the crowds worth putting up with. Or wait till December, when the markets are magical and the museums sit there in the snow like frosted desserts. The Leopold is open daily except Tuesday, 10am to 6pm (Thursday to 9pm). Admission is €10, with various discounts: get the Vienna Card

What’s on  “Pure Art Nouveau! Josef Maria Auchentaller” (June 11th to September 21st); “Leopold Hauer” (June 26th to September 28th). To join a guided tour or educational programme, go to Café Sperl, established 1880.

Where to stay  Altstadt Vienna’s 42 rooms, all different, display works by Warhol, Prachensky and Niki de Saint Phalle. Doubles from €139 (+43 1 522 66 66). Hotel ViennArt, modern and boutiquey, is close to the Leopold. Doubles from €180 (+43 1 523 13 450). Hotel Stadthalle Vienna was the first Viennese hotel to be awarded the European Eco-label. Doubles from €85; simpler pensione rooms from €69 (+43 1 982 42 72).


Picture Credit: Mark Henley

(William Boyd has written ten novels. The latest, "Ordinary Thunderstorms", will be released by Bloomsbury in September. This is our fourth instalment of "Authors on Museums", the last was Anthony Horowitz on the Tate Modern.)