Egon Schiele and David Bowie

One of the most exciting things about writing my master’s thesis on the contemporary relevance of fin-de-siècle Viennese artist Egon Schiele’s portraits is scouting the works of artists, photographers, performers, and fashion designers today whose aesthetic reflects his influence. I love making those tangible connections between past and present.

In the nascent stages of my research, I came across Renée Price’s essay “Unsung Heroes: Schiele as Inspiration and Influence” in Egon Schiele: The Ronald S. Lauder and Serge Sabarsky Collections (which has become one of my favorite books on the artist). In it Price discusses how Bowie’s relocation to Berlin in the mid-1970s led him to become better acquainted with and admire Schiele’s work in art museums around the city. Evidence that Bowie found Schiele’s portraits inspiring shows up in Bowie’s late ’70s cover art and Berlin Trilogy performance style on tour.

Take the gaunt lankiness, the bold lines, the incredible contortions of limbs and fingers, and the themes of identity and sexuality that characterize many of Schiele’s self-portraits. For instance:

Self-Portrait as Saint Sebastian, 1914.

Then compare that to, say, Bowie’s 1979 Lodger cover.

There’s a sense of feeling like a martyr, or a mime, or even a marionette at someone else’s (society’s?) command. There’s vulnerability too, and I think a sense of loss and isolation in both images. In Nicholas Pegg’s biography The Complete David Bowie, the man himself is quoted as saying,

“A lot of what is perceived as mannered performance or writing is a distancing from the subject matter to allow an audience to have their own association with what I’m writing about.”

In “As the Artist Said to the Rock Star…,” a July 2001 interview between Bowie and British artist Tracey Emin that appeared in The Guardian, the subject of Schiele popped up. Bowie asked Emin whether she had become more versed in art history since her artistic career began to rise. Emin answered,

“I got into Egon Schiele when I was 14 because your LP cover for Lodger was inspired by Schiele. … But I don’t think anyone is going to be a successful artist by parodying something that has gone before.”

To that, Bowie replied,

“I would have to disagree with you. I think so much well-known work over the last 10 years or so has been a restatement of earlier stuff. … On the shoulders of giants, etc. Although what’s been just as fascinating is the reluctance of many observers to credit the original pieces where it might have been appropriate or illuminating.”

Given all this talk about Schiele, I’d hoped against hope to snag an interview with Bowie as evidence of Schiele’s contemporary influence for my concluding thesis chapter. Through some work connections I got as far as Bowie’s PR firm in L.A., who forwarded my request for an interview to “his office.” However, there I was felled; they were “not arranging any interviews for him at this time, even if not for the press.” Nuts.

I think my best chance for an interview—however brief—would be to bump into him at an art museum and just bravely start asking away. Hey, it could happen.

“Excuse me, Mr. Bowie, but could I ask you…”

(bottom photo via The Church of Man-Love)

Update: London’s Victoria & Albert Museum is hosting the first-ever retrospective of Bowie’s career in its exhibition David Bowie is (March 23, 2013–July 28, 2013), featuring objects from the David Bowie Archive.

Update II (3.19.13): I’ve since come to realize that perhaps one of the reasons Bowie was not doing interviews a year or so ago was that he was working top secret on his new album! In an interview with the London Evening Standard, his wife, Iman, is quoted as saying, “Everyone asks, ‘How did he keep it so quiet?’ But they were loyal to his vision and he asked, could they just keep it under wraps til it was released?” Wow.


8 thoughts on “Egon Schiele and David Bowie

  1. Dear Trina,

    I am currently studying at Cambridge University and I am writing my dissertation on the development of mythology surrounding Schiele. I am studying the way that he was depicted in his day by his contemporaries such as Roessler, to the way that he has been represented today as a feminist icon, and, in the case of Bowie, an icon of gender bending. Your masters thesis sounds fascinating! I was wondering whether I would be able to ask you a few questions about it? Is it published? I would love to read it.

    Best wishes,

    1. I’m ordering an extra copy just to pass around to people who’ve expressed interest in reading it. :) The editor-in-chief mentioned she’d like to too, but you’ll have first crack when the bound copies arrive!

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