From Thursday 23rd October, London's Courtauld gallery plays host to the works of the late Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele. The exhibition is entitled 'Egon Schiele: The Radical Nudes', focussing specifically on the most controversial theme of Schiele's oeuvre: nakedness.
Radical is a profoundly accurate way to describe Schiele's work. Active throughout the first two decades of the twentieth- century, he produced rich and complex pieces that shocked the world, and the waves are still being felt today. Whilst there is no denying his ground-breaking and innovative status, 'radical' infers something basal, organic and primitive is at play. Schiele's nudes have an urgent rawness to them, from the imperfect, mottled skin to the harsh, scratchy outlines. Fibrous limbs are joined by knobbly knees and uncomfortable looking elbows. They are not pretty. Despite this, a kind of churlish beauty can be found in the vibrant honesty of Schiele's pen and brush strokes.
In his biography Egon Schiele, 1890-1918: The Midnight Soul of the Artist, Reinhard Steiner draws our attention to a section from one of Schiele's own poems: 'Artists are quick to sense/ the great trembling light,/ the warmth,/ the breathing of living creatures.' Schiele's nudes contain an inherent sense of movement that is the trademark of the impressionist, and it is this distinct sense of being alive and 'breathing' that engages, attracts and repels the viewer. The nudes are not simply anatomically correct descriptions of the human body, but something deeper, more animate and cognizant.
The viewer is intensely aware of the truth of Schiele's bodies, and they ultimately leave us with a sense of uneasy familiarity. We are owners of bodies just like these, and yet our immediate reaction is to reject them as obscene. By contemplating why we have such a response, we can learn something about how we understand our own bodies.
Schiele's nudes are the antithesis to the cold, smooth perfection of classical nudes, which are generally appreciated as otherworldly entities, in no way related to wonky, ugly, hairy real bodies. In modern times, a similar obsession with bodily perfection has resulted in a skewed perception of what our own bodies should, and do, look like. Schiele's work allows us to reconsider the reality of our own bodily forms by thrusting them in our faces.
Aggressive, grotesque and disturbing are all descriptions that have been levelled at Schiele's work, and the passing of time does nothing to dull our reactions. Even the most open-minded viewer cannot help but feel uneasy at his distinctly imperfect bodies. In our hyper-sexualised modern world, we must ask how and why Schiele's nudes still have the power to shock, and consider how we can channel our immediate knee-jerk responses into something more productive.