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Schiele Take A Bow

As with just about anything of note in my life, my interest in Egon Schiele can be entirely blamed on Adam Ant. "I'm a friend of Egon Schiele, I'm a friend of Mr Spock" he fibbed, on his song Friends, a drab outtake from the flawed but brilliant debut album Dirk Wears White Sox. Admittedly, me and most other people of my generation would only became aware of the song - and by extension Egon Schiele - when he (Adam, not Egon) reworked the tune considerably as a bouncy discoed-up b-side to his unlikely 1981 Christmas hit Ant Rap. With me so far? Good.

Schiele is best known for being Gustav Klimt's unruly protege, getting booted out / quitting the Vienna school of art, possibly having an affair with his sister, certainly getting up to a bit of hanky panky with a 14 year old, cavorting with prostitutes, going to jail for indecency, getting married twice, painting lots of brilliant, vividly visceral pictures of ladies flashing their naughty bits, surviving the First World War and dying. All by the time he was 28. Phew.

His better known works, often reproduced as prints and postcards, are as familiar as Sunflowers or the Mona Lisa. So my gast was well and truly flabbered this week when I discovered that there are no Schiele pieces on permanent public display in the UK. I still can't quite believe this is true. (Hang on, okay no "major works" apparently). This knowledge has made me particularly grateful that I made the effort to run to the Belvedere in Vienna on the Keith Top of the Pops / Blood Arm tour of Europe a few years ago, while the rest of the minor indie celebrities were nursing hangovers the size of the city's ferris wheel.

As you can gather I was pretty blooming excited when I found out that London's Courtauld Gallery was hosting a major exhibition, especially as I was having it off this week and my plans for some kind of an adventure had come to naught. So excited in fact that I got there a bit early. "I'm afraid the exhibition doesn't open until tomorrow, sir!" Hey, at least it got me out bed, right kids?

When it did finally open, I was there, along with a curious mix of mostly young studenty types and retired couples. I guess they are the demographics most likely to have a Thursday afternoon in October free. The show is titled "The Radical Nude" and, as you might expect, focuses on some of the juiciest work for which he is best known: emaciated self-portraits in contorted, Christ-like poses, and various prostitutes, girlfriends and relatives hitching up their skirts. Given the looming horror of war and the fact that Sigmund Freud was hanging in the same circles, this obsession with sex and death is hardly surprising.

The works are mostly charcoal drawings with unorthodox washes of green and purple watercolour accentuating muscle and bone. Often the only colour is red; accentuating the lips, nips and lips again of the various ladies. Many of the works on display are still disturbing now so it's easy to imagine the rumpus they must have caused 100 years ago. One of the joys of the exhibition is listening to the reactions of the public. "I knew I didn't like Egon Schiele!" harrumphs one old fossil, "I'm going downstairs!", while his wife titters. I guess this is probably the first time he's seen female genitals in a while.

It's remarkable that a few sketches from a hundred years ago can still rouse such strong feelings. I don't know whether Schiele is a wicked child abuser or a champion of feminism (arguments have been made for both cases) but his skill as a draughtsman, in particular his mastery of line, is undeniable. He never used rubbers (no sniggering at the back please), nor did he try to disguise errors, instead incorporating these mistakes, so that hands occasionally look like tangled claws.

No doubt his pal Sigmund would have had a field day psychoanalysing the fact that Egon's self-portraits depict a skinny, twisted wreck, while his female subjects are, if not always beautiful, then at least usually bold, confident and defiant. Indeed, the look suggested by the women in one of the most famous pictures, the self-explanatory "Two Girls Embracing" is not so much "come hither" as "fuck off, you're not invited".

Several of the pictures are signed along two different edges, hinting that the works could be hung and viewed from entirely different angles. This provokes the curious spectacle of a gallery full of people tilting their heads to 90 degrees. Many exhibitions claim to be head-turning. This one really is.



( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 25th, 2014 02:54 pm (UTC)
Schiele's nudes used to leave me cold but they had several rooms of him at the Vienna Leopold and I came away thinking he was a genius. National Gallery did a fin-de-siecle Vienna show last year where one of the last pieces was a sketch of his wife on her deathbed when they both had Spanish flu. I walked out fighting back a tear and into the shop, where the same sketch had been reproduced on 1000 tote bags.
Oct. 27th, 2014 03:18 pm (UTC)
This was one of these shows where seeing the pieces in real life really made a difference. You know he died three days after his missus (who was also carrying his unborn child)? Amazing he was still drawing then ...

The rest of the gallery is also worth a look if you've not been before - a good crash course in the greats.
Oct. 27th, 2014 10:14 pm (UTC)
Yeah, not been there for ages but I really like the collection, my favourite Modigliani, that Manet barmaid and a Reynolds nocturne that have stayed with me. Should go to this, want to do the Rembrandt as well.
Oct. 25th, 2014 09:59 pm (UTC)
Top title for this entry - and glad you're a fellow Adam Ant fan!
Oct. 27th, 2014 03:14 pm (UTC)
Thanks! Isn't everyone?! x
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )