Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude at the Courtauld Gallery

Part of a quote by Schiele appearing on a wall of The Radical Nude exhibition reads: “I paint the light that emanates from all bodies.”

It took me a while to understand these words because, at first – and second and third – glance, they don’t make much sense.  If I were to describe an artist’s work as showing the ‘light emanating from bodies’, I’d imagine strong forms, solidly lit, such as a painting by Tamara De Lempicka.  I would definitely not think of Schiele’s portraits of painfully thin and fragile bodies.

Another description that cropped up in the exhibition’s captions is that his works revel in the “death beneath the skin”. This one I could agreed with immediately. The idea is clear in his diseased palette, for example: the bruised, earthy colours of Standing Male Nude with Arm Raised, Back View (1910), or Male Lower Torso (1910), whose exposed vertebrae suggest boils or blisters bursting through. Reclining Male Nude (1910) takes this further, displaying dark, almost frost-bitten feet, while Nude Pregnant Woman Reclining (1910) looks like a burn victim.

I also got a strong sense of abuse and psychological trauma – I think his bodies look like collections of clenched fists and knuckles, suggesting harsh treatment and a tough grind.  The figures in Mother and Child (Woman with Homunculus) (1910) are painted with grubby, washed-tone skin, as though they’ve been roughly handled.

Mother and Child (Woman with Homunculus), 1910

Together with their often overtly sexual nature, I could easily see Schiele’s portraits forming part of some sort of sobering turn-of-the-century awareness campaign about the dangers of immoral sex and STDs.  Not quite bodies emanating light, then.  So how do you reconcile this statement with the more obvious “death beneath the skin”?

With difficulty.  But then life, death and sex – and the relationships inbetween – are not easy subjects.  The way I’ve understood it is that death only makes sense with reference to life, given that life forms part of the very definition of death: it is the end or absence of life.  In this way, Schiele’s fascination with mortality – whether he wanted it to or not – led him to create works that explore life.

This happened quite literally when he made a series of paintings of pregnant woman and infants at the maternity ward of Vienna University’s Woman’s Clinic.  Beyond this obvious examination, though, life can be found throughout his works.  Though his figures appear sickly, certain elements nevertheless suggest vitality.  Genitalia and breasts are relatively bursting with life – the wiry pubic hair of his male portraits, plump red breasts of Reclining Female Torso, Nude (1910), inflamed nipples of Squatting Female Nude (1910) or glowing vulva of Sick Girl (1910).

This latter painting actually reconnects with the idea of bodies emanating light in an explicit way – not only does a warmth surround her vagina, but it is haloed in white, appearing like waves spreading outward.  The fact these points of life are sexual is not a coincidence – not only is human sexuality the seat of life through proceation, but it is also a major motivating force in how we think, feel and behave.

I also found that strange body proportions added to a sense of life.  The oversized hands of Kneeling Nude with Raised Hands (Self-Portrait) (1910) reminded me of those relative sensitivity maps of the body, with outlandishly large hands and feet. Overall, it gave the impression of an individual engaged with and responding to life – again, in spite of the figure looking as though on the cusp of death.

Kneeling Nude with Raised Hands (Self-Portrait), 1910
Kneeling Nude with Raised Hands (Self-Portrait), 1910

So, “death beneath the skin” might best be understood as the spectre of death hanging over all of us – regardless of our current health and vitality, we will all eventually die.  Schiele expresses this thought explicitly in the gaunt forms of his subjects, an approach that is able to coexist with his attempts to also capture their vibrant, energised sexuality.  In this way, viewers can explore both life and death simultaneously. Perhaps Schiele’s point is that we’re looking at life as a light that inevitability goes out (sorry Morrissey).  There is a limit to how much light our bodies can emanate, but while still running they burn brightly and unpredictably.

The fact that Schiele references ‘bodies’ emanating light rather than ‘people’ is also significant when understanding how this sits alongside his focus on death; whereas we generally refer to a live person, we instead refer to a dead body.  I found a recurring theme in his work of a focus on the body at the expense of the person or ‘self’. For example, faces are obscured or cut off, as with Reclining Female Torso, Nude (1910), contextual and environmental features are simply left out and, on occasion, he depicts figures as expressionless dolls – see Two Girls Embracing (Two Friends) (1915).  This approach is also apparent in Side View of a Semi-Nude (1914), in which the cross-hatch stitching of the garment is echoed in the shadows around the body. More broadly, his figures’ awkward poses make them appear like discarded marionettes.

With this reading, it’s as though his entire approach to thinking about the human experience is as a brief, live show – a flap around in the body, driven by deep, subconscious desires, before the inevitable end.  I find this both dehumanising – as it goes a long way to undermining our agency and potential – and rawly human – as we can all relate to feeling out of body and out of control at points in our lives, especially when thinking about sex and disease.

Art of course imitates life and so it’s not surprising – in fact, totally expected – that his life was traumatic.  His syphilitic father died violent and insane and he is widely suspected of having an intimate relationship with his sister Gertrude, who posed for him on numerous occasions.  Yet, as though to ridiculously drive home the point that human existence is nothing but a fleshy shit stir, it appears his life also imitated art: his wife Edith died of Spanish flu whilst six months pregnant and Egon succumbed to the same end three days later, aged 28.  His paintings were almost prescient.

Ironically, it seems that some of the liveliest of his paintings appeared towards the end of his life.  A rare example of muscularity and power comes in Friends (1914).  Nude Girl with Lowered Head (1918) seems playful, as does Woman in Boots with Raised Skirt (1918).  She looks lively and up for it, with none of the morbidity of other works.

In these last few paintings of the exhibition, we get a hint that Schiele was evolving into other areas – he was exploring the light of bodies in a more straightforward way. I was left asking what would have been, had his light not burned out so quickly.

Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude is at the Courtauld Gallery until Sunday 18th January, 2015.  You can find out more information here.





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