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He drew as freely as we sign our names

Egon Schiele (1890-1918) was a genius - as even his slightest, most informal sketches prove. No one in this century, not even Picasso, surpassed him in capturing the character, movement, and individuality of a subject with a few lines and washes of color.

His images are crisp, incisive, and energetic. They bear witness to his brilliant talent for drawing, to his penetrating insight into the thoughts and feelings of his fellow human beings, and to what an artist of genius can accomplish within a life span of only 28 years.

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His talent was obvious right from the start. Even his student work at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts was startlingly accomplished and the equal of what most of his well-known teachers were producing. At 20, his draftsmanship had achieved maturity, and he began to produce some of the finest drawings and watercolors the 20th century has so far seen.

There is always something miraculous about art that is absolutely ''true'' and yet that occupies a niche no similar work has ever occupied before. Schiele's drawings of men and women, of children, plants, buildings, boats, and trees, are totally and convincingly real, and yet they are also as distinctively the product of his hand as Rembrandt's etchings and Miro's squiggles are of theirs. He may have drawn as freely as the rest of us sign our names, but his portrait studies of Max Oppenheimer, Franz Hauer, Max Kahrer, and the many others who sat for him are also excellent likenesses that could only have been drawn from particular human beings.

In fact, who can doubt that everything he drew actually existed? I for one am convinced that the red foxglove he sketched in two or three minutes in 1910 and the boat he rendered with a few lines and swirls of paint in 1912 were right in front of him when he drew them. They are too sharp, too clear, too actual, to have been remembered or imagined.

The fascinating thing, however, is that they were drawn in a style as personal, expressive, and uninhibited as those of Pollock, Kline, or Dubuffet. Schiele no more sacrificed his creative soul or identity by drawing ''real'' things and people than did Pollock in exploding in a torrent of paint dribblings and hurlings. What he did was appropriate for him - and besides, he had his genius and its unique qualities to contend with.

Art critics and art historians too often fail to understand just how imperious an artist's inner drives and vision can be, or how ruthlessly talent or genius can force an artist into a particular direction. They assume that painters and poets create with the same objectivity and calculation with which they themselves write criticism or books on art.

What is an artist to do? Should he or she stifle what rises from within and demands form in order to fit what the art world expects? Or should it be let out and sent on its way regardless of what might happen?

Schiele had no choice but to follow his genius - no matter if it led him in directions he didn't at first understand. It's clear he soon learned to trust it , however, and to realize that it gave significant direction to his life.

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Drawing was the heart and soul, the guiding light of his art. To him it was essential to the full act of perception, not merely a recapitulation of what he had seen a moment or so before. To look, to see, meant to draw. It was that simple. In fact, it would be quite accurate to say that he really perceived the actuality and the significance of what lay before him only when his pencil or brush were acting in perfect synchronization with the movements of his eyes.

In ''Portrait of Max Kahrer,'' for instance, we have what amounts to a snapshot in lines and wash that reveals about as much of the subject as we would see during the blinking of an eye. The sketch is as direct and unselfconscious as a signature dashed off at the bottom of a check - and just as identifiable. Any expert on drawing or on 20th-century art would know instantly that Schiele had made it. The artist reveals himself in the shorthand notations that make up the head, in the dashing lines that fashion the hair, arms, and sleeves.

But mostly, he gives himself away in the manner in which he characterizes his subject. One glance, and we know we are in the ''presence'' of Schiele. Seventy-four years may have elapsed since this study was made, and yet the artist's feelings, mood, and idiosyncrasies come through as clearly as though he were standing before us. We know this is a Schiele because we can sense the man behind the image - just as we can behind his other pictures of people, flowers, trees, or whatever. And just as we can sense Rubens, Cezanne, Redon, and Klee behind everything they drew or painted.

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