I used to go and visit galleries in Scotland with an intensely feminist friend and the same thing always happened. We would walk past a Renaissance nude and my friend would become enraged that the artist had portrayed his subject with no body hair whatsoever. Rubens’ women, for instance, are smooth, curvaceous, perfect: 17th century embodiments of beauty and fecundity. In reality, we’re not quite like that; looking groomed takes a lot of, well, grooming.
In contrast, Egon Schiele painted his women in their natural state; no carefully choreographed poses, no special clothing, no best side. They are raw and exposed in their nakedness – it’s never poetic nudity in Schiele’s work – but they are also intensely powerful in their command of their bodies. Some have even lost their heads in the artist’s enthusiasm for painting their genitalia, but they still come across as more dominant than Schiele, whose self-portraits are exhibited alongside. Both have something of the insect about them; Schiele’s bold linear drawings depict skeletal bodies enhanced by splashes of harsh colour. Kneeling Blond Nude (1914), for instance, crawls on the ground in a pose that is more creeping than seductive, her mass of blond hair, red lips and black stockings her only adornments.
Schiele was a painter who cultivated the myth of the artist, and deliberately isolated himself from society. He consistently depicted himself as a sub-human outsider; he was physically able but his self-portraits frequently have twisted limbs and empty staring eyes. His fascination with his own sexuality and sexual organs – as well as those of others – developed in his youth, and although his finished pieces are not always a pretty sight, the skill with which he drew is impressive. His works are direct, brutal and place the viewer in the space of the voyeur, intruding into the lives of both the artist – who invites it – and his female subjects – who challenge your gaze. The result is a deep-seated discomfort, exaggerated by Richard Nagy’s placement of the works in a hot room with covered windows that make you feel even seedier.
I suspect that the audience this exhibition is attracting would have amused the artist. In his day, Schiele rejected the conservative teachings of traditional Viennese art schools, and was later arrested as a reaction to his works being considered immoral. A hundred years on and his themes – sexuality, voyeurism, masturbation – are being replicated throughout the London art scene (Tracey Emin at the Hayward being the obvious current example), and the best collection of his work I have ever seen is being shown on Old Bond Street, across the street from Chanel and around the corner from the Royal Academy. His visitors are nicely dressed ladies in twin-sets and expensive jewels. Schiele has become institutionalised, and not in the way he perhaps should have been during his lifetime.
This exhibition made me grateful to be living in London and able to see work that is, in general, very hard to find. There was a sense though that Schiele has been neutered somehow; his work should be displayed in a beaten-up gallery in an unsavoury part of town because that was the world that Schiele inhabited, if only in his mind. An upscale gallery you ring a bell to enter just isn’t the right location. I imagine Schiele is smirking at how immune we’ve become to that which was previously considered immoral and how much the art world is now prepared to tolerate in the name of art.
-- Alex Field
All images courtesy Richard Nagy Gallery
Images: Egon Schiele, Girl in Underclothes, 1917; Egon Schiele, Reclining Female Nude with Raised Skirt, 1917