Review: Life in Motion: Egon Schiele & Francesca Woodman, Tate Liverpool ‘Wondrous’

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It’s quite something for a joint show on two artists I admire hugely to live up to my own (very high!) expectations. I guess that makes Life in Motion a hugely impressive exhibition. And it is. Yet I also found the collection of works from these two artists so well thought through and curated that this display even challenged the preconceptions I had about each artist and their outlook. 

Egon and Francesca were two artists from completely different backgrounds, working in different eras and generations, in entirely different mediums – yet they shared a common interest in challenging the depiction of the nude in art. For Egon, it was all about the real and the raw; for Francesca, she wanted to examine the nude via the female gaze, remove it from its trappings in art history and frame it with sensuality and curiousity.

Or so I had thought, but – as I’ll come to later – such simplistic notions were challenged by this wondrous show.

But these were also two artists defined by their early deaths, Francesca from suicide at 22, Egon from the Spanish flu when he was only 28. Not that I am one to get hung up on this sad footnote, which has been sensationalised to a degree in both artists, but it is important to recognise the enduring influence of both these pioneering artists despite their careers being cut short so early.

The shadow of Egon’s radical works you can still see today in just about every nude going in contemporary art, from Lucien Freud to Tracey Emin and Jenny Saville. The way he wrenched the nude free from its place as an idealised form in art has left a long (long, long) legacy.

And as for Francesca… Well, her ethereal black and white photography, using her own body as subject matter and as a source for inspiration and exploration, remains an enduring influence on so many contemporary photographers, from professionals to today’s art school graduates.

Yet, as I say, so much of what I thought I knew about these 20th century greats was turned on its head by a show that demonstrated a softer, more sensual side to Egon Schiele’s work, and a tougher, more confrontational side to Francesca’s.

Taking Egon Schiele first, nudes such as Self Portrait in Crouching Position, 1913, (above) show his hallmarks. The body is angular, the bones obvious and joints such as the elbows are pointed, even protruding. The white skin is deathly pale, even seemingly translucent, and the body itself is often thin with the limbs in evidently uncomfortable positions.

There is such a sense of pain, even torture, in his earlier work. Add to that the, often, direct eye contact between subject and viewer and these are confrontational and raw pictures. Unspoken themes of poverty and anger simmer under the surface. There is marginalisation here, but there is also truth. And that truth is literally laid bare in other pieces such as Reclining Woman with Green Slippers, 1917, (above) where the woman, dress pulled up to her waist, leaves nothing hidden.

These harsh hard-edged explicit portraits are miles away from Rubenesque fantasies – but also seemingly worlds apart from the dreamy sensual nakedness of Francesca Woodman’s iconic self portrait of her curled around a bowl with an eel in it, which hangs in the same show (and is shows above and in my screensaver, just so you know). Here, dark shadows lend an atmospheric, surreal mood that casts her body with a romantic, almost gothic, tone that bears so little relation to Egon’s work where figures lack any context or background, the figures in sharp contrast to the pale paper they are drawn on.

This is what I expected and it’s certainly an impressive haul of works from both artists on display here. I’ve always loved Francesca’s photography; it blends a darkly surreal beauty with the female gaze. And Egon’s in-your-face works never cease to amaze.

That’s not to say all of Egon’s work sits well with me. His use of child models in some of his earlier works, and his relationship with his 14-year old sister, remain unsettling. But such is the breadth of his works on display here that you see a more affecting, touching side too.

Take the surprisingly sensual red-headed female nude from 1911. Her curves are softer, the gentle flush in her cheeks more passionate, and the way her head falls to one side more affectionate than you’d expect. Then there’s Seated Boy, 1911, where the thin boy in the picture is depicted more with a fragility, an obvious sympathy emanating from the artist.

What you’d expect from Francesca’s works are also challenged here too. She’s never given enough credit for her technical skills as a photographer and that skillset really comes to the fore in images where her arms seem to blend into elm tree trunks, and those nudes where her body seems to blend, even morph into, ragged sheets of wallpaper that are peeling from the walls behind her.

But there’s toughness too. An image of Francesca’s stomach and breasts pinched tight into more than a dozen clothes pegs is as wincing as some of Schiele’s more uncomfortable nudes. And the departure from her usual kindness to the female body also shows up in Horizontal, where her legs are wrapped in what is extremely tightly wrapped see-through tape.

It was illuminating to see more multi-faceted work from this pair than perhaps I, and many others, have credited them with. Fate cruelly robbed us of both these talents just as they were getting started and this exhibition shows they both had so much more to give.

Tate Liverpool, Liverpool, to September 23, 2018.
Admission £12.50 (concessions available)

Image Credits:

1 Egon Schiele, Standing Male Figure (Self-Portrait), 1914. Gouache and graphite on paper 460 x 305 mm National Gallery, Prague and; Francesca Woodman, Eel Series, Venice, Italy 1978. Gelatin silver print 219 x 218 mm. ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 © Courtesy of Charles Woodman/Estate of Francesca Woodman

2 Egon Schiele, Self-Portrait in Crouching Position, 1913. Gouache and graphite on paper, 323 x 475mm.  Moderna Museet / Stockholm

3 Egon Schiele, Reclining Woman with Green Slippers (Liegende Frau mit Grünen Hausschuhen) 1917. Gouache, watercolour and black crayon on paper 297 x 458 mm. Private Collector

4 Francesca Woodman, Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island 1975–1978. Gelatin silver print 109 x 109 mm. ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008

5 Francesca Woodman, Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976. Gelatin silver print 143 x 144 mm. ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 © Courtesy of Charles Woodman/Estate of Francesca Woodman

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