It’s a great time to be an Egon Schiele fan – at least, if you are one with the chance to travel internationally. As it happens, this particular ArtAttacker happens to be spending her Christmas in Switzerland, and subsequently has been lucky enough to see both the ‘Radical Nude’ show at the Courtauld in London and the‘Egon Schiele/Jenny Saville’ at the Kunsthaus Zürich. While neither are entirely comprehensive Schiele retrospectives, both exhibitions have been highly publicised and anticipated. The major differences are obvious; namely, the latter also includes work by contemporary British artist Jenny Saville, also known for her nudes. Her paintings are of a much fleshier variety, her voluptuous bodies seeming to balloon out of their canvases. One would think them a world away from the emaciated corporeality Schiele evoked around 100 years earlier, yet this show invites us to consider what they had in common.
And so, entering the first room, the viewer is confronted with a wall label headlined ‘The Embodiment of Paint’, a concise yet thought-provoking introduction that begins to detail both artists’ exploration of awkward, exaggerated physicality towards an autonomy of paint – their expression of the human body through the use of this tactile medium. This was so full of potential that I was sorely disappointed to find a lack of follow through. I am not one to advocate for over-zealous use of wall-labels to ‘explain’ exhibitions, but after being led through to the actual paintings, the viewer was left completely afloat, with no further text to provide contextualisation whatsoever (except provide information on a work’s date/provenance/etc.). There was little flow to the exhibition, with Schiele and Saville crudely divided between dark-walled sections (Schiele) and stark white cube walls (Saville). Some were hung opposite each other, but never next to one another. When there was a room with some visual and thematic consistency, it worked very well. I found that the treatments of the subject of the reclining female nude in one room, and of the Mother and Child archetype in another, spoke well enough for themselves to make for a successfully engaging experience.
However, the other glaring problem was the sheer volume of Schiele’s work compared to Saville’s, so much so that by the end I had begun to feel as if she had been tacked onto the show as an afterthought. The final few rooms contained works almost exclusively by Schiele. They resembled the Courtauld exhibition very closely, showcasing raw watercolour sketches of newborn babies and women lifting up their skirts. Again, there was almost a successful attempt at exploring the artists’ depictions of the nude in relation to gender, as there were some Saville sketches to be found. Amongst viewers’ breathy technical admirations of Schiele, her frank portrayals of the genitals of transgender people also held their own, despite lacking in number. But Schiele overwhelmed. Paintings of village rooftops and other unrelated subjects frequently worked their way in, as well as a section on his activities in Zürich. As a Schiele show alone, it was more successful than the ‘Radical Nude’ in terms of variety. There were, in all, 35 of his paintings and 55 of his works on paper. But after consulting the press release, I couldn’t help but wonder why so little was done to further empahsise the artists’ so-called shared characteristic of ‘hermetic self-containedness that eschews narrative content’ that ‘reveal an artistic intensity that does not shy away from extremes’. Saville’s paintings in the show totalled 16, and although they may have been intense in their large scale and dramatic handling of paint, the impact was not, to me, equal. Perhaps this was an issue of the artist still being alive, thus allowing for less of a retrospective body (pun intended) of work, but I still cannot help but feel there could be ways around this. Maybe simply slimming down the amount of Schiele work shown could have been the answer. Or maybe I should have just gotten myself an audio guide to explain.
– Olivia Bladen
‘Egon Schiele – Jenny Saville’ is on view at the Kunsthaus Zürich until 25 January 2015; Heim Square 1, 8001 Zurich, Switzerland; Open Tue/Fri–Sun 10AM – 6PM and Wed/Thu 10AM – 8PM ; Admission: CHF 22/17 for Adults with concessions, under 16s FREE