Mise en scène, Pantomime and Colors as Vehicles of Painterly Psychological Research


Egon Schiele, “Boy in a Sailor Suit”, 1913

We, adults, are adulthood-centered. We are engulfed and swallowed by our “adult” problems, and we forget how we felt when we were adolescents, how many times we thought about ourselves as little monsters who don’t deserve to be in the adult world of “harmony” and “goodness” to which we couldn’t adapt and in which we felt lonely, trapped and oppressed.

What is the painter’s concept of the condition of the boy we see in the painting? First of all, he is as if locked inside a box – so narrow is the space he is located in; his right hand and his legs are violently cut by the frame. Secondly, the boy is neither standing nor sitting. He is tormentingly in between two postures. He is obviously in a sitting position although in discomfort and strain. Schiele eliminates the piece of furniture the boy supposedly is sitting on, probably, because he wants to make a point about the extreme pressures of the adolescent situation (the boy is not confident enough to stand “normally” and not relaxed enough to sit “quietly”). It is as if a person in this “transitional” age literally can neither stand nor sit – he doesn’t have a minimum of peace of soul and body. It is as though the world (the adults’ demands and despotism of the circumstances) forces him to sit literally on the air (reduces his well-being, autonomy and initiative).

Just by combining the absence of seat of any kind and the struggling position of the boy’s hands, Schiele depicts the agony of his body. It is as if the world wants to keep him suspended at a location that is unbearable for him while he desperately wants to get out, escape, to be somewhere else, not in this unnatural position of being in the air without the possibility to stand up straight or sit down. May be, that’s why the boy is in a sailor suit – he dreams about wings of the sales – about being in other places.

If to imagine anybody in real life put in the same physical posture as this boy it could be torture – and torture is the basic metaphor Schiele uses to characterize adolescence with its conflict with the world of the adults, problems with awakening sexuality, permanent competition with peers, and with the incompatibility between a fresh but not very effective mind, and the adults’ elaborated and nuanced dogmatism.

The body of Schiele’s protagonist has resistingly turned to one side while his head and face to another – this adds to the impression of an agonizing muscular strain. The boy’s left arm as if swallowed by the abstract space of an empty-dirty whiteness – this creates the feeling of violence, deprivation and helplessness, and even mayhem. The connotation of the disappearance (amputation) of the adolescent’s left arm and right hand is a metaphor of society’s oppression of children’s masturbation. The absence of any interior or nature in the painting emphasizes the isolation of the adolescent from life, from a balanced living, from any psychological support.

But look at the boy’s face – while his body continues to resist and struggle, his facial expression is amazingly melancholic, defeated. He as if softly appeals for some liberating help from somebody he looks at, may be, his mother.

His hair is of a deep earthy color and its contrast with the light and dark blue of his sailor suit transposes the whole situation into a conflict between earthy life (which is given by the right of having been born) and our imagination and intuition (impregnated by the adult world and simultaneously fighting with it and surrendering to it) – both colored by the skies (with the connotation of dreams and travels, along the sea and the sky, into future or fantasy and delirium, during this life and after death).