It wouldn’t be an Egon Schiele exhibition without a viewer advisory note at the entrance. Still, this survey of the Austrian artist’s drawings and watercolours is unflinchingly graphic, in both senses of the word. Its initial focus is 1910, Schiele’s breakthrough year. Failing to graduate (‘Don’t tell anyone I taught you,’ his drawing master is alleged to have said), he gravitated towards Vienna’s bohemian café culture, where conversation fizzed with Freud’s new-fangled theories about psychology, sex and desire. Schiele channelled these into nude studies that, Inspired by his friend and mentor Gustav Klimt, are among the most starkly sexual works of the twentieth century.
With Schiele there is no poetry, little context – just bodies laid bare on the otherwise blank page. Torsos buckle and unfurl; legs are wrenched apart. In early (probable) self-portraits the contortions are easy to understand – he’s simply twisting round to catch a glimpse of his gaunt body in the mirror. But, Schiele’s realism tips into fevered expressionism when he starts to have his models grimace (hysterically Freudian) or paints them in over-ripe hues that bring a whiff of death to brazenly carnal proceedings.
Since models were scarce, he relied on prostitutes, countering saccharine representations of women as either goddesses or nymphs while underlining the hypocrisies of a supposedly civilised city and its underclass of poverty and vice. Among the most discomforting is ‘Seated Nude Girl with Pigtails’ (1910), just a child, really, stick-thin in stockings, around whose bony fingers the paper has been rucked by the paint. It gives the impression she’s clawing at the sheet to get away. Schiele also gained access to the patients of an art-loving gynaecologist friend, reducing a pregnant woman to scarlet belly and breasts and a mask-like face – perhaps he lost interest after the important bits – and making a monster out of a newborn in ‘Mother and Child’ (1910).
Even though the show does a great job of chronicling the artist’s life, including his imprisonment on a charge of public immorality, anyone expecting a blockbuster will be surprised that just 40 drawings and watercolours are on display in a couple of rooms. But, this is the first Schiele exhibition we’ve had for 25 years and, since there’s not a single major work by him in a UK public collection, the most extensive we’re likely to get.
Not that ‘extensive’ can really be applied to an artist who died so young. In October 1918, Schiele’s wife, pregnant with their first child, died of Spanish Flu; Schiele succumbed three days later, aged 28, one of 20 million lives claimed in Europe by the pandemic. It was a pretty unexceptional way to go. But the ‘what if’ scenario kindled by his early demise is all part of Schiele’s mythology. He didn’t have time to grow content or flabby. He died young, stayed gritty.