Egon Schiele – “The Radical Nude” at the Courtauld

Our first stop during our recent short break in London was the Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House. We wanted to catch their exhibition of drawings of nudes by Egon Schiele before it finished a few days later. It’s been a popular show was busy, but, fortunately, not so busy that we couldn’t see the drawing and spend some time contemplating the pictures and retracing our steps and taking a second or third look at those that were of particular interest.

The Courtauld’s website tells us

This exhibition brings together an outstanding group of the artist’s nudes to chart his ground-breaking approach during his short but urgent career

Schiele’s technical virtuosity, highly original vision and unflinching depictions of the naked figure distinguish these works as being among his most significant contributions to the development of modern art.

Even today the drawings are quite shocking in their explicitness, particularly the earlier ones from 1910 hung in the first of the two rooms  devoted to the exhibition. It’s hard to appreciate just how controversial they must have seen when they were first displayed.

There’s no doubt that the drawings demonstrate just what an accomplished draftsman and artist Schiele was. They are technically brilliant. But I have to say that I felt some unease about their subject matter in the explicit way he portrayed the women, including his sister.

According to the review in the Guardian

Schiele, …… is a feminist who puts women at the centre of art. He is a lover, not a hater.

I’m not so sure about that. I think he certainly liked women but the way he portrayed them he comes across as rather disturbed. His drawings are far from affectionate.

He did draw and paint male nudes too, including some self portraits. And they’re somewhat distorted too, with contorted limbs in unnatural, unrealistic positions and with hands and feet cut off.

This last week we’ve had a lot of debate in the media about Page 3 of that awful rag, The Sun. For many years bare breasted young women – “Glamour Models” – have been displayed solely as objects for the titillation of men. Quite rightly most women find this offensive and there has been a campaign against it in recent years. Schiele’s drawings are different. I don’t think his intention was to titillate but to show women as he saw them. They’re realistic but, at the same time not “real”. And I don’t think you can say they’re not sexualised – but in a rather distorted way. They’re much more explicit than Page 3 and could, indeed, be considered to be pornographic. There’s no question that they’re art. But where do we draw the line? I certainly don’t know. I do know that I enjoyed the exhibition. But I still feel uneasy.

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