The Courtauld Gallery, London. 23 October 2014- 18 January 2015.
Featuring some of the “most radical and unflinching depictions of the naked human form in modern times” this current exhibition of thirty eight drawings and watercolours by Egon Schiele at the Courtauld Gallery is a fascinating, explicit and contentious show.
Turn of the century Vienna was an epicenter of societal collapse and cultural rebirth; the city of Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Gustav Klimt, Koloman Moser and Joseph Hoffman. New languages; musical, visual, architectural and psychoanalytical were being developed in a climate of traditional world order conservatism colliding with revolutionary Modernist ideas. Human sexuality, desire and morality were being examined as never before. Instinctual, unconscious drives as the central motivation for human behavior and as a wellspring of creativity demanded a new framework of philosophy, morality and aesthetics. The young artist Egon Schiele actively sought out his mentor Gustav Klimt, a founding member of the Vienna Secessionists and from 1910 began to develop his own response to this milieu. Radical times provoked radical Art; for Schiele a new language of the human body that is no less challenging and confrontational today.
Although we like to tell ourselves that there are no taboos left to be broken in the contemporary world and that freedom of expression is a cornerstone of Western democracy, the prolific growth of the Dark Net as a repository of desire and fear in our technological age would seem to suggest otherwise. Moving around the exhibition I was conscious of the reverential space of the gallery and a certain lack of context around Schiele’s images. That Egon Schiele was a gifted artist and draughtsman is indisputable, however his work casts up a host of ethical questions, not least of which is his depiction of underage female models and the doll-like passivity seen in many of his images of women. If he were alive today he’d be the subject of screaming tabloid headlines and now as in 1912, when he was arrested and served a two month sentence for “contravening public decency”, the man and his art would no doubt be attracting scrutiny from the authorities. There were times when viewing this exhibition that I started to question the artist’s justification for his work:
I still believe that the greatest painters painted the figure…I paint the light that emanates from all bodies. Erotic works of art are also sacred. Egon Schiele, 1911.
What is so fascinating about this exhibition is the way that it confronts the viewer head on with their own beliefs and assumptions about Art, the role of the artist, gender, sexuality, maternity, death and desire. Schiele’s drawings and watercolours of male and female models, including self-portraits, are beautiful and disturbing in equal measure. Often explicitly raw, sitting on an uncomfortable edge between eroticism, Art and pornography, they also provide valuable insight into the human condition; our fears, desires and vulnerabilities.
Male Nude (1909, Watercolour, ink, pencil) presents the viewer with the back view of a male body concentrated on the torso turned away from the viewer, the face entirely hidden in a dark, flattened recess of the picture plane. The sitter’s hand is positioned over his shoulder as if cradling himself. It is an anti-heroic image of masculinity and humanity, a young but ravaged body, intensely vulnerable; the antithesis of muscular, beauty seen in the sculptures of Ancient Greece and defining ideal human form throughout the History of Western Art. Made in the year he dropped out of Vienna’s Academy of Fine Art Schiele visually smashes the plaster casts of antiquity, turning his back on the traditional framework of reference for the nude in Western Art and embracing the Zeitgeist of Fin de siècle Vienna.
Reclining Male Nude (1910, Watercolour and charcoal) presents the figure pushed to the top of the composition, cropped and perched aloft in negative space. As in many of these early works the choice of palette is expressive rather than naturalistic; the model’s flanks in orange and green, his feet defined in blue and purple. The placement of the figure, together with use of colour creates a psychological edge to the image and a pervading atmosphere of unease. Male Nude With Legs Spread, Back View (1910, Gouache, watercolour, pencil) pares the body down to raw flesh and visible vertebrae pushed through the skin, our attention drawn to the stark mortality of bare bone. In Male Nude (1910, Watercolour and charcoal) the green/grey emaciated body on flesh coloured ground is severe and impersonal, face cropped, extending the study beyond the individual to the fragility of all human life.
This idea is also explored in Sick Girl (1910, gouache and black chalk) a subject that extends back to Medieval Dance of Death images and the recurrent theme of Death and the Maiden in Austro-Germanic Art. The actual figure of Death is absent, however the expression in the child’s eyes, wells of all consuming blackness, leave the viewer in no doubt that she is waiting for death. Her naked body is reduced to lines that articulate the tension held in her angular shoulders, her hands raised expectantly over her mouth. It is a particularly disturbing image due to the way that Schiele adorns her pubic area with a halo of heightened white. Her nakedness immediately suggests innocence without this mark. The inference is that Death as the ultimate and final human experience is about to take her ,destroying life and innocence. The Norwegian Symbolist Edvard Munch who was a great influence on German Expressionism also explored the subject of the Sick Child, together with the psychological state of puberty and its attendant anxieties. Schiele’s Sick Girl hovers uneasily between innocence and experience, disease and death.
