The intensely physical draughtsmanship, erotic subject matter and tragically short life of Viennese artist Egon Schiele have combined to make him a perennial favourite of art students. Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude at the Courtauld Gallery in London casts an intellectually robust eye over a substantial collection of his drawings and watercolours of nudes tracing his short career from his arrival in Vienna in 1906, aged sixteen, through to his death from Spanish flu aged just 28.

This work – once described by a critic as ‘more suited for a toilet wall’ – features Schiele’s sister, lovers, prostitutes and later his wife, who all modelled for him and a number of self-portraits. The contortions of Schiele’s body, often into an almost cruciform shape, imply the artist saw himself as a martyr figure compelled to explore the human condition. There is death present in these life drawings.

There is no escaping the palpable eroticism in this work. Many of the female nudes reference pornographic images and include props such as stockings typically associated with prostitution (Schiele often used prostitutes as models). These images are explicit and often uncomfortable to look at, but strangely they do not feel venal or exploitative.

They defiantly challenge us and our preconceptions of the artistic tradition of the ‘nude’. There are no goddesses or nymphs or virgin mothers here. No mythology and no prettiness.The prominent lipstick-red gashes of female genitalia confront us rather than issue an invitation.

4-Crouching_Woman_with_green_kerchiefOne of my favourite images in the exhibition is of his bare breasted sister who between the grand hat on her head and her dark skirt, curls her lips and narrows her eyes in an expression which might be contempt, anger or an illustration of psychosis.

Schiele led a bohemian life in the early 20th century Viennese cafe culture inhabited by radical intellectuals who raised questions about sex, desire, death and the true nature of humanity. Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams had been recently published. Against this background and the fading grandeur of the Austrian empire, Schiele looks to reveal the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie and the reality of the human condition.

This exhibition demonstrates not only the extraordinary virtuosity of Scheile’s draughtsmanship, but unequivocally questions the boundary between pornography and art. During his tragically short artistic life, Schiele not only challenged the elevated ‘high art’ tradition of the nude, but defiantly asks us to question our own understanding of sexuality, life and death.

One of the most thought-provoking exhibitions I’ve seen for a while.

Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude is at the Courtauld Gallery from 23 October 2014 – 18 January 2015. For details visit www.courtauld.ac.uk/schiele


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