Pleasures of the flesh: The classic nudes of the Silverman Collection

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Classic nudes are among the delights of the Silverman Collection at the Richard Nagy gallery. It's a stunning show, says Adrian Hamilton

For anyone interested in German and Austrian art before the Second World War, there is only one place to go and that is to the Richard Nagy gallery in London where the Silverman Collection of art is on display.

It is not just that it is a quite breathtaking collection, with half a dozen masterpieces and some of the finest paintings of Otto Dix, Egon Schiele and Ludwig Meidner anywhere. It is also such a strongly personal gathering of art by a collector who has bought the pictures that appealed to him not for their name or their value but for what can only be described as their anger. "I like paintings of torment," he told an interviewer, "of tension, of the human condition"

Well, there is plenty of that in his chosen field, which may explain the singular lack of the art in UK public galleries. The British tend not to like angst in their art, still less when it is painted by their former enemies. Even among private collectors it is a limited speciality, confined mostly to Jewish Americans from the East Coast, seeking the culture of their roots but also, perhaps, an explanation of the cataclysm that befell Europe at the time.

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Benedict Silverman fits that bill, although he lays no claim to middle-European ancestry. But there is clearly something in the art that speaks to him directly. One of his first purchases was of a black wash and charcoal sketch, Standing Boy by Egon Schiele, from 1910. It was one of a series of studies the artist made when only 20 of street urchins. It's an exquisite work but a painful one, as the boy, his hands thrust into his jacket pockets, looks with tightened eyes on the world about.

It was a picture, Silverman implies in an interview published in the catalogue, that reminded him of his own childhood, or lack of it. When he was only six his mother had been carted off to a mental asylum suffering from post-natal depression after the birth of twin girls. She remained incarcerated until her death in old age, unbeknownst to her son who was left bringing up his sisters.

The theme of loss and disruption runs throughout his holdings. His own favourite picture is a superb gouache and watercolour by Egon Schiele, Woman with Homunculus, from his most creative period in 1910. He drew it after he had taken his girlfriend for an abortion. The black-haired girl, naked except for black stockings, turns back to look at you, the figure of a child clutching her side, her eyes both accusing and resigned. Schiele died, tragically, of the Spanish flu in 1918, aged only 28, planning a life-size canvas of the Last Supper representing himself and the young artists whose task it would be to create a new world after all the destruction of the old. Silverman's collection includes an oil and tempura study for the final work, which was never completed. It's one of the most valuable paintings in the collection and, in its way, the most optimistic as the figures set about the meal with an air of determination and experience.

Few of Schiele's contemporaries shared his belief in that future. Ludwig Meidner, whose work is too little known over here, foresaw what was coming in 1913 with Apocalyptic Landscape in a violent vision of tumbling buildings, huge explosions and raging waters. His worst fears were realised once the war had started. The Incident in the Suburbs from 1915 depicts two men struggling desperately against each other as they flee the collapsing buildings. For Meidner, it represented the ruptures of society caused by the war. For Silverman, it appealed as a picture of the viciously competitive real estate market in which he started out. Meidner's feelings are mirrored in a powerful Cubist oil on board painting by his friend George Grosz, completed towards the end of the year. It is a nightmare view of a world balanced on the edge of chaos, the figures and emblems of the corporate world bustling around the figure of a lone female tightrope walker.

"I like paintings that hit me in the stomach," says Silverman. That is certainly true of the works of Meidner and Schiele. It is also true in a more cerebral sense of the works of Otto Dix. The collection contains two truly stupendous works by Germany's answer to Goya. One is a small nude done in the manner of Cranach. Venus with Gloves from 1932 is as compulsive as it is disconcerting, the classical simplicity of the nude subverted by the emaciation of the body, the wistful fragility in the eyes and the black of the gloves and falling skirt against the whiteness of the body. You could spend hours just looking at it without ever fully understanding the picture or the sitter.

The same could be said, but even more so, of the great masterpiece of the Silverman Collection, Otto Dix's Self Portrait with Model. Painted in 1923, it is one of the largest oils in the exhibition and quite the most disconcerting. The artist stands, all formal and constricted, in shirt and tie and well-groomed hair. He looks out of the picture with a set face and empty eyes. Beside him is the nude model, full fleshed, her arms above her head, looking down with wide-eyes, thinking of something else. Power and control are there, but it is the model that seems freest, and the artist most imprisoned by himself.

Benedict Silverman is now disposing of the whole collection to fund a foundation dedicated to teaching literacy around the world. Reading, he feels, is the great liberator and the lack of it the great obstacle to an individual's progress. It's a very American act of charity. But then Silverman represents a very American style of collector in his combination of private passion and public responsibility. One wishes there were more like him. One fears that, in a world of trophy buying and the super rich, they are a vanishing breed.

The Silverman Collection, Richard Nagy Gallery, London W1 (020 7262 6400) to 24 November

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