Egon Schiele – The Radical Nude
The Courtauld Gallery, London
23 October 2014 – 18 January 2015
Vienna has long been a trusted neon sign urgently flashing on the cultural map of Europe and the myth of the city’s early twentieth-century ‘golden age’ stands firm in the British imagination as a beautifully chaotic antechamber before the sprawling death space of World War I. However, as Peter Vergo attests in the catalogue to this exhibition, that intricately cosmopolitan honeycomb awaiting spectacular destruction is really a nostalgic confusion of rose-tinted clichés that is all the more tragic when one considers the role that human suffering and ruinous poverty played in the contemporary city’s history. In fact, the reality is there already in the art, and no artist encapsulates the paroxysms that led its inhabitants to abandon their gilded cage on a Nietzschean caravan to no man’s land as convincingly as Egon Schiele, a painter prodigy who unswervingly drained his present to be even more alive in the future.
This powerful and primal exhibition, which constitutes a brief but inescapably intense encounter with Schiele’s still radical works, is apparently the first in a major gallery in Britain for two decades. This is surprising given the enduring public awareness of an artist who became, along with his mentor Klimt, one of the icons of the twentieth century. And it is more surprising still since, during the eighties, the morbidly romantic eroticism and modernist exuberance of these Austrians touched a nerve in a population jaded by the hackneyed totems of French impressionism. Schiele, with hisSitting woman with legs drawn up, and Klimt, with The Kiss, morphed into the pre-eminent student bedsit poster boys, adorning calendars, tea towels and mugs, their names spoken together like a double act. The hangover from this mass appeal to individual works could easily defuse the impact of the greater whole – as has been the case for Munch with the global saturation of ‘the Scream’ – but undimmed radicalism and sheer technical nerve brims forth from the lesser-known works on show at the Courtauld this autumn.
Sensibly, the curators concentrate on Schiele’s rich stock of nude drawings, a number of which are loaned by champions at the Richard Nagy gallery in Bond Street. It was in his pornographic ‘studies’ of the nude that Schiele peaked creatively, the transience of the flesh and the alternating strength and fragility of human physicality firing him relentlessly to question existence in febrile dowsings with line and colour. Schiele began drawing instinctively as a child, his subjects being the trains and railway tracks observed from his bedroom window in Tulln, the provincial town where he was born in 1890. These showed a startling precision of detail and were executed at dazzling speed. From 1909, the young artist began to focus on the human figure and the remarkable contorted, unsettling images that he created from 1909 were probably influenced by images of patients in convulsive states or suffering deformities, which he saw in the illustrated pages of the journal of the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris. As the grotesque half-rotted mummies in the catacombs of Palermo were to Otto Dix a few years later, these illustrations not only emboldened his morbidly inflamed imagination, but also served as accurate models, enabling him to use a truthful image as the legitimate channel for the graphic expression of mood states.
At the time of their execution, the nudes were understood only by a minority with the vision to feel beyond the stifling assumptions of the immediate epoch. Many saw only the deranged fantasies and depraved indulgences of a trickster or degenerate. A decade or so before, Munch had suffered a similar fate in his homeland, as had Van Gogh before him. But Schiele went further, revelling in sexual explicitness and even sacrificing himself to a traumatic spell in prison on obscenity charges when his graphic works leaked into the conservative provinces. From the early work of 1910 through to the eve of his premature death in 1918, the Courtauld attempts to show how Schiele’s ambitious technique developed and became ever more daring, stark and refined as the artist’s technical bravura and will to surmount any visual obstacle to truth was gradually consolidated.
Passing through its permanent collection, with the colourful patchwork of the Derains, Van Dongens, Vlamincks and odd B-list Kirchner, the Courtauld suddenly gives way to a far more devastating form of expressive art. The first is a spare drawing entitled Sick Girl, a brutally haunting study of a vulnerable prepubescent girl, her juvenile legs and awkward over-large club-like hands drawn bashfully together, her hairless sex highlighted by a faint chalky white halo spreading eerily over her abdomen. The face is yellow, sickly, and the eyes are black, empty, like two buttons, holding all the absence reminiscent of those of a shark. One thinks immediately of Munch, his masterworks Puberty and The Sick Child, which Schiele surely must have known. What Sick Girl shows so forcefully is Schiele’s consistent urge to transmit a sense of corruption beneath the flesh, of death’s dominion within the still living body.