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Two 20th Century Masters: Basquiat and Schiele at the Fondation Louis Vuitton

This week, the monumental exhibitions Jean-Michel Basquiat and Egon Schiele opened concurrently at the Fondation Louis Vuitton. The Fondation’s juxtaposition of the two shows unveils an implicit dialogue between the celebrated artists’ styles and temporalities— Basquiat as contemporary and Schiele as modern.

The pairing is a thematic first for the Fondation and also marks the first time that the Fondation Louis Vuitton has presented a major survey of a modern artist of the early 20th century. At the same time, the blockbuster Basquiat show - with an impressive range of loans from major museums and top private collectors around the world - is expected to draw thousands to the new exhibition space in Paris.

Installation view of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Fondation Louis Vuitton

An examination of the two artists’ biographies draws forward an astounding number of similarities; indeed, some commonalities between Basquiat and Schiele's lives, albeit decades apart, are bizarrely analogous. They include the date of the artists’ deaths and the fact that both passed away at the age of 28. Notwithstanding biographical details, artistic and stylistic parallels are also apparent.

Egon Schiele, a young Viennese modernist, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, an up-and-coming wunderkind of the downtown New York art world are believed by scholars to have been absorbed by many of the same themes throughout their brief careers. Both were often preoccupied if not distressed by sexuality, death, and society. The result, of course, was some of the most important modern and contemporary art production of the 20th century. The prolific artists illustrated their anxieties on canvas and paper, yielding tortuous and captivating reflections of their internal notions of society and self.

Installation view of Egon Schiele, Fondation Louis Vuitton

Each monographic exhibition features over 100 important artworks. Each exhibition takes a chronological approach, charting the stylistic and thematic progression of the artists’ oeuvres. Here, we take a closer look at some of the seminal works in the exhibitions, and the layers of meaning behind them.

Four Highlights of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Egon Schiele

Basquiat, Untitled, 1981. Acrylic and oil stick on canvas.

Image courtesy of Fondation Louis Vuitton

Basquiat's figurative paintings are rich with timeless motifs, symbols including heroes, crowns, warriors, halos, and busts. Though it's been nearly 30 years since the peak of his career in the mid-1980s, Basquiat continues to be one of the most celebrated artists of today. Born in Brooklyn, he achieved international acclaim for his sizable, expressive canvases.

An early work, this untitled painting from 1981 is a part of a series of three artworks focused on the subject of Heads. The Fondation Louis Vuitton has now brought the works together for the first time since their creation.

A significant theme for the artist, Heads may refer to numerous concepts; a head signify the artist's self-perception or view of humanity in general. This painting may be read as critical of its subject; here, Basquiat illustrates facial features, while peeling back the colorful skin to reveal sub-layers, effectively excavating the subject through surgical-like markings.


Basquiat, Riding with Death, 1988. Acrylic and oilstick on canvas.

Image courtesy of Fondation Louis Vuitton

A painting that is prophetic in its very title, Riding with Death was created the year of Basquiat’s death. Here, an anonymous figure, red in hue, flails its arms while balancing on a tottering, skeletal horse, clearly signifying death.

Tragedy and human fragility are threads woven throughout the exhibition; after all, it opens with Basquiat's Untitled (Car Crash), 1980, a painting that grapples with the car accident Basquiat experienced as a child. A traumatizing event, Basquiat lived with internal injuries from the episode until 1988.

Nevertheless, the car accident lead the young artist to explore the book Grey’s Anatomy, which many art historians theorize sparked his interest in anatomical subjects. In Riding with Death, Basquiat illustrates a skeletal figure as the representation of mortality and reminds the viewer of their impending fate, much like a contemporary memento mori.


Schiele, Self-portrait, Head, 1910. Gouache and watercolor on paper.

Image courtesy of Fondation Louis Vuitton

The artist Egon Schiele (b. 1890) was active in Europe in the early decades of the 20th century. Born in Austria, Schiele applied to the School of Arts and Crafts in Vienna at the age of 16, was accepted, and soon after became the protégé to famed artist Gustav Klimt.

Despite his involvement in the Vienna Secession and fluency in the popular Art Nouveau style of the time, Schiele maintained an unparalleled independence, largely isolated in his practice. As noted in the Fondation’s exhibition catalogue for the show, in 1911, Schiele wrote to his uncle “I shall arrive at a point where the magnitude of each of my living works will be a source of fright.”

In Self-portrait, Head, Schiele meditates on his perception of self. Much like Basquiat, Schiele was fascinated by the human form and was an artist of figures. This early self-portrait exemplifies Schiele's style as he distorts the subject's features and leaves the viewer with a feeling of passionate intensity.


Egon Schiele, Self-portrait with Peacock Waistcoat, Standing, 1911. Gouache and watercolor on paper.

Image courtesy of Fondation Louis Vuitton

In 1911, Schiele illustrated an alternate view to his self-presentation. In Self-portrait with Peacock Waistcoat, Standing, Schiele stands, hands over chest, and meets the gaze of the viewer. Wearing a haughty expression, Schiele exudes confidence in his appearance and his dress. Nevertheless, Schiele’s bodily features continue to be morphed and mutated. Schiele is dressed in a dignified costume—the ornate natural elements inspired by the Jugendstil art movement—yet he is portrayed as inhuman. His multi-colored fingers are long and deformed; the multi-colored skin tone appears sickly. Schiele’s hair is raised, as if startled by the viewer, while his expression is composed and calm. The head of the figure is surrounded by a white halo; this elevates the portrait to one of an icon or saint.

By closely studying his own figure, much like Basquiat, Schiele examines his impressions of the universal themes of life – sexuality, death, and society.

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Jean-Michel Basquiat and Egon Schiele are on view at the Fondation Louis Vuitton from 3 October 2018 to 14 January 2019

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