Egon Schiele is an artist who comes with a warning label for those unfamiliar with his paintings, especially his life painting. Forget academic, chocolate-box treatment of the figure but think expressive and confrontational, raw and unidealised, then throw in an immorality scandal too. He created works that “focused on themes of sexuality and death, ugliness, masking, sickness and transformation”*, which isn’t what many want from art today, nevermind 100 years ago.
What we don’t know is where Schiele would have gone as a mature artist; he died in 1918 flu epidemic aged 28. What we do know is he was a master of expressive line, which you can study in his landscapes if you don’t do figures (and in which case stop reading now).
I find his art compelling, his use of line mesmerizing, and his colours brooding. The harsh, unsympathetic looking, the angularity of limbs, the striking composition. But until the Courtauld Gallery‘s exhibition Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude I’d only seen reproductions.
The Courtauld’s exhibition features 38 Schiele’s drawings and watercolours of male and female nudes. I feel visually enriched for having seen it.
“It brings together an outstanding selection of works that highlight Schiele’s technical virtuosity, highly original vision and uncompromising depiction of the naked figure … he pushed artistic conventions through his direct expression of human experience, fears and desires. The works are bound up with themes of self-expression, procreation, sexuality and eroticism. These were fertile concerns in the socially and psychologically charged atmosphere of pre-war Vienna.”**
The painting and drawings were mostly about A3 in size, on paper that’s a dark cream-brown. Whether it was this colour originally or has darkened with age I don’t know (note to self: remember to ask on an Ask a Curator day).
The most significant thing for me about seeing the paintings in real life was that I could see how he’d worked the layers. Think: initial drawing, watercolour and/or gouache over the drawing, then drawing again with charcoal or pencil to enhance or emphasise lines. Where a line was over paint, and where paint was over a line. How rich yet subtle the colours are and his complex wet-into-wet mixes. How sculptural and directional his brushwork could be in the white gouache, with mere flecks of other colours to guide the eye. Energetic pencil/charcoal/black crayon lines over the top finding the form and edges. The initial light pencil sketching finding the position of the figure in a composition.
A real surprise was the precise pencil drawing underpinning the subsequent expressive mark making. The expressive result belies Schiele’s careful observation and drawing. The level of detail in the pencil layer of the eyes, for instance. The careful positioning of individual hairs. In a”Kneeling Nude with Raised Hand” I noticed pencil lines underneath the gouache depicting the sartorius muscle, which I recognized thanks to Alan McGowan’s anatomy for artists workshops.
A few other things I learnt:
- “Reclining Male Nude”, created in 1910, has Schiele’s initials in two places, which the gallery label said was “as if to suggest it could be viewed horizontally or vertically”.
- Schiele’s drawings “were originally produced as independent works in their own right”, not as drawings to support paintings.
- He rarely titled things, and when he did he “framed it within a rectangular cartouche … a carefully considered graphic component in its own right“.**
Quotes: *page 51 **page 129 of exhibition catalogue: Egon Schiele The Radical Nude
**Courtauld press release
Here’s a video from the Courtauld in which Dr Barnaby Wright discusses the exhibition. It’s an exhibition I’m delighted I got to see. And yes, I did buy the catalogue and some postcards. No, I didn’t post any but am using them as bookmarks.