Egon Schiele: Nudes in London, Portraits in New York

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Self-portrait with arm twisted above head

I was lucky enough to see both current exhibitions on Schiele (1890-1918), Egon Schiele: Portraits at Neue Galerie in New York, followed shortly after by Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude at The Courtauld Gallery in London. I absolutely love Schiele and first saw his work at the once-in-a-lifetime exhibition Vienna 1900. Klimt, Schiele, Moser, Kokoschka at Grand Palais, Paris in 2005-06, and more recently at Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900.

The Neue Galerie exhibition is dedicated to Schiele portraiture and organised by portraits of: Family and Academy, Fellow Artists, Sitters and Patrons, Lovers, Eros, and Self-Portraits and Allegorical Self-Portraits. The portraits demonstrated Schiele favouring line over colour, inherited from this short training at the Vienna academy. His portraits are extremely powerful but I did not find his style appropriate for depicting children, as his figures are so emaciated.

Most interesting perhaps was to learn about Schiele’s personal life. The Neue Galerie has a special display regarding Schiele’s arrest and imprisonment during the spring of 1912. Schiele was arrested on charges of kidnap, rape and immorality, and was found guilty of the latter and spent 24 days in prison. There are several erotic images inspired by Klimt but Schiele went beyond in terms of the explicitness of his images.

During his time in prison, he depicted himself as a martyr, which he continued to do during his career. The exhibition portrayed Schiele as a self-confident, narcissist and egocentric. He married a woman from a respectable family, whom he depicted as simple and wary in Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Standing (Edith Schiele in Striped Dress), and wanted to carry on seeing his lover and errand woman Wally.

The smaller Courtauld show focuses on Schiele nudes, albeit the Neue Gallerie also has several in the Eros section. Schiele made his models – including himself – adopt awkward, unnatural and twisted poses to show their bones. He sacrificed anatomical accuracy, similarly to Ingres, disregarding anatomical reality, in favour of expressive power. Schiele also used “deathly”/non-naturalistic colours, in addition to unusual poses.

Schiele’s ability to draw under time pressure was retained from his brief academic training. His sister, with whom he had an ambiguous relationship, said he painted her with a stop watch. Schiele therefore rarely, if ever, erased his “mistakes”. As in the Neue Gallerie show, eroticism, some might say pornographic images, is recurrent, maybe more adapted to drawing as a more private medium, similar to Klimt’s drawings. Many drawings are from private collections, courtesy of Richard Nagy and from Leopold Museum of course.

I believe Schiele’s draughtsmanship and technical virtuosity is best demonstrated in Woman in boots with raised skirt, drawn in the last year of his life in black crayon only: wow! Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude runs until 18 January 2015 at The Courtauld Gallery, London. Egon Schiele: Portraits runs until 19 January 2015 at Neue Galerie in New York.

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