Looking at Paintings: Egon Schiele Exhibition at the Courtauld

Egon Schiele exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery in London
Strategically placed words on the banner for at the Courtauld Gallery in London

What: Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude
Where: Courtauld Gallery in London
When: 23 Oct 2014 to 18 Jan 2015
Why: A rare opportunity to see Schiele’s work

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).

Courtauld Schiele Nude with Crossed Arms
Egon Schiele (1890-1918). “Erwin Dominik Osen, Nude with Crossed Arms”, 1910. Black chalk, watercolour and gouache. 44.7 x 31.5 cm. The Leopold Museum, Vienna

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 on Twitter).

Courtauld Egon Schiele Male Lower Torso painting
Egon Schiele: “Male Lower Torso”, 1910. Black chalk and gouache. 44.8 x 28.1 cm. The Leopold Museum, Vienna

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.

Courtauld SchieleNude Self-Portrait in Grey
Egon Schiele (1890-1918). “Nude Self-Portrait in Gray with Open Mouth”, 1910. Black chalk and gouache, 44.8 x 32.1 cm. The Leopold Museum, Vienna

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.

At the End of Day 1: Life Drawing into Painting Workshop

First day of Alan McGowan‘s “Life Drawing into Life Painting” workshop saw us working with tone only. Started with charcoal, gesture line and block drawings, then longer charcoal drawing.

Charcoal life drawings
Some proportions are awry, and needs an area of detail for focal point, but bits I like. Time was 30 minutes, I think.

Next up: graphite stick, white oil paint and solvent on acrylic painted coloured ground. Graphite with white mixes to cool grey. Wiping off paint reveals warmish ground. Get highlights with white or by wiping off; darks from graphite.

Start with graphite drawing, then go over with big brush with solvent, remembering that lots of graphite will turn very dark. Then smaller brush with white paint (50:50 titanium:zinc to give something with properties like lead white ie opaque where thick, transparent where thin) and cloth for lifing off. First time I’ve done this, and really enjoyed it.

Graphite and oil paint
Loved this technique. Solvent over the graphite is like watercolour pencil, but it “dissolves” more readily and the oil paint means it stays workable, which makes the lifting off of colour an ongoing option. Time was about 45 minutes.

Next up: Reductive painting technique, working from dark to light. On cartridge paper primed with 50:50 PVA:water to give a less absorbent, more slippery surface, cover with dilute Van Dyck brown hue mixed with solvent and linseed oil to give an even, dark layer (not a thin, transparent, glazed layer). Use cloth to wipe off paint, lighter tones. Solvent on cloth will take you back to white of paper.

This is a bad photo, taken under strip lights which make contrast much greater and glare on wet paint. It’s a technique that can produce fabulously subtle, gentle tones.

Reductive life painting
Can’t remember how long we had, but at least an hour.

Notes to myself:

  • Make curvier lines on gesture-drawing (armature level of drawing), not so angular. Perhaps exaggerate somewhat to counteract subsequent straightening up of figure and check angle on torso more as working.
  • Use gesture drawing as armature, building outwards; don’t start at outlines.
  • Don’t be so heavy handed with the charcoal, being too dark too early and harder to rework.
  • Remember to look for lightest tones, and more variations in midtones.
  • Limit quantity of lightest/darkest tones and it can be more effective.
  • Put in shoulders and feet in pairs, not separately.
  • Balance gestural markmaking with small areas of detail.
  • Anchor figure to surface.

Related: Photos: In Gardenstown (afternoon before art workshop)