Egon Schiele: The man who loved women

It is tempting to view Egon Schiele's erotic images as voyeuristic, but Adrian Hamilton is fascinated by an artist who showed compassion for his female subjects

Monday 23 May 2011 00:00 BST

Even today, a century after they were produced, Egon Schiele's drawings have the power to shock. In Woman in Red Garters, done when the young Austrian artist was barely 23, the woman in question raises her petticoat to reveal her full pudenda. Emphasised in red, like her nipples and lips.

The libidinous obsessions of a randy youth? Partly, no doubt. But his portraits of himself are equally direct and just as intrusive. A watercolour and pencil self-portrait, called Eros, sketched when he was just 21, has the young man grasping his erect member – again highlighted in red – in one hand and pointing to its tip with the other. Which would be just plain adolescent if it weren't for the anguished and frustrated way in which the body and face are presented. There's nothing soft or self-flattering in this self-portrayal.

Schiele was, as any display of his drawings illustrates, a graphic artist of genius. There is a total confidence in his line, a commitment to the figure and a boldness in his imposition of figure on space, that sets him apart from almost any other artist of his time. Even Lucian Freud, who would seem to owe much to him, cannot match the frankness of his gaze or his engagement with the body.

Which makes it all the more extraordinary that there have been so few exhibitions of his work in this country, especially of his prolific graphic output. It's not as though he didn't produce plenty of drawings and watercolours and gouaches. Although he died young at 28, he'd finished around 2,500 of them. Nor is he entirely unknown. The Royal Academy had an exhibition of Schiele and His Time as far back as 1989 and interest has increased since partly because of the sky-high prices paid by the Lauder family for their museum in New York. And yet there are almost none of his works in UK public galleries. Reluctance to embrace German art after two world wars? Prices pushed beyond the budgets of cash-strapped British galleries? Or is Schiele, with his sexual compulsiveness, still too disturbing for modern English taste and feminist disapproval?

Whatever the reason, it's a dearth that the dealer and Schiele admirer Richard Nagy, aims to address with the opening exhibition at his new gallery in Old Bond Street London. The show consists of some 50 drawings and watercolours never seen before in this country. Its theme – for Richard Nagy intends it to be the first of a series of focused displays – is "Women."

No surprise in this. Women were, alongside self-portraits (currently the subject of a major exhibition in Vienna), a preoccupying obsession with Schiele. Over half his works on paper were devoted to the subject and of these well over half were depicted nude or semi-nude.

Pornographic? Voyeuristic? The end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th were strong on prostitution and pornography, particularly in the new media of photography but also in art. The face of public society, might be magisterial and sober, but the private appetites of public men were anything but. To which hypocrisy the artistic Young Turks were bound to react and get themselves, satisfactorily, censored as a result. Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe and Courbet's L'Origine du Monde being but two examples of the occasions for public outrage.

But Schiele, who'd determined to become an artist against the wishes of his family and gained entrance to Vienna's Academy of Arts at the early age of 16, doesn't seem to have painted the way he did as an act of aesthetic revolt or a desire to shock the public. He did it out of fascination with the female body, as much as anything. The only son of a man who died of syphilis when Egon was only 15, he was brought up in a house full of women, sharing a particularly close relationship with his younger sister, Gertrude.

She was the model of a number of his early and frankest nudes, a fact which caused scandal at the time and induces a somewhat queasy feeling today.

And yet the fascinating point about Schiele's nudes of his sister, as of his mistresses and the prostitutes he later picked up in the street and persuaded to model for him, is how sympathetic they are. That they were the expressions of a young man with a very high sex drive cannot be doubted. They have an obsessive quality in their gaze that is totally masculine. And yet women – at least of my acquaintance – seem to find them entrancing, honest rather than lecherous.

"It's because he came across to his models as an equal, not as a predator," argues Nagy. "He was young, unlike most artists of the time painting nudes, he was penniless and he seemedgenuinely interested in them. The only other artist who worked with prostitutes as an equal in this way was Toulouse-Lautrec and that was for other reasons."

There is also a genuine feeling of interest in the girls themselves, a compassion, that comes though in Schiele's work. An extraordinarily powerful work in gouache and watercolour, of a Woman with Homunculus, is thought to be of his mistress at the time after he'd taken her for an abortion. Schiele used gouache almost as if it was oil and the figures are painted in fierce brushstrokes, the smaller child/man reaching up but separate from the mother-female, her own eyes turned back towards the view with an air of interrogation.

The same dark-haired figure is the subject of a gentler but no less affecting nude of the same period (1910), the face of innocence contrasted with the emaciated stomach and arms. It's a portrait suffused with sympathy, as are a series of drawings of her undressing and sleeping of great tenderness.

Schiele's art changed over time and this exhibition covers the progression fully. The earlier works, from 1910-11, have a tautness and sense of inquiry that makes even the most obscene compulsive, In the years before the First World War (in which he was called up), the nudes are becoming more self-consciously artistic. He sketched from the top of a pair of step ladders the models lying below, so that in several cases you can view them either horizontally or vertically with equal effect.

The drawing becomes more complex, the pencil line is used with more deliberate brio, giving them considerable energy. The compassion is still there but the tension is less. Even more so after he marries a respectable girl from the locality in 1915 and starts, after the war, to earn a living doing portraits. The nudes become more posed and fleshier, the fully clothed girls appear more as they would have liked to. The draughtsmanship is superb, the figures still impose themselves on the space and on the viewer in a distinctly Schiele-like way. But one misses perhaps the obsessiveness and, yes, the sexuality of his earlier work.

I can think of no more satisfying morning or afternoon in London, in art terms, at the moment than to go to the exhibition of Watteau drawings at the Royal Academy (finishing 5 June) and then to pop round the corner to see Schiele in Old Bond Street – two graphic geniuses, two centuries apart – different sensibilities, different times but one in their mastery of the medium.

Egon Schiele: Women, Richard Nagy, London W1 (020 7262 6400) to 30 June

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