Schiele’s Mother and Child (Woman with Homunculus) (1910, Gouache, watercolour and pencil) is a highly ambiguous exploration of maternity and desire which subverts the traditional subject of Madonna and Child. The female figure is turned away from the viewer, her rump exposed, a sideways glance to the client, black stockings and a crimson nipple suggestive of her trade. The child is twisted behind her back turning towards her as she is turning away, her attention focused on the male gaze beholding her. “Homunculus” meaning “small human being” or “little man” could apply to the child she is physically rejecting or ironically to the “little man” she perceives looking at her. Her gaze like the display of her body is both seductive and calculated. She is, over and above any maternal instinct, depicted as a sexual being.
Nude Pregnant Reclining Woman (1910, Gouache and black chalk) is another fascinating image of maternity and gender. Dr Erwin Von Graff a gynecologist at the Vienna University Women’s clinic granted permission for Schiele to draw pregnant women and newborns at the hospital. Here the artist depicts a heavily pregnant woman, legs parted, her coloration of her skin painted raw and her face a featureless mask as if her entire identity has been subsumed by the growth inside her belly. The positioning of the pregnant female body is unexpectedly exposed and intimately claustrophobic.
Schiele consistently challenged societal norms throughout his work. Seated Female Nude with Raised Arm (Gertrude Schiele) (1910, gouache, watercolour and black crayon) depicts the artist’s sister, her face shielded and turned away, torso exposed; a study of female form, every line beautifully poised in hues of green, pink and blue. His portrait Sneering Woman (Gertrude Schiele) (1910, Gouache, watercolour and charcoal, white heightening) presents an image of sociability inverted by the hostility of his sister’s expression. The large fashionable hat that would have been worn in public is at odds with the intimacy of her bare breasts and body language; arms folded as a barrier, lips pursed and eyes narrowed to an aggressive sneer.
Squatting Female Nude (1910, Gouache, black chalk, white heightening) reduces the female body to a head and limbless torso reminiscent of ancient Venus figures, but with hands twisted uncomfortably behind the back and rouged nipples grounding the body as an earthly object of desire. Standing Nude in Red Jacket (1913, Gouache, watercolour and pencil) extends the erotic charge of colour further with the limbless torso framed by an open red jacket, red nipples and genitals. The economy of line in this drawing is extraordinary, however it is a beautiful sum of erogenous parts rather than a whole body, a self-possessed individual or an attempt to explore the complexities of female sexuality.
Shiele’s portrait of his lover Wally Neuzil Woman with Black Stockings (1913, Gouache, watercolour and pencil) in spite of having freed limbs is no less passive, the model raising her skirt, lifeless and doll-like. Although this is a supremely balanced and highly skilled drawing, there is no vitality or erotic sense of the sacred present. None of Schiele’s self-justifying “light” emanates from her body. However well executed, it is merely an emotionally vacant image of a woman in sexual servitude of male desire.
In contrast Standing Nude with Stockings (1914, Gouache and black crayon) places the female figure at the centre of the composition; hand on her thigh, poised, angular and assured rather than submissively posed. Schiele’s lines are muscular and supremely elegant, displaying incredible fluency of draftsmanship and arguably a greater degree of equality between female model, male artist and the viewer. Another 1914 work Side View of a Semi –Nude (Watercolour and pencil) displays a more monumental and semi abstract treatment of the body, the folds of fabric ,model’s exposed flesh and the curvature of her stockings rendered with care and precision. Like the adjacent work Friends (1914 Pencil and gouache) where the bodies of two women are melded together in a structural framework of lines Schiele achieves an enviably balanced composition. The two female figures command three quarters of the picture plane, without the psychological imbalance of being shoved into a high corner or severely cropped.
Kneeling Nude with Raised Hand (1910)
The effect of the whole exhibition is much like Schiele’s Kneeling Nude With Raised Hand (Self Portrait) (1910, Black chalk and gouache) where the gaze is turned upon the self and the artist steps directly into the viewer’s foreground, hand raised to stop us in our tracks, his semi abstracted body in red, green and orange sensitively bleak and timelessly confrontational. Between 1910 and his death at the age of 28 from the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic Schiele created an intense and uncompromising body of work. This first major UK museum exhibition devoted to his work for over twenty years and the ethical questions it raises about the role and responsibility of the artist, gender and sexuality are still strikingly relevant.