I wish, in an alternative life, I had been accepted into a prestigious art school and been too radical so had to leave. Unfortunately not being particularly talented and all too fond of following the rules, it would have to be a very very alternate reality. But I do appreciate people for whom the established rules just don’t work. Egon Schiele was one of these.
His style and ability attracted the patronage of Gustav Klimt and there are similarities to Klimt in Schiele’s early work, but his style evolved to be distinctly his own and distinctly controversial. His paintings aren’t just nudes, which was a perfectly normal subject matter, but they were twisted, emaciated distorted nudes or very graphic nudes with nipples, vaginas and lips emphasised in pink or depictions of ambiguously sexualised nudes.
The first room at the Courtauld Gallery focuses on his breakthrough year of 1910 and all the trademark ‘Schiele-esque’ themes are there. We see ambiguous sexuality in a woman and child, where the woman (mother?) is naked except for a pair of stockings and looks seductively over her shoulder while a child appears to cling on helplessly (Woman with Humunculos, 1910); there’s the unusual subject matter of his sister as nude model (Seated Female Nude With Raised Right Arm, 1910); and an emaciated male nude viewed from the back resembling a meat carcass (Male Nude With Legs Widespread, Back View, 1910).
The second room begins with some self-portraits (of which Schiele produced many) where the body language and distorted bodies show him in anguish, as troubled, perhaps he is suffering for his art or perhaps he just enjoys using his art to bring out the dark and the twisted parts of himself that lies beneath. He also enjoys literally revealing what lies beneath. Woman With Black Stockings, 1913 is one of many many sketches of naked women, this one is of a lady leaning backwards wearing black stockings with red trim lifting up her skirt to reveal her pink vagina, while Female Nude Back View, 1917 shows a woman bending over to pull her stockings up revealing her buttocks, slightly blushed by Schiele’s brush.
His sketches seem effortless, but perfectly capture the human form making them irresistible. This is the third Schiele exhibition I’ve been to (one in Vienna and one at the Richard Nagy gallery in London) and I am completely enthralled by him and have been to several exhibitions in London just because they have one or two of his paintings in them. So for me this was a real treat and I savoured every second. But writing about him is hard because he died aged 28 and the same facts of his life are repeated ad nauseum whenever his work appears, but I love how his work, for me, doesn’t really need context, its raw and real and open. So I will leave you with a paragraph from the exhibition which sums up what I admire about the man:
“Ability…to combine provocation, eroticism, technical virtuosity and aesthetic beauty in a single image”
Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, London WC2R 0RN
Until 18 January 2015