Fin de siècle Vienna. A city fizzing with avant-garde intellectualism and “new” music. The city of Freud, Mahler and Schoenberg. A city teetering on the precipice of change in the twilight years of the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Onto the artistic scene swaggers Egon Schiele, just 16, a precocious art student and protégé of Gustav Klimt, who was to become a central figure in Viennese art alongside his contemporaries Oskar Kolkoscha, his mentor Klimt and others in the Secessionist group. In 1910 he began to draw the human figure in an entirely new way, so radical and shocking that he fell afoul of public taste and was arrested and briefly imprisoned for obscenity. His work was frank and unflinching in its depiction of the nude, male and female, and it still has the power to challenge the viewer. It speaks directly to us, nearly one hundred years after his death.
“Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude” at London’s Courtauld Gallery is the first time in 20 years that Schiele’s work has been exhibited in the United Kingdom. This two-room exhibition focuses on the drawings and paintings he made during his seminal years in Vienna, a period of fierce creativity and growing recognition, and the work made in his last years before his untimely death in 1918, aged just 28. The first room offers a rich selection of nudes from 1910, including some of his powerful self-portraits. Here, in the bold, angular lines, twisted and distorted figures, and challenging gazes of his subjects, we see Schiele pushing artistic conventions in his direct expression of basic human desires, tensions and fears. His work is raw and honest, sexually and psychologically charged; it throbs with the drama of human experience.
In the second room showing nudes produced over the next nine years of his life, Schiele’s work constantly challenges the viewer with its uncompromising eroticism and the deliberately provocative poses of his models (his sister, his lovers and his wife, female prostitutes and himself). He overturned and transformed long-held traditions of art school life drawing classes with his depictions of the nude, which show rather than imply the sexual body, and his models are frequently explicit in their nudity (“Standing Nude with Stockings”). Some of his female subjects adopt suggestive poses, their clothes drawn up to reveal vividly colored genitalia and spiky pubic hair. Yet despite the unambiguous presentation, the disturbing color palette, and the contorted torsos, one has the sense that Schiele adored women. These drawings are not pretty, in the conventional sense of the word, but they are have a searing intimacy which lends them a unique beauty.
As unusual and distorted as Schiele’s figure drawings may have been, they were based on close observation and a thorough knowledge of human anatomy. His approach to composition and techniques were ground-breaking too: he is thought to have sketched some of his nudes from the top of a step-ladder, with the model lying below, and several of the drawings in the show can be viewed either horizontally or vertically.
Compositionally, the drawings are unconventional and innovative. The figures are usually posed without any context, in stark silhouette against an empty background. Several barely fit on the page. In one female nude the model’s head has been cropped off altogether, forcing our attention onto her body alone.
Although he used charcoal, pencil and ink, Schiele preferred the bold line offered by black chalk, and the great majority of the drawings in the show are drawn in this medium. He drew spontaneously and energetically, hardly ever making corrections. He would then add color, often using red to highlight details — lips, nipples, genitals — and sometimes further isolating contours with a border of white gouache. In other drawings he used color for purely emotional rather than descriptive purposes, completing the figure with a variety of garish yellows, purples and greens.
Egon Schiele reinvented the classical depiction of the nude while others around him were experimenting with Cubism and Modernism (Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” for example), and this important exhibition offers an opportunity to reflect on his enduring influence and to consider with 21st century eyes and sensitivities the incredible productivity of this controversial artist.
Frances Wilson and Nicholas Marlowe
Nicholas Marlowe studied art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art and History at Cambridge University. After working for 30 years in the book trade, he is now a freelance writer and artist.