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.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

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.

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