Temptation, taboo and the radical nude

October saw the opening of one of the most exciting exhibitions held at the Courtauld in recent years: “Egon Schiele: the Radical Nude”. The title could not be more fitting; Schiele’s unflinching approach to painting the naked figure is nothing if not radical.

It is part and parcel of the notoriously prurient lifestyle that encompassed an incestuous relationship with his sister and a two year jail sentence elicited by an act of public indecency. In short, Schiele caused a bit of a stir.

But what was it about his treatment of the nude that turn-of-the-century Vienna found so upsetting? The thirty or so works on display at the exhibition, each as head turning today as they were a hundred years ago, provide an unapologetic answer to this question. Collectively, they read as a series of emaciated figures, contorted into sexually explicit poses. Take his 1913 painting Woman With Black Stockings. It has all the hallmarks of a Schiele nude: a female model of questionable age, incongruously pink nipples, lips and genitals, and provocative attire to affirm the picture’s erotic nature.

In apparent complicity, his subject holds up her skirts to us, just as Schiele holds up two fingers to the conservative bourgeoisie.

It is fair to say there is little subtlety to the sexual element of his work. Schiele’s model does not recline decorously like Titian’s Venus, but splays her legs and offers up her vagina like a macaroon on a plate.

Others of his paintings depict similar models locked in homosexual embrace. If there is a line between Schiele’s paintings and full frontal pornography, then it is as thin and wavering as those he uses to sketch his subjects’ limbs.

Yet whether or not those opposed to Schiele would like to admit it, the provocative content of his work is only a more honest treatment of that which has always been the central tenet of the nude: sex.

Though it may have been dressed up with decorum and high art, the female nude has always, to some extent, been about gratifying the male gaze. This is nothing new; in the fourth century BC, the sculptor Praxiteles of Athens created several nude Aphrodites. One of these sculptures proved so alluring to her Greek audience that a man tried to copulate with her. Provocative as they are, you’ll be hard pushed to find somebody trying the same with a Schiele painting.

Schiele is by no means the first artist to come under the firing line for breaking taboos. Ingres’s Grand Odalisque of 1814 earned him a similar kind of disrepute. The painting is famous for its anatomical disproportion; taking a seductive concubine as his subject matter, Ingres elongates her back to an impossible length so that she is inhumanly curvy. She is the picture of an artist indulging his own exotic fantasy.

So, the more a nude promotes sexuality, the more it is condemned. It is almost a prerequisite to earn the title of a “nude” that the painting is governed by some degree of decorum. At what point does a nude just become a painting of a naked person? Can Schiele’s paintings justifiably be called “nudes”? Or are they something else?

They are certainly, categorically, about nakedness. There is no barrier between the onlooker and the variously sprawled figures. Skin is either cadaverously yellow or vibrant and fleshy, and limbs are jutting and ungainly. Subject and viewer alike have nowhere to hide, as Schiele lays bare the corporeal reality of lust and sex.

This nakedness means that sometimes the figures feel almost clinically stark. Yet, despite this, his female sitters are never just objects. There is no trace of the modernist misogyny rife amongst his contemporaries, none of the fear and loathing of female sexuality that can be found in Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’avignon. Rather, it is unavoidably clear that Schiele loved women, the female form and the erotic possibilities therein.

It is not only female nudes that populate this exhibition. Schiele later turned his gaze in upon himself and produced a series of nude self-portraits. But there is something much darker about these images, which show the artist in the grey and sallow hues of a decomposing corpse. Remember that Schiele paints in the Vienna of Sigmund Freud. The Vienna of sex and death.

But sex and vitality are the prevailing principles of the works at this exhibition. Though they are strange and sometimes verging on grotesque, Schiele’s nudes are fantastic expressions of sexuality and desire. Schiele broke taboos. In so doing, he painted the ultimate celebration of the flesh.


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August 2021
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