Egon Schiele at The Courtauld Gallery

Egon Schiele at The Courtauld Gallery.

23rd October – 18th January 2015.

The Radical Nude.

First, let me nail my colours to the mast; I am a big fan of Schiele.

This exhibition does exactly what it says on the tin, almost….

Yes, Schiele’s art was Radical. Yes, he did focus on the naked form. But these paintings do not tell the whole story. The curators seem to have sanitised, to a degree, what they have hung. The self absorbed ‘Self -Portrait Masturbating’ is far more radical than the female form (albeit all akimbo, almost gynaecological poses) that had been explored for time in memoriam. That said, it is a wonderful opportunity to see a collection of artworks gathered from various owners that have never been seen before and possibly will never be seen again.

They focus on the period from the year before he left Vienna School of Fine Art (1910) up until his death (1918), a truly meteoric time for Schiele. Bear in mind that, for four of those years, Europe was a raging inferno of war and had a profound effect on creatives in general.

Schiele’s works question mortality, embracing the form and nudity without regard to social acceptance. His self portraits from his early works of this period, in particular the image below, a series known as ‘the radical portraits’, highlights his anger, frustration, self loathing and disgust. Anybody who is, or has attempted, mastering life drawing will see the talent Schiele has for this subject. To some, his work was shocking, outrageous and obscene and, eventually, he was arrested, charged and imprisoned for the ‘exhibition of pornography to minors’ (some of his models were of a tender age!) as depicted in ‘Black Haired Nude Girl, Standing’

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Black Haired Nude Girl, Standing (1910)

When talking about about Schiele I get taken with a sense of sadness, not just because he died of Spanish Flu at the tender age of 28 but simply because it’s plain to see, from his work, that there was an anger /fear/frustration/psychological problem/self pity (tick a box) that drives him deeper into darkness in order to work. He frequently used his sister, Gerti, as a model, the explicit portraits openly parading the adolescents sexuality (see below), something which Schiele himself found irresistible. It was not uncommon for artists to sleep with their models and true to form, allegedly, theirs was an incestuous relationship.

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Squatting Female Nude (1910)

He even demeans her (in my opinion) part in his charade by calling this piece ‘Squatting Female Nude’ with no reference to his model whatsoever, as if to hide his underlying desire…..

This is obviously a man for whom traditional values and conformity were of no consequence. He is not your classical ‘DaVinci’ anatomist, oh no, he deconstructs the form and replaces it with an almost sculptural vision that takes you beyond the human body and into his psyche (not necessarily a good place to be). However his influence by Gustav Klimt is plain to see in the extended, almost emaciated, life forms that exaggerate his use of line and (minimal) use of colour.

The ‘soulless’ creation below shows the utter contempt Schiele has for his own self, the colouring and empty eyes alluding to ‘sickness’, maybe not necessarily of the physical kind.

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Self Portrait Masturbating  (1911)

This exhibition shows Schiele in a paradoxical sense, the dichotomy of his confused mind and desires with an immense and unique talent. The genius of his works is displayed in a semi chronological order and leads the viewer through the changing torment that plagued him. However, to put Schiele into context, one has to ignore his psychological faults and focus solely on his skill and extraordinary frankness of purpose. In his short life Schiele was prolific and controversial, he expanded the boundaries of ‘acceptability’, to his cost, and allowed others a freedom to express (not that many did). His later works, certainly after his release from prison, were tempered somewhat and more sympathetic to his subject.

The following two pieces clearly show this, they differ from earlier nudes by their softness and form, the subject being ‘cloaked’ by the background. Gone are the harsh lines and reddened, engorged genitalia, replaced with a shroud of sophistication and empathy.

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The Reclining Woman (1917)

In the next portrait the subject is ‘anointed’ with a green shawl or kerchief, as if in Madonna pose, again the form is softer, more sympathetic to the model. Only the slightly rouged nipples give hint to previous, more explicit paintings and drawings.

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Crouching Woman with Green Kerchief (1914)

This is not an extensive exhibition, it will not take you more than 2-3 hours to view, look again, and enjoy the 38 works on display but will leave you pleasantly satisfied with the time spent. Nor is it ‘racy’ in the saucy postcard sense. It is homage to the naked form and the female body in particular. It engenders all that is right about line drawing, colour and expansive art. This is a fine show of the works of a highly accomplished artist. Who, whilst misjudged-and judged- in his time, has set a benchmark for the life drawing of the female form in particular. I highly recommend it.