NB: The Leopold Museum recently redesigned its permanent exhibitions. I’ll update this page as soon as I can visit the new layout. Until then, the below may not be entirely accurate…
The two permanent exhibitions at the Leopold Museum provide unparalleled insight into the lives and works of the “Viennese” artists active as Austria’s empire neared its disintegration in the early 20th century.
With over 40 paintings and almost 200 works on paper, the museum’s Egon Schiele collection is rightly considered world-leading.
While the works on paper are too vulnerable for regular display, Schiele’s paintings build the bulk of the museum’s “Egon Schiele” floor. (If you have a wider interest in the artist, be sure to visit the Schiele in Vienna page).
Schiele – general impressions
Like the rest of the museum, the tall, open galleries are very easy to walk round. They take you chronologically through Schiele’s life and work, from his birth in 1890 in Tulln to his death in 1918 in Vienna.
I’m not an art expert (or an anything expert, frankly), so I appreciated the biographical displays in each room describing key events and influences, and peppered with anecdotes. For example, you can see a copy of his exam report from the Academy of Fine Arts. Let’s just say he wasn’t teacher’s pet.
Each room’s paintings then reflect this chronology, so you follow Schiele’s development as an artist and man. The works are spread out, sometimes no more than a handful in a gallery. Since the labels are also often offset from the referenced work, you can focus entirely on a single piece without distraction.
The occasional quote, poem, letter or photo rounds out the display.
Schiele – highlights
Be sure to watch the 20 minute film (which has English subtitles), since Elisabeth Leopold gives some insight into the defining characteristics of selected Schiele masterpieces in the collection.
If you’re not averse to darker themes or nudity, some of the works certainly hold the attention of even the untrained eye. The one painting that sticks most in my memory is “Seated Male Nude“(self-portrait) with its glowing red eyes and brazen angularity.
Schiele was seemingly quite into self-portrayals and once you’ve done a round of the galleries you start to recognize his face or mannerisms in pictures that were not strictly self-portraits. (Cough, narcissist, cough).
Given the stark nature of most of the pieces it then comes as quite a surprise to see the almost innocent-like “Self-Portrait with Striped Shirt” where his youth shines through:
Other paintings to look for include “Levitation“, an allegory on death, and the portrait of his model, muse and long-time companion Wally Neuzil (a piece that was stolen by the Nazis before it ended up – legitimately – in the Leopold collection):
The Leopold Museum website has, of course, more detail on the various masterpieces you can admire.
The floor above Schiele is dedicated to art in Vienna in the very late 19th and early 20th century, particularly the time around the Vienna Secession and through to the end of WW1. This means names like Klimt, Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffmann, Oskar Kokoschka, Adolf Loos, Albin Egger-Lienz, Koloman Moser and others.
Each gallery addresses a particular artist (e.g. Richard Gerstl) or theme (e.g. the Wiener Werkstätte) through a display of works, perhaps biographical items (where relevant) and explanatory text. So you get a clear, compact overview and an opportunity to decide for yourself if the style or genre is your thing.
Gustav Klimt gets his own gallery, of course, with his “Death and Life” painting a highlight of the collection:
I was strangely fascinated by a small display of postcards written (not designed) by Klimt – a splash of banality that contrasts with the rich imagination of his works. You can also see a full reproduction of his 1912 studio, complete with its unique “Malkästchen” for storing his painting utensils.
Another highlight was the room dedicated to the Wiener Werkstätte, with furniture and everyday items designed by some of Vienna’s famous creators. There is something captivating about viewing a simple chair designed by the man who designed this, or a coat rack by the man who designed this.
In summary, the exhibitions manage to present the works and the artists in a way that leaves both experts and the casual visitor happy with their experience. And you can’t ask for much more than that.