An exhibition entitled ‘The Radical Nude’ was never going to be boring, and Egon Schiele’s show at the Courtauld Gallery does not fail to impress. Offering a glimpse at work which has not been seen in the UK for over twenty years, it is a thoroughly refreshing take on the nude.
The Courtauld Gallery is a relatively small, intimate space for art. ‘The Radical Nude‘ occupies just two rooms on the top floor of the gallery, a perfect backdrop for the delicate drawings and watercolours on display. The collection is a testament to the remarkable productivity and beautifully refined style of an artist who died at the tender age of 28.
Schiele’s work shows the suffering of life in Vienna where he studied in the years anticipating the First World War. The exhibition begins with his earlier drawings of the human body which already demonstrate the distinctive technique that Schiele has made his own. The viewer is immediately confronted with the black charcoal line which fluently defines the angularity of the human form, whilst the muscles and bones of the body are suggested by Schiele’s sensitive watercolour work.
His ‘Male Nude’ of 1910 is one of the many self-portraits that can be seen at the exhibition, an example of the tormented forms he presents. This is arguably what Schiele does best – the emaciated, angular bodies which seem to writhe in anguish depict death in a living form, suggesting its inevitable decay. This is emphasised by the grotesque greens, blues and yellows which imbue this room with a sickly presence.
Yet these colours make Schiele’s work all the more magnificent – the unexpected, striking hues accentuate the strange contortions which Schiele demands of the body against the empty space which surrounds it. He is challenging his viewer to look at the human form in a new and exciting way. It is interesting that some works are even initialled twice so that they can be viewed either vertically or horizontally, making for an ambiguous interpretation.
Entering the second room, the viewer is met with the work of a confident artist who takes genuine pleasure in depicting the human form. The poses and stances have become more ambitious, demonstrating a defter control of his tools.
It is not difficult to see why Schiele was often criticised for the ‘pornographic’ content of his work – his drawings feature an overwhelming number of female models in various states of undress. In some works like ‘Before the Mirror’ from 1913, the female genitals are almost confrontational, with the striking red colour standing out from her pallid form. Yet while his work is of an undeniably erotic nature, Schiele does not idealise his female subjects in the same way as earlier artists have done. Instead, these women are confident, expressive and in control of their own sexuality.
Schiele is indubitably an artist for the modern era. He does not shy away from what would have been controversial subjects in early twentieth-century Vienna, unashamedly depicting lesbianism in ‘Two Girls Embracing’ from 1915. It is instead strange in its distinctly different portrayal of two women, one in flamboyant dress with tiny eyes that seem to penetrate the viewer, the other naked yet heavily made-up. Both wear stockings which become almost a parody of sexuality. Treating sexuality as a performance, it is detached from the body and we instead focus on its expressive quality.
I left the Courtauld with new respect for Schiele and the originality of his masterful depiction of the body. Though you may not like his elongated, skeletal forms, his revolutionary approach to the nude is exciting and compelling. The viewer is left to wonder of what he would have been capable, had he not succumbed to the tragically early death which seems to linger eerily in his work.
‘Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude’ runs at the Courtauld Gallery until 18th January.
Images: The Courtauld, Youtube and David Antonio Zavala Gutiérrez, Flickr.