Was Egon Schiele a pornographer who exploited models in order to satisfy the paedophilia of his rich clients, or one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, whose haunting images of the human body gave new meaning to the line of beauty? Interested readers may judge for themselves at Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude, an exhibition of some 38 works from private as well as public collections that opened last month at the Courtauld Gallery, London.
“Standing Nude with Stockings”, 1914 (Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremburg)
In his short life (1890-1918), Schiele produced an astonishingly large corpus, much of which has until recently remained unseen in public. This show traces the development of his prodigious draughtsmanship — he drew very fast, holding the pencil or crayon vertically to the page — and of his fascination with female sexuality.
“Woman in Boots with Raised Skirt”, 1918 (The Leopold Museum, Vienna)
Like other Viennese artists of his day, Schiele was promiscuous — but was he a paedophile? It is true that he painted pubescent girls and in 1912 was charged with, imprisoned for but not convicted of abducting and seducing a 13-year-old. He was convicted of exhibiting erotic drawings accessible to children. The judge notoriously burnt one of his drawings in court. But the age of consent in Austria, then as now, was 14 and paying girls as models is not necessarily the same as abusing them. His known girlfriends and wife were all above age when he had sex with them. So it is going too far to convict him posthumously of what is now seen as the ultimate sex crime.
“Two Girls Embracing (Friends)”, 1915 (Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest)
Schiele undoubtedly carried out commissions for clients who wanted pornography. What makes these images even more shocking to us is that the models very often seem anorexic. In some cases these were street urchins who were probably just malnourished. In others, he may have been exploiting bourgeois girls suffering from an eating disorder. But artists can and do depict almost anything and anyone; in Schiele’s Vienna, they all used models from dubious backgrounds and often had sex with them. Many still do, and not only in Vienna. (Think of the late Lucian Freud.)
“Erwin Dominik Osen, Nude with Crossed Arms”, 1910 (The Leopold Museum, Vienna)
The charge against Schiele is that his sexual obsession — an obsession which sometimes borders on the gynaecological — blinded him to any other aspect of femininity. Yet his girls and women are depicted with tenderness. Their provocative poses are belied by the uncanny intensity of their gaze. Ambiguities abound in the relationship of spectator (voyeur?) to subject (victim?). In what Sigmund Freud called the psychopathology of daily life, nothing is accidental — least of all the anatomical and other liberties that Schiele takes with the female body. No artist before or since has explored the extremities like Schiele — the virtuoso of the erotic.
“Nude Self-Portrait In Grey With Open Mouth”, 1910 (The Leopold Museum, Vienna)