Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude Exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, London`
Unlike his contemporaries, Egon Schiele retains the ability to shock his audience more than a century after the Austrian provocateur began drawing and painting his contorted nudes. Driven by curiosity, I felt compelled to be at the Courtauld Gallery, London on opening day, but my comrade was a little more reluctant so it was interesting to feel us diverge and converge throughout the exhibition, weighing up our opinions. Running from the 23rd October until 28th January there is plenty of time to take a peak and let your imagination run wild.
Although his work was perverse, it is no different from the images that advertising, fashion and porn industries overwhelm us with on a daily basis. He is a self-proclaimed voyeur who doesn’t hide his sexuality, but promotes it for all the world to see and I think that there is something admirable about that. Perhaps it’s our British aversion to addressing our instinctive sexuality, but there’s no doubt that this exhibition shows how conservative we still are even 100 years after he was challenged. What was particularly interesting is that pictures like the empowered stance of Standing Nude with Stockings, 1914 and the cobalt blue Squatting Girl, 1917, seem all the more sexually provocative, because the accessories and elements of clothing suggest an element of mystery and obscurity not seen in the bare nudes.
I liked the subdued grisaille palette of the gallery, which was small and intimate. Yes, the intense intimacy made the experience all the more penetrative and all the more excruciating, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Practically speaking, given that there was barely a foot of space between the 38 paper works, the works could have been placed further apart to allow more people to have a closer look, but that would have resulted in an altogether less immersive experience. Two Girls Embracing (two friends), 1915 was one of the most popular pieces and stood alone, allowing the audience the space to contemplate this shocking lesbian embrace in which one girl’s face is doll-like and blank and the other’s is full of life. This piece highlights my complaint that the frames were badly selected, because although there were a handful of beautiful black frames with a gold leaf lining, the majority resembled the remnants of an Ikea sale.
Born in 1890 and educated at the Academy of Fine Arts, Egon Schiele was active in Vienna alongside Gustav Klimt and Sigmund Freud as they all focused on the fundamental nature of human desire. However, soon frustrated with the conformity of academic training, Schiele’s mentor Klimt encouraged the young art student to rebel and join Vienna’s progressive art movement. He painted lovers, sisters and prostitutes performing the most extreme contrapposto stances with painful, angular twists that gave his work strong sexual undercurrents. There is a contrast between the softness of Seated Female Nude with Raised Arm, 1910 in which he captures his sister as a serene, terracotta form, and Woman in Black Stockings (with red garters), 1913. This painting depicts his infamous lover and model Wally Meuzil, therefore her stance is even stronger and more provocative than Klimt or Kokoschka’s portraits.
Frequently challenging the conservative bourgeoisie and the Austrian authorities, he was eventually arrested in 1912 on the grounds of public immorality, because he had been showing adolescents his supposedly pornographic works in his rural town outside of Vienna. Before prison he’d also painted men like The Dancer, 1913 and his portrait of his friend, the bohemian mime artist and painter Erwin Dominik Osen, 1910’s portrait with its lashings of colour and mastery of line, but he progressed to focusing on women. When he was released from prison he returned to the city and not only painted nudes, but also allegorical subjects and landscapes. He predominantly drew female models and focused on his wife Edith Harms from 1915, during which period his work became increasingly popular with collectors.
WWI was to be the demise of Schiele and following intense psychological suffering he eventually died of the Spanish flu in 1918 only three days after his wife at the age of 28. One of his last pieces was Nude Girl with Lowered Head, 1918, which is made from black chalk and watercolour and was published posthumously. There’s a new level of intimacy to this work, which shows his appreciation for the sculptural quality of the female form with this writhing woman and the tendrils of red hair stroking her flesh. The red hair is reminiscent of the symbolic flame-haired sirens of Titian and the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, for whom the colour represented an innate sexuality. I loved how later, Schiele would always add colour to his drawings in a spontaneous manner to bring them to life.
His somewhat unorthodox sexuality was illustrated by his obsession with women who looked ill, malnourished and close to death. His watercolour, pencil and gouache painting Mother and Child, 1910, illustrates his obsession with blending the provocative themes of disease, pregnancy and desire. The fluidity of his work demonstrates his confidence in his nudes, which were astonishingly consistent in style. Given the perverse nature of his work, it was no surprise that as I observed my fellow art lovers, most abandoned their friends and circulated the works in solitude, almost as if it was shameful to be viewing such explicit artworks. I do not believe there’s anything more shocking about these drawings and paintings, than there was about the violence in Anselm Kiefer’s works at the Royal Academy, yet people still crowded in excitement, not phased by the brutality or gore. His famous assertion that “erotic works of art are also sacred,” perfectly captures how his radical depictions of the figure should not be shunned, but celebrated for their innovative spirit.
Written by Flora Alexandra Ogilvy, founder of Arteviste.com