In June of last year, Jane Kallir of the Galerie St Etienne in New York received an email from an art handler who suspected they had stumbled upon something remarkable in a Queens thrift store: a drawing by Egon Schiele, one of the leading figures of Austria’s Expressionist movement. Kallir didn’t think much of it.
“Ninety percent of the time they’re wrong,” Kallir tells the Art Newspaper’s Nancy Kenney of the strangers who frequently reach out with claims that they have found lost Schiele artworks. “Most of them are fakes—egregious copies.”
The handler, who wishes to remain anonymous, had attached photos of the drawing, but they were blurry. Kallir, who is the gallery’s co-director, requested they clearer images. It took the handler almost a year to respond. When Kallir finally saw the new photos, she realized that she might in fact be looking at a genuine Schiele. She invited the owner to bring the work to her gallery, which specializes in Austrian and German Expressionism and was in fact the first American institution to stage a one-person Schiele show in 1941. Kallir herself was a driving force behind a new digital catalogue raisonné of the artist’s work.
Purchased at a Habitat for Humanity ReStore, the pencil drawing depicts a nude girl reclining on her back, the contours of her ribs protruding unsettlingly above her navel. The type of paper and black pencil used were consistent with other Schiele drawings, Kallir determined when she saw the artwork up close. And the style—the style was signature Schiele.
“If you look at the way this girl is lying on her back, and you look at the foreshortening both on the rib cage and on her face, and the way you see that little nose pointing up—think about how difficult that is to do,” Kallir explains to Kenney. “There are very few people in the history of art who can draw like that.”
Over the course of his short but prolific career, Schiele created some 3,000 drawings and 300 paintings. His works were often explicit nudes, at once erotic and hideous. Tortured expressions, twisted limbs and voyeuristic angles were frequent motifs of Schiele’s art.
Kallir believes that newly surfaced drawing was painted in 1918, not long before the artist died of the Spanish flu at the age of 28. The girl in the photograph modeled frequently for Schiele, as did her mother. Kallir tells Kenney that the drawing belongs to a series of 22 other works, two of which she believes were painted on the same day as the new piece. Those two works are now held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Leopold Museum in Vienna, Austria, reports CNN’s David Williams.
With its overt depiction of a young, naked model, the drawing is emblematic of the thornier aspects of Schiele’s legacy. In his own time, Cody Delistraty of the Paris Review reports, he was known for hosting teenage girls in his studio. One town where Schiele took up residence was so scandalized by the artist’s reported practice of enlisting teenagers to model for him that its citizens drove him out. Then came the incident that would put a stop to Schiele’s inclusion of young subjects in his art. One 13-year-old Tatjana Georgette Anna von Mossig asked the artist to take her from Neulengbach, Austria to Vienna, to live with her grandmother.
“Like many young people, she wanted to escape her provincial town ... but once they got to Vienna, Mossig had a change of heart and wanted to return home,” Delistraty writes. “The next day, Schiele and [his lover, Wally] Neuzil dutifully returned her. In the meantime, however, her father had gone to the police and filed charges of kidnapping and statutory rape against Schiele.”
Those charges were ultimately dropped, but following his arrest in 1912, he was sentenced to a brief stint in prison for exposing minors to pornographic material—his art—which police found when they came to arrest Schiele.
In recent years, some museums hosting Schiele exhibitions have opted to include wall text mentioning the charges of sexual misconduct that were leveled against him. But Kallir is among those who believe that Schiele has been unfairly branded as a sexual offender. “[P]resent-day standards are so very different from those that prevailed in early 20th-century Austria,” she wrote in the Art Newspaper last year.
Galerie St. Etienne is displaying the newly discovered drawing as part of an exhibition titled “The Art Dealer as Scholar,” which also features works by Käthe Kollwitz and Alfred Kubin. The drawing is for sale; Kallir tells Kenney that she suspects it will fetch between $100,000 to $200,000.