Great Works: 'Sunflower II' (circa 1910), Egon Schiele

Wien Museum, Vienna

Egon Schiele is among the saddest and most curious of great painters. He died very young, having fallen victim to the great flu pandemic which killed so many in the immediate aftermath of the First World War.

His creative life as a painter was crammed into a decade of near feverish activity. His works, often produced on poor materials, such as bits of scavenged paper, are those of a young man who worked with a furious, anxious intensity; brilliant, painfully febrile, immature in their particular, no-holds-barred passion. Above all things else, he was obsessed by the human body in all its pitiful and horribly vulnerable nakedness. He drew it and he painted it again and again, portraying it as tortured, dispossessed. The body was an ungainly, ever-teetering column of awkwardnesses, wrapped about by ill-fitting arms, and always weighted by a great raft of melancholy. Its strange and pitiful frailties was a subject of obsessive interest to him, one that he could never throw off.

In this painting of 1910, he fleetingly shifts his attention to a subject heavy with symbolic association. This was a year of breakthroughs for Schiele, the year in which he came of age as an Expressionist painter, the year in which he defined the themes that would obsess him until his death: sexual desire, death, mortality. In these paintings, often produced at great speed, he shifts identities again and again. In one painting he is a narcissist, in another a dandy, in a third a horribly uncertain, anguished, vulnerable specimen – as if he is closely examining a tweezered-out specimen of a human being. It was also a year in which he experimented with landscape painting. As with his portraits, the atmosphere of these paintings feels tense, crammed, almost claustrophobic with natural or man-made forms, as if each element scarcely has room to breathe.

How did the painting of a sunflower feed into this ever-hurrying pursuit of self-discovery? Painters have treated flowers in such different ways. Monet's approach could be summed up by a statement that he made in 1895: "There is nothing in the world that interests me other than my paintings and my flowers." When Monet paints, he seems to be caressing flowers with a near-religious fervour.

Other painters stand apart from flowers, respecting or lauding them as heroic symbols of national pride – think of the lily and the rose. Van Gogh painted his celebrated cycle of sunflower paintings with a kind of gulping manic joy, all of a rush, in 1888. He called them symphonies in blue and yellow. How different in mood and atmosphere they are from this painting by Schiele! To Schiele, the sunflower is a stricken flower worthy of a dragging dirge – the second movement of Beethoven's Eroica, for example.

He has also, by comparison with Van Gogh, done something slightly unusual here. In this painting, Schiele seems to be occupying the middle ground. He respects the symbolic properties of this sunflower, and yet, at the same time – such is his near-addiction to the subject of the human body – he turns this image of a flower into something close to a portrait of a tenuous human being, akin to one of those street children he used to paint.

Yes, the truth seems to be that Schiele was as little set apart from this sunflower as he had been from any of those bodies that he took apart and reassembled on paper with an almost horrifying degree of fascination. In fact, could we call this a sunflower at all? Is it not really a stand-in for a tragic human being, half in the embrace of death?

It is so evidently stricken in so many ways. For a start, it seems much too tall, thin, spindly for its own good, as if, having reached so far towards the sun, it could no longer bear the considerable weight of its own black, lolling head. Such colour as the painting possesses in any vigour is right at the sunflower's foot – a tiny riot of spilling oranges and reds. This is evidently a bunch of flowers which seems to be offering itself up to the sunflower, eagerly, crowdingly, childishly. It is a fleeting interlude of delight in a scene not otherwise optimistic at all.

The sunflower on its long, straight stem seems terribly confined within its painted format, almost as if imprisoned within such narrowness. Pallid leaves cling limply close to the stem, painted in very pale and washed-out greens and browns. They look like flags without so much as a breath of wind to stir them. The head of the sunflower stares directly back at us, as if appealing for attention. It is withered, dying, almost black, featureless. It is a face that stares, but an empty face, too, a face that is incapable of communication. The tiny leaflets that surround it are shrivelling up.

There is no potency in this flower, no strength, no element of heroic gesturing or pleasure-giving, as we see so often in painted flowers. This is not a flower which has been made to pose for our delectation, as in so many 17th- and 18th-century still lifes. Instead, it feels painfully isolated, alone and miserably self-sustaining. It is posed, tragically, mired in its own isolation, so far from the pleasure-giving group at its foot which seems to wish to console it in some way, as it reaches up and up, defencelessly. If you compare the postures of Schiele's drawings of human beings and the posture of this sunflower, you will see that there are remarkable similarities. The flower looks scrawny, louche, emaciated, as if, painfully resigned to its own exposure to the painter's gaze, it is posing to earn a few snatched coins – as the street children that Schiele painted would have done. It feels and looks tense and self-conscious.

How much did Schiele see himself as a kind of flower withering on its stem? His father had died of a sexually transmitted disease, and Schiele not only felt haunted by the manner of his father's death, but also had a life-long conviction that sex and death were inextricably intermingled. To be a human being at all was likely to be a tragically stricken fate. His marriage was an unhappy one – when he paints his wife, he evidently experiences joy in the contemplation of the colours and the patterning of the dress she is wearing, but in little else. At about this time, he was doing portraits of himself in which his limbs lie across his body in attitudes of pain – a little like a dying flower, so soon gone. Two years later, he was to bring together the motifs of both artist and plant in a painting called Self-Portrait with Winter Cherry.


Egon Schiele, who died at the age of 28 in 1918, was one of the foremost Austrian Expressionists. His fundamental themes were eroticism, sexuality and death. His speciality was the starkly realistic depiction of the naked body – tortured, twisted, almost turning on a spit. In short, he portrayed human life as something horribly exposed.

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders