Egon Schiele: The body electric

Published 28 August 2014

Although their erotic and existential angst once fell foul of public taste, Egon Schiele’s nudes have stood the test of time, argues Simon Wilson.

  • From the Autumn 2014 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    First a comprehensive Shunga show at the venerable British Museum, and now, less than a year later, a groundbreaking exhibition of Egon Schiele’s electrifyingly frank nudes (both male and female) at the hallowed home of art history, the Courtauld. To slightly misquote Whistler, erotic art is upon the town.

    And not only in London. In Zürich at almost the same time, the Kunsthaus has a major Schiele exhibition, but with a fascinating twist which pairs Schiele with that leading contemporary painter of the nude, Jenny Saville RA. Further afield, Schiele’s birthplace, the small town of Tulln not far from Vienna, has a Schiele season whose focus is an exhibition of his earlier and later work. Almost incredibly, in New York, the Neue Galerie, a specialist museum of early modern Austrian and German art, also has a major Schiele show this autumn, concentrating on his portraits. I have no idea why all these shows have come together – there is no significant anniversary – but it is certainly a tribute to Schiele’s incredible productivity in his tragically brief life from 1890 to 1918.

    The Courtauld claims its exhibition to be the first ever solo show of Schiele in a British public gallery and I believe it. Egon Schiele is undoubtedly one of the most powerful and original painters of the human body of any time, yet there is no work by him in the Tate or British Museum collections and only one print in the V&A.

    In fairness, this is only partly due to prudery. At precisely the moment when the socio-sexual revolutions of the 1960s enabled us to see past the eroticism of Schiele to the artist beyond, the British art establishment finally caught up with modernism and went overboard for it. Schiele just seemed to have no place in the dominant narrative of modern art, running from Ce?zanne to Cubism to abstract art, never mind the sex.

    An additional problem has been that although Schiele painted in oil and produced striking allegories, portraits and landscapes, the bulk of his work consisted of drawings with watercolour, traditionally considered a less important medium than oil. Now, the Courtauld show confirms the importance of Schiele’s drawings and even goes further in its title, ‘The Radical Nude’. Radical is a term of high approbation in modernism; could it be that the Courtauld boffins are re-engineering Schiele as a major modern?

  • If so, in what way is Schiele radical? Well, we can argue that he was the first major artist to address with complete frankness, and consistently in a large body of work, human sexual anatomy and, as important, sexual psychology. His drawings speak vividly of the anxieties that surrounded sex then (Freud’s Vienna, remember), and his frankness then did him no good at all (he was briefly imprisoned on morals charges). Because we live in a more relaxed, yet more than ever sex-obsessed society, his engagement with the sexual now seems wholly admirable and pioneering, and his work can speak directly to us. The Courtauld’s boldly chosen publicity image (Standing Nude with Orange Stockings, 1914) presents a female figure that might have the pop star Madonna, for example, murmuring “sister”.

    But the angst in Schiele’s nudes is not just sexual. It is existential. Is this really all there is, he is asking: “Birth, copulation and death”, as T.S. Eliot pithily put in Sweeney Agonistes (1932). We still seem to be worrying a lot about this one too.

    Not least, we can now see how innovative (another modernist buzzword) was Schiele in reinventing the classical depiction of the figure at exactly the moment when that tradition was elsewhere being smashed to fragments by Cubism. Schiele’s achievement is that while forcefully evoking the body and its sexuality, and the great issues of human existence, he does so in a highly stylised, even abstracted manner – depicting his figures in almost pure bounding line, which distorts and exaggerates to express his own response. The works positively crackle with sexual and psychological tensions. Equally novel is his placing of the figure against a blank ground or even floating in space.

    Putting Schiele alongside the young, notably female, and highly acclaimed painter of the nude, Jenny Saville RA, is an intriguing idea. But the Zürich show is a very serious one, carefully curated so that the extreme contrasts between the artists, particularly of scale, combined with the connections of theme, throw each artist into fresh relief. It is on a far larger scale than the Courtauld one, indeed is a major Schiele show in itself even without the Jenny Saville element. Notably it brings together no less than 37 of Schiele’s rare oil paintings as well as many of the watercolour drawings, both organised into thematic groups that bring out the full range of his art.

    The Courtauld and the Zürich shows are brilliantly complementary, offering a unique opportunity to consider afresh this contested artist, with the bonus of the comparison with Saville.

    Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude is at the Courtauld Gallery, London from 23 October to 18 January 2015.
    Egon Schiele – Jenny Saville is at Kunsthaus Zürich, Switzerland from 10 October to 25 January 2015.
    Egon Schiele: Beginning and End is at the Egon Schiele Museum, Tulln, Austria until 26 October. Egon Schiele: Portraits is at the Neue Galerie, New York from 9 October to 19 January 2015.

    Simon Wilson is an art historian and specialist on Egon Schiele.

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