Consenting Adults

Life in Motion: Egon Schiele/Francesca Woodman (Liverpool Tate, 24 May-20 September 2018)

A couple of years ago, there was an exhibition called Schiele’s Women at the Courtauld, and I swear that I wrote it up, as Schiele’s Sheilas (yes, I know), but fortunately or unfortunately I can’t find my notes. I think I bought the catalogue. But even without that I would have made the trip to the Pool to see one of their paired exhibitions— like Bacon and Lassnig or Klein and Krasiński where sometimes the pairings work and sometimes they don’t. Like whoever it was with Leonora Carrington.

I’d seen Woodman’s photographs before, I think an Artists Rooms at the Ferens, and they are interesting but I fear paled with the comparison here. There are points in common: both artists started young and died early (Woodman killed herself at the age of 22, Schiele died of Spanish flu at 28), both focus on often contorted and naked bodies, sometimes self-portraits. And both made images that are NSFW.

(You can see eighteen of them here. I’ll wait.)

In retrospect, Woodman fits into the whole debate about the male gaze and offers a counter — perhaps an exhibitionism, perhaps berating us for looking. As self-photographer she is perhaps in control, although she cannot control where the image turns up. There are nudes, bound legs, clothes pegs on skin and nipples, tapping into a language of sadomasochism in a manner that recalls Robert Mapplethorpe but less erotic (but maybe that’s just me). The female nude is a mainstay of art history in a way that the male nude frankly isn’t, and there’s a sense of reappropiation here. The images are undeniably disturbing, but it’s the later angel ones that held my interest most (and my favourites weren’t in the catalogue).

Schiele was born in Tuln, Austria in 1890, to Maria Schiele (from Český Krumlov) and Adolf Schiele (the stationmaster in Tuln). After Adolf died of syphilis, he was made a ward of his maternal uncle, Leopold Czihaczek, and was expected to go into railway management, but Schiele’s talents lay in art and Czihaczek grudgingly allowed him art lessons. Aged fifteen, he went to the Kuntsgewerbeschule in Vienna, but was transferred instead to the Akademie der Bildenden Künste. He admired Gustav Klimt and sought him out for advice. After the academy, he set up his own group with fellow students, the Neukunstgruppe, and began to exhibit, although he was clearly too radical for Vienna. In 1911, he met Wally (Walburga) Neuzil, who acted as muse, model and manager, and he started depicting her, himself, and local teens. But he felt trapped by the city, so moved to Český Krumlov to find artistic freedom. Unfortunately, the locals weren’t fans and they moved on to Neulengbach, where he was arrested for transporting a minor, indecency and pornography, serving twenty-four days in prison and suffering the indignity of having one of his paintings burnt in court.

Back in Vienna he met the Harms sisters — Edith and Adéle — and was forced to choose between Edith and Wally. He chose Edith, who became a reluctant model and Wally left forever. By then war broke out and Schiele was conscripted three days after his marriage and went with her to Prague. Physical illness kept Schiele as a clerk rather than a soldier, and in 1917 he was back in Vienna. In 1918 Klimt died of a stroke and Schiele designed the poster for the 49th Secession Exhibition, a group founded by Klimt. On 28 October 1918, just before the end of the war, the six months pregnant Edith died of Spanish Flu; Schiele died on 31 October.

The Liverpool exhibition focused on his drawings and watercolours rather than paintings, mostly on brown paper (something he copied from Klimt), but sometimes in other media such as Japanese paper or vellum. Obviously there are pictures of Wally and Edith, many highly sexualised and erotic, often contorted in shape. I’m not, however, convinced that they could be classed as pornographic, although the boots, stockings, hand positioning and genitalia partake of the language of pornography. Alongside the strong outlines in black, Schiele will add a coloured jacket or a cloak, and tip in the lips or the nipples. There’s a kind of defiance here I can almost feel, like the returned gaze that seems to be there in Munch’s Puberty, looks that sometimes almost dare you to be turned on.

But the man holds the pencil.

At the same time, just as Woodman is unrelentingly naked before our gaze, so Schiele, with the aid of multiple mirrors lays his contorted body, skin and body, penis and bollocks, lips and eyes for us to take in. In a Scottish gallery a portrait of Rembrandt suggests that no other artist painted so many self portraits — maybe Schiele has him beat. Take Self Portrait in Black Cloak from 1911, somewhere between no ego or all ego.
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Or Reclining