The Courtauld Gallery in London has just opened its exhibition Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude, the first public display of Schiele’s work in the United Kingdom in over 20 years. However I left the galleries incredibly conflicted with what I saw. The adult nudes are extraordinary; the explicit nudes of underage girls though…
The exhibition is rightly called The Radical Nude as Schiele transformed nudes from passive objectification to erotic confrontation. The angles, bold lines & fascinating composition of his adult nudes are exciting and reject the notion of perfection. But for me, all this is tainted by some deeply unsettling work.
Schiele (1890-1918) often painted his younger sister, Gerti, certainly when he first started. That Schiele had strong incestuous feelings for his sister is known. His father even broke down a locked door in the house to prevent Egon and Gerti from spending too much time together. And when he was 16, Egon took the then 12 year old Gerti to a hotel room for the night.
In the exhibition, in the earliest picture of Gerti on display she would have been about 14 or 15 years of age. Illegal now in the UK, but not then in Austria so make of that what you will but these are erotically charged works.
In these pictures Gerti is often in a state of dishabille or completely nude. They are incredible pictures actually, technically, but there’s no ignoring the fact that the girl – Gerti – is young.
Schiele left home for Vienna to study art where he was mentored by Klimt. At this time, as he began to develop his signature style, Schiele was given permission to paint pregnant women and infants at Vienna’s University hospital, a surprising act in itself and one that would (hopefully) be seriously questioned and turned down today.
Included in the exhibition is Nude Baby, a picture of a naked baby boy. The baby’s face is obscured and largely off the paper, much the same way as Schiele did many of his adult nudes, making the torso and the genitalia the main focus.
However it is the painting Sick Girl of a naked young girl, her vagina bathed in a holy white light, I found deeply unsettling. The girl is, maybe 5 years old and she is deathly pale and the warm glow from her vagina the only light in the picture. It’s uncomfortable in every way.
Had Schiele just painted adult nudes, I would be singing his praises. The adult nudes on display are extraordinary. Gone is the conventional depiction of naked women as passive objects of perfect beauty, idealised and idolised for male consumption.
Instead, Schiele’s female nudes are snarling, confrontational models. And they are glorious. Their bodies almost sculptural with their strong physical presence, emphasised by Schiele’s bold strokes, his fearless compositions, and his splash of bright colour to emphasise their sexual arousal.
Schiele rarely if ever erased lines in his drawings. He would work them over, drafting on top of drawn lines, until he was happy with the final shape. And the angles in his bodies are so interesting. The traditional Ruben-esque softness is gone, replaced with bone and muscle. In some of Schiele’s male nudes – probably self-portraits – the torso is almost emaciated with protruding ribs visible. Schiele’s nudes are not about physical beauty.
And the composition is just so fearless. All context, backdrop, even any support the models are reclining on is stripped out of the picture so that the naked body is vivid and unfettered. I think this would be considered radical even today.
Which is why I am so conflicted over how to balance my love for Schiele’s adult nudes with his unsettling images of underage girls and infant boys.
We rightly celebrate the radicals who challenge convention but at what point do we say artists cross the line? If Schiele’s nudes of underage girls were photos on a computer, looking at them would be a crime. So is it ok we consider the drawings art?
On Twitter, some have tried to mitigate my opinions with comments such as “important difference between real life and drawings” but I profoundly disagree. An image is an image is an image. Are people only criminals when they have a camera? I cannot agree with that, I just can’t. So where that leaves me and my opinion of Schiele, I am still unsure.
Schiele died young, only 28 years of age, of Spanish flu. I agree that he died very much on the cusp of greatness, cut off before he really hit his stride. Therefore the exhibition is small, only two rooms, but it is worthwhile not just to appreciate his technical skills but also to wrestle with how Schiele’s radicalising works sit with us today.
Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude at The Courtauld Gallery, London
To January 18, 2015
Admission: £8.50 (concessions available)
1. Egon Schiele (1890-1918) Standing Nude with Stockings, 1914 Black chalk and gouache 48.5 x 32.1 cm Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremburg
2. Egon Schiele (1890-1918) Crouching Woman with Green Kerchief, 1914 Pencil and gouache 47 x 31 cm The Leopold Museum, Vienna
3. Egon Schiele (1890-1918) Nude Self-Portrait in Gray with Open Mouth, 1910 Black chalk and gouache, 44.8 x 32.1 cm The Leopold Museum, Vienna
4. Woman in Boots with Raised Skirt 1918 Black crayon 43.5 x 28 cm Private collection c/o Richard Nagy