An early painting that Egon Schiele created while still a teenager has been rediscovered after its location was unknown for over 90 years. The painting, Leopold Czihaczek at the Piano (1907), depicts Schiele’s uncle and guardian and was rediscovered in a private collection in Vienna. It will go on public display on long-term loan at the Leopold Museum in Austria, which possesses the largest collection of works by the Expressionist painter in the world.
In the painting, Czihaczek, a railway official who became Schiele’s guardian after the artist’s father died, is shown in profile playing the piano in a dimly lit interior.
The early work was painted when the artist was just 16 and still a student. Its owners have agreed to a five-year loan of the work to the museum in Vienna.
The work has also been minted as an NFT, as part of an exclusive NFT collection of 24 paintings and drawings by Schiele. This collection is produced in partnership with the pioneering Paris-based NFT platform LaCollection. Proceeds from the NFT sale are going towards the discovered painting’s restoration and the expansion of the Leopold Museum’s Schiele collection.
The Leopold’s NFT project
The Leopold Museum’s Paula Freisl, executive assistant to the director, coordinated the NFT project. She tells blooloop:
“I was very involved in the beginning, then I took over the project and coordinated it internally. There were a lot of people involved in it on our side, from the marketing department to the press department. I coordinated it overall.”
She outlines the innovation from its inception:
“We were starting to think about doing NFTs last summer, together with the Austrian Post. They were pioneers in the field of crypto stamps. They introduced the concept of NFTs to us – it was very new to us, last summer. We were still in the talking phase and didn’t have a specific project. Then we found LaCollection, and what they were doing with the British Museum.”
Bringing art to the people
LaCollection is a French startup co-founded by entrepreneur Jean-Sébastien Beaucamps. Its role is to help companies achieve their digital transition into the NFT ecosystem.
In 2021, alongside a Hokusai exhibition, The Great Picture Book of Everything, the British Museum and LaCollection released an inaugural drop of more than 200 Hokusai NFT works, released over several months, some at fixed prices, others at auction. The goal was to create a parallel with the physical exhibition and to introduce digitally native audiences to one of the world’s oldest museum collections.
“We really liked what they were doing,” Freisl says:
“It was exactly what we wanted, which was to stay true to ourselves, and the core values of the museum; not just creating a commercial project, but making it about the art, and bringing the art to the people.”
The Leopold Museum reached out to LaCollection in January 2022.
“We started talking. They were a wonderful, very professional team, and thrilled that we had reached out to them. It’s a great startup. They made a cool roadmap, and within a short period, we were ready. We started at the end of February after we had settled the legal elements and contracts, and then we launched in May. They put it together beautifully in a very short time.”
LaCollection partners with EcoTree.green, a certified B-Corp, to neutralise the environmental impact of minting its NFTs.
A new approach
The Leopold Museum is keen to be a first mover:
“We knew that the Belvedere Museum Vienna had already done NFTs of Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss. So, they were the first, but we had a different concept.”
While the Belvedere’s drop, limited to 10,000 pieces, consisted of 10,000 unique parts of the high-resolution image of The Kiss, each imprinted with the number and its distinctive coordinates, the Leopold’s approach was different. Freisl explains:
“We didn’t want the NFTs to be fractions. We wanted to sell them in editions, always keeping the image whole. Also, we were very keen on being the first one, and that there wouldn’t be another Austrian museum coming before us. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves.”
Discovering a lost painting
She describes how the Schiele painting that had been missing for a century came to light:
“A year and a half ago last Fall, our Schiele expert, Verena Gamper, received a call from someone asking if we could recommend a restorer because he had a Schiele painting with water damage. It was nothing severe, but there had been water damage in his apartment, and a little water had got on the painting.”
The Leopold Museum was interested, and tried to ascertain which Schiele painting this could be:
“We have the biggest Schiele collection there is, and usually have a knowledge of where every work is. So, we were very curious about who this man was, and what painting he had. He gave us the dimensions, which were unusual, and described the picture.
“From the dimensions and the subject, a certain painting came into Verena’s mind; a painting which was only known from a black-and-white photograph from 1930.”
The Leopold Museum: home to the world’s biggest Schiele archive
The missing work was last cited in Rudolph Leopold’s 1972 catalogue raisonné of the artist. This monograph forms the basis for Egon Schiele’s world fame. The other main source material verifying the discovery is the 1930 photograph. Freisl explains:
“We don’t just have the biggest Schiele collection, we also have the Schiele archive. This includes a lot of postcards, letters, and photographs. The photograph was in this archive. It shows the living room of Leopold Czihaczek, Schiele’s uncle and legal guardian, and at the back of the room, you can see this painting on the wall.”
“No one had ever seen the actual painting. It was assumed that, like so many other paintings, it had been lost or destroyed in the war. But it turned out it was not lost. It had always been in the collector’s family.”
An exciting find
Gamper went to investigate. Freisl continues:
“It turned out to be this painting. Verena was quite sure from the beginning but of course, we had to authenticate it. We brought in other experts who confirmed that it was the real Schiele. It was the most incredible piece of luck.
“Schiele created a lot of paperwork; drawings and watercolours pop up sometimes. People find them in the attic, or among their grandparents’ things – but paintings, never.”
Had the painting not been damaged, it might have remained lost.:
“It would probably have remained in the family. The owner’s children knew there was a Schiele in the apartment, but they weren’t particularly interested in art. They took it for granted because it had always been there. It’s incredible, and the most wonderful thing is that they reached out to us, and are very open to giving the Leopold Museum the painting on loan.”
The painting is currently undergoing restoration but will be on display shortly.
The origins of the Leopold Museum
The Leopold Museum was founded by Rudolph Leopold, an ophthalmologist from Vienna and one of the first to appreciate the work of Egon Schiele, and his wife Elisabeth, also an ophthalmologist and art connoisseur.
“Rudolph Leopold started collecting in the 1950s when Schiele wasn’t popular at all. He was still a student when he bought his first Schiele painting. Because he started collecting the work at a point when nobody else wanted it, he assembled a beautiful collection not only of Egon Schiele, whose work was just the starting point, but of the whole period: Vienna, 1900.”
“Around 1900, Vienna was really buzzing. There were a lot of artists here. And there was a lot going on in the fields of science and literature as well as art. They were interconnected, and people would meet in cafes to talk and exchange ideas. Schiele and Klimt were very much influenced, for example, by Sigmund Freud.”
Focusing on an interesting period
The art in the Leopold Museum is not limited to paintings and drawings:
“We also have furniture, and design objects: vases, cutlery, glasses, jewellery. Over the years, Rudolph Leopold and his wife Elisabeth amassed the most important collection of art from Vienna around 1900.”
Today, the Leopold Museum is home to one of the world’s most important collections of Austrian art, comprising around 6,000 artworks. It focuses on the second half of the nineteenth century, and subsequent Modernism, showcasing the intersection of art with the intellectual world of ‘Vienna around 1900’, which charts historical developments from the Biedermeier period to Atmospheric Impressionism, to Expressionism, to New Objectivity, in great depth.
“The wonderful thing is that the Leopolds’ huge collection became a museum. It was founded 20 years ago; we celebrated our 20th-anniversary last year.”
Rudolf Leopold served as the museum’s director until his death on June 29, 2010. In addition to the preservation of the collection, its public presentation, and ongoing scholarly reappraisals, a key objective of the Leopold Museum today is the expansion of the collection through acquisitions and the presentation of permanent loans.
The Leopold Museum’s mission
While the museum has grown in scope, she comments:
“The Leopolds’ collection still forms the core of our museum and our permanent exhibition, the ‘Vienna 1900’ exhibition.”
The museum’s mission is to educate about art and to bring the joy of art to people.
“We are trying to do this in a way that removes barriers. A lot of people have reservations about going into a museum; they find it intimidating, or feel it isn’t for them.”
To address this, she says:
“We work to bring the museum to children, showing them that it’s fun, and there’s nothing scary about it. We have lots of programmes with schools and after-school programmes. Also, we have initiatives and special discounts for unemployed people.”
“We also feel the NFT project is a great way to democratise art. We are bringing it to the metaverse, and making it more accessible to new audiences that we feel would really enjoy our art.”
The NFT collection was launched not only in the digital space but in a launch and pop-up exhibition, Timeless Reflections, in a New York gallery, hosted by La Collection in collaboration with the Leopold Museum.
Exhibited during Frieze Week 2022, and open to the public through 22 May, the pop-up brought Schiele masterpieces to life on screens.
“So we didn’t just launch online in the metaverse. We also had this gallery space where we showed our NFTs on screens, together with contemporary artists, like Marjan Moghaddam, who was inspired by Egon Schiele, and it really shows in her art.”
Other artists showcased were Stine Deja, Signe Pierce, and LaTurbo Avedon.
“I really like the idea of doing an exhibition, because that’s what we do as a museum,” Freisl comments. “For that week, the digital and the physical space interacted.”
In short, she adds:
“It has been wonderful. The story of the lost painting went around the world. We still have people coming to the museum with articles cut out of newspapers, asking where the painting is. Unfortunately, we have to tell them it’s not ready yet, but it will be ready soon when the restoration is finished. It is wonderful, too, that we could afford the restoration with the revenue from the NFTs.”
Vienna 1900 at the Leopold Museum
Vienna 1900 is the permanent exhibition at the Leopold Museum. This provides insight into the explosion of creativity as the Austro-Hungarian empire neared its disintegration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Special galleries are dedicated to Schiele, Klimt, Gerstl, Kokoschka, Schoenberg, Hoffmann, Loos, Moser, and more. One exhibit showcases a reconstruction of Klimt’s studio.
The Egon Schiele collection is the largest and most important in the world, celebrating the artist who, in a short, productive life, created an oeuvre that reflected his time, but which contrived to transcend the bounds of conventional contemporary art, and which secured his place as one of the most formative and colourful figures of Viennese Modernism.
Top image: LaCollection & Leopold Museum Dinner – THE ORIGINAL EGON SCHIELE NFT COLLECTION at White Space Chelsea on May 16 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Ostuni/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)