They’ve done it again! Short, sweet, brilliantly focused, the Courtauld Gallery in London has once again mounted a brilliant temporary exhibition with a sharp focus on a particular artist and theme. And following on from the gallery’s scintillating study of the single most important year in the development of Picasso’s career, this time the Courtauld is looking at the prolific work of an Austrian artist who sadly never lived out the full career his talent so obviously deserved: Egon Schiele. Instead, almost as though he had a premeditation of the Spanish flu that would kill him at the end of the First World War at the age of only 28, Schiele worked frantically, producing in the few short years of his career such a virtuosity of artwork that even after that short time he has been declared a pillar of Austria’s Expressionist art movement.
Such was Schiele’s prolific output that the Courtauld had the luxury of being able to chose to focus in on one distinct element of his work: his depiction of the nude. And in doing so they have surely touched on perhaps the most memorable and striking chapter of his oeuvre. For in his depictions of the nude, Schiele was indeed very much the radical, just as the show suggests. Depicting his models with an angular and uncomfortable frame, and raw and visceral colouring, Schiele’s nudes are at once uncompromising and vulgar, while being completely fascinating and electric to the eye.
Schiele wasn’t exactly one to keep with the confines of classical approaches to depicting the nude. Far from it. As well as colouring in his heavily lined nudes with a raw almost skinless muscular palate of dark bloody pinks and bruised purples and ambers, he also strayed very close to the pornographic frontier, depicting women in an unflinchingly abrupt and exposed fashion. I don’t think I ever saw so many views of what lies between a woman’s thighs on a gallery wall! And yet these paintings are not porn. They do not depict a promise of pleasure, but a deeply exposed portrait of the sitter. Yes these women look seductive and often slutty, but it’s as though Schiele is inviting us to read that as part of their story rather than to have an aroused response at what they are offering.
And of course this exhibition is far from being about the naughty bits. For what these 30 or so paintings demonstrate is the brilliance and apparent confidence of Schiele’s line work as well as the originality of his depiction. These are bodies like we have never seen them before. Distorted, and occasionally out of proportion, bulging and contorting where they shouldn’t and often with sharp edges where supple skin should be, these are nudes taken up a level to an almost abstract exploration; poses which are almost impossible to hold; limbs seemingly amputated from the torso in order to focus the audience on a particular present part of the body; and expressions which are both exposing and intensely emotional: this is uncompromising portraiture.
So is this small but perfectly formed show worth braving the growing queues for? It undoubtedly is. For this is an unprecedented chance to focus in on the bold feverish creative output of a quickly lost genius and almost certainly one of the most important shows of London’s artistic year. The only complaint you may have is that this sharp focus doesn’t go on longer.
Egon Schiele: the Radical Nude runs until 18 January. But beware – the show contains some explicit images and may not be deemed suitable for all.