Small as the Courtauld Gallery may be, it’s host to an array of significant artworks. Its latest exhibition “Egon Schiele – the Radical Nude” is no exception, and that this is the first UK show devoted to Schiele in over twenty years makes it even more special. The exhibition is on the top floor of the gallery in two inconspicuous, easily bypassed rooms. Just at the entrance, a sign warns of the explicit nudity to be encountered inside – even a hundred years on, Schiele’s work still has the ability to shock.
And the nudes are radical indeed! Rather than idealising the bodies of studio models as was academic practice in early 20th century Vienna, Schiele chooses his from the streets, so-called “Mizzis,” young prostitutes from the lower classes, and street urchins. He also draws his sister Gertrude and patients in Vienna’s women’s hospital (on the permission of his gynaecologist friend Dr Erwin von Graff) and himself – a strange assembly of family, friends, lovers and patients that we encounter here. What makes these bodies so “radical” is the way their nudity is enhanced by covering some parts of the body and exposing others, by highlighting young girls’ vaginas in bright reds while colouring their skin purple, grey and green. This creates an element of shock, a confrontation with very young girls in uncomfortable, sexually explicit poses- and yet, they’re not only erotic but also look unhealthy, half-dead even. Schiele’s self-portraits in the second room are no more forgiving: the artist colours his skin purple and black, makes terrible grimaces and amputates limbs from his emaciated body.
However, there is a notable difference in the way the female nude is portrayed in the second room. As the exhibition is chronological, this shift shows that, as Schiele matures, his figures become no less explicit but more alive. The harsh portraits of young girls in the first room change into sensual images of young women, outlined in colours that make them look a lot healthier than their younger counterparts. Partly, this development can be connected to Schiele’s imprisonment for allegedly having sex with a minor and exposing children to indecent images (his drawings!). His prison stunt and a change in personal circumstances shifted his focus to slightly older models. However, the drawings in the second room also seem to be produced by a more confident draughtsman. Looking past the initial focus on nudity, Schiele’s drawing skills become the central point of attention. Most of his bodies are constructed with single lines, and mistakes are not erased but remain visible in the work. Schiele added colour after drawing from the life model, which can be seen in the patches of red, purple or green that are painted over the drawn black lines. His method of production can thus be traced without any additional sketches or drafts: suggesting a confident artist who knew how to communicate groundbreaking imagery with skilled draughtsmanship.
The exhibition gives an insight into Schiele’s development as an artist and marks a move away from interpretations of him as the prodigious enfant terrible of Viennese modernism. However, it’s hard to achieve this when so much attention is paid to Schiele’s radical style in relation to his turbulent biography, a combination that confirms him as a tormented genius rather than doing away with this myth: Schiele’s nudes reflect not only his own identity crisis, but that of his whole generation. Without requiring much knowledge about fin de siècle Vienna’s crisis of morality, there is a sense of sexuality here coupled with dubious morals and a touch of death. With his extraordinary drawings of “The Radical Nude,” Schiele found a niche market that responded provocatively to the concerns of his time – but not only that. A contemporary critic described Schiele’s nudes as “putrid flesh,” and even from our understanding today, with a lower level of sensitivity to explicit images, we don’t normally imagine young erotic bodies as emaciated and ill – which is certainly part of the reason why Schiele’s work still has such an impact today and remains as “radical” as ever.
Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude is at the Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, The Strand until 18th January 2015.