There are not many people who haven’t heard of the Austrian painter Egon Schiele; even if you can’t quite place the name, you are probably familiar in some way with his graphic watercolour nudes, because they are everywhere. Like his mentor Gustav Klimt, Schiele is a favourite subject of gallery gift-shop fare: calendars, posters, postcards, even scarves and pencil cases.
Yet it cannot be denied that, despite the amount of times we may have encountered Schiele before, his work still retains the power to shock. So when the Courtauld Gallery titles a show Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude, it is not just a historical account of an artist who was radical in his time. As a society, we are still having debates centered around nudity. Instagram, for example, is notorious in its refusal to allow posts that depict female nipples. Bizarrely, the #Schiele tag is full of them, and full-frontal vaginas too. What makes these images different is that they have been subsumed into the category of Art, of High Culture. They are allowed.
One could argue that Schiele was simply interested in the naked form during all stages of human development: he produced a watercolour of a newborn baby that is incredibly primal in its raw treatment of colour. He also painted many nude self-portraits, placing himself under scrutiny as much as any other subject. And in ‘Mother and Child (Woman With Homunculus)’, 1910, he explores the relationship between childbirth and death, a harsh reality in disease-ridden Vienna at the time, through skeletal and sometimes even inhuman forms that are not necessarily immediately erotic. However, there were very few viewers who approached the young girl painting with a level of complete comfort, myself included. The decency of such an image is still very much up for debate today.
Recently I have seen Schiele lauded as a ‘feminist’ artist for his celebration of the living form, rather than treating the female nude as a mere allegory, which is a tempting reading of his representations of prostitutes (and in a few cases, his sister), all women who actually lived. Schiele does not shy away from depicting women as sexual beings, particularly in the highly eroticized portrait of two stocking-clad ‘friends’ (but arguably lesbian lovers) rendered in writhing brush-marks, ‘Two Girls Embracing (Two Friends),’ 1915. In this sense he problematizes the issue of censorship when it comes to female sexuality, still a relevant debate today when we consider Instagram removing selfies of women exposing their nipples, or in the case of self-proclaimed feminist artist Petra Collins, too much pubic hair. There are plenty of pubes in ‘The Radical Nude’.
The flip side of the Schiele-as-feminist argument is that we could still see these women as objectified, painted on male terms and exposed to the probing male gaze. In ‘Nude Girl with Lowered Head,’ 1918, there is a sense of voyeurism instilled in the viewer as it appears as a very private scene of a girl sadly curled up on her bed, the kind of thing you might fantasize about seeing through a keyhole, or in a staged ‘locker room’ scene in a movie. Is this fetishistic? Once again, Schiele painted his own self-portrait many times on these same terms, concerned with the terrible conditions of poverty and the inevitability of death. And it is arguably an act of suppression in itself to assume that these women did not want to be painted as sexual beings (one suspects their main motivation would have been the money made from modeling, but one could see this too as empowering to a degree).
Though I would argue that it’s dangerous to call Schiele a feminist, that is not to say that I do not enjoy a great deal of his work, and celebrate its ‘shock’ factor, when it is viewed on feminist terms.
The stand-out piece, for me, is ‘Woman in Boots with Raised Skirt,’ 1918, a graphic drawing in black crayon that seems to epitomize the erotic, because here the woman is very much alive and full figured (rather than disjointed and uncomfortable), smirking coquettishly as she reveals her vagina in a full-frontal view and meeting our gaze with a fiery glare. The lines are flowing and sensual, and there are no hints of death colouring her skin. These may not be the qualities typically admired in an Egon Schiele work, and perhaps I am missing the point. But personally, this is the kind of image I am happy to celebrate. It may not be radical to see it commodified in the form of, say, a gift shop pencil case. But such a drawing should certainly feature in the debate about bringing female sexuality into the mainstream. It is for this reason, and so that you yourself can decide on your own stance, that I would absolutely recommend the show.
– Olivia Bladen
‘Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude’ is on view at the Courtauld Gallery through January 18, 2015; Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 1LA; Open Daily 10AM-6PM (last admission 5:30PM); £8.50, Friends of the Courtauld FREE