Hirmer Publishing is no stranger to surprising readers with completely new perspectives on the world art scene. It does not disappoint with a recent volume investigating the biography of the artist Erwin Osen and his relationship with the Austrian genius Egon Schiele. In our interview, the author, Christian Bauer, delves further into a unique figure, unjustly studied only partially until now, and finally placed in the light he deserves.
What were the key factors of his unique relationship with Egon Schiele and how did you carry out your research about him?
The key factors are based on the youth of Schiele and his search for new and hidden aspects of life and of himself. The main factor is the power of “Coming of Age”. Schiele was searching for new experiences in Vienna after spending years in a quiet, boring neighborhood in Klosterneuburg. Schiele was extremely talented but shy and quiet. Erwin Osen introduced Schiele to a new courage of self-representation (including the nude) and to an unbelievable artistic versatility. With Osen, Schiele’s work turned to the radical nude and to sexuality. Schiele’s portraits of Osen from 1910 were the beginning of Schiele's expressionism, and, last but not least, Schiele was inspired to expand his own repertoire to poetry.
Research about Osen was very time-consuming. It is not so long ago that the only thing we knew about him was his importance for Schiele – mostly because of the article published by Schiele's manager, Arthur Roessler – and only one photo together with Moa Mandu. Osen's autobiographical notes were certainly interesting because of their fantastic stories, but they were not helpful at all in reconstructing the story of his life. In the end, research in Europe and the USA took a great deal of time.
Osen certainly influenced Schiele to the point that Egon’s expressionism, both in painting and poetry, can be attributed to him. Why do you think their friendship was so decisive for the genius painter?
A really important aspect of the friendship was the moment when both artists met. Schiele was 19 years old, and Osen was 18 years old. Schiele was searching for new experiences, as breathtaking as possible. The wildest period of his life began. In that period, the relationship between art and life for Schiele was as strong as ever again. Osen rejected all standard conventions in a breathtaking manner. Just now, Schiele's explosive new approach began with portraits of Erwin Osen.
The male nudes that illustrate the volume can be compared to the women such as Edith, Adele, and Wally, whom we have been admiring for over a century. Do you think the viewers see a difference in their power of communication?
Schiele started the nude with the famous Osen portraits, and Osen's fascinating companion Moa Mandu also led to works of powerful sexuality. Wally and especially Edith and Adele followed years later, when Schiele's work turned into a more conventional view. At the latest, with his marriage in 1915, the wild times were gone. The Osen portraits tell us about the fascination of the very beginning and the start of a new chapter when the consistent repression of sexuality in Austrian art ended.
The comparison between their self-portraits is mesmerizing. Why do you think it took so long to give Osen the recognition he deserves for being a pivotal figure in Schiele’s personal and professional life?
There are many reasons for this. Osen himself managed to obscure his life in an almost singular way. Scholars were faced with missing facts. As a highly polarizing figure, he had many more haters than admirers. Arthur Roessler, with his devastating narrative, ensured that Osen was deeply hurt. Roessler's story about Osen was first published (three years after Schiele's death) in 1921, and the artist was affected so deeply that he never told a single word about Schiele again. Even the family of his second wife, Dorothea Doch, never heard about Schiele from the gifted storyteller.
How did his art change after Schiele’s death, and what new directions did it take in his later years?
It is interesting that we find the roots for Osen's later development within the Schiele time. The shared experience of their Alserbachstraße 39-studio, where, I found out, a cinema was situated, led Osen to a film career. The stories he told about world trips to Asia, South America, and the South Sea led to paintings about plants and life in remote parts of the world, and Schiele’s spiritual period of 1911 and 1912 led Osen to his own spiritual work. Even the dance drawings and paintings point out the attraction of great dancers like Ruth St. Denis, whose Viennese performance in 1906 both artists witnessed enthusiastically.