Egon Schiele – The Radical Nude
The Courtauld Gallery
Until 18 January 2015
At least Schiele bemoaned the fact that he, “certainly didn’t feel erotic,” whilst doing his raw, in-your-face drawings of spindly young girls with their legs apart and rouged nipples. There is a perfectly reliable and well-tested method for a man to know what is and what isn’t erotic, and Schiele’s explicit depictions certainly don’t pass the test. They are positively moist with sexuality, and exquisitely drawn, but they are not a turn-on.
Gustav Klimt, his tutor, on the other hand, achieved this with apparent ease, an unwavering eye and subtlety. There is an old adage about the difference between eroticism and pornography: with eroticism, one uses a feather; with pornography, the whole chicken. Schiele’s chickens are not only plucked, they are also spatchcocked, and sometimes headless, and the focus is on the genitals.
The apparent ease with which he delineates his figures is breathtaking, and much imitated by art students across the world. Some of his skin-and-bone models were underage or adolescent, in effect, children, which these days would raise more than just an eyebrow.
He still has the power to shock with his portrayals of pubescence, his sister Gerti being one of his models, whom he persuaded to pose in the nude.
From the thirties onwards, Balthus created quite a stir when he painted young girls revealing their knickers and more, and, as late as last year, Graham Ovenden, one of the Brotherhood of Ruralists, which included Peter Blake, was imprisoned for his unhealthy interest in pre-pubescent girls, whom he photographed and painted in a series called State of Grace. If Schiele was alive today, a fall from grace would be the order of the day and he would be vilified and possibly sent to jail for his prurient interest in children, no matter how good the art was.
And the art is very, very good. Few artists have portrayed the human form with such energy, muscularity and explicitness, apart from maybe Hans Bellmer or Felicien Rops, but Schiele’s studies reveal an inner angst, doubtless fuelled by Sigmund Freud’s analysis of man’s sexual neurosis and desires. His self-portraits particularly display a sexual repression being unleashed in images of thwarted desire, while his raw pictures of his model and lover, Valerie ‘Wally’ Neuzil, and his wife Edith Harms, are seen from above and are clearly inspired by the pornographic images available in the Viennese coffee houses at the time.
Wally was abandoned in favour of the, “more socially acceptable,” middle class Edith, who, at first, banned professional models from the house, and reluctantly posed for some works herself, although insisting that her face be covered. In no time at all, she was posing with wall-to-wall legs, although in the oil painting of Reclining Woman, 1917, he has partially covered her vulva, albeit in a teasing sort of way.
By the spring of 1918, Edith was pregnant, and her husband seems to have grown tired of her, turning his attentions to her sister Adele, whom he persuaded to adopt some increasingly explicit poses.
Schiele’s drawings have a bleakness and detachment, lacking any real emotional involvement, which has the effect of removing any whiff of eroticism from them.
Schiele’s angst-ridden life continued until Edith died of Spanish flu and he followed a matter of days later, at an age of only 28.
He certainly made his meteoric mark in such a short career and gained fame and infamy in equal measures. When he was at Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts, his tutor was the arch-conservative Christian Griepenkerl, and when they acrimoniously parted company, he begged his former pupil, “For God’s sake never tell anyone you studied with me!”
It is astonishing that no major British gallery owns a Schiele, and they very rarely get an airing, the exception being Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900 at the National Gallery earlier this year, and the Royal Academy back in 1990, and there were a small number of drawings for sale at Frieze Masters. With prices now in the millions, however, maybe they have missed the boat?
An excellent, well-written and fully-illustrated catalogue, edited by Courtauld curator Barnaby Wright and others, is available amongst the Vienna Secessionist luxury items and paraphernalia on sale in the gift shop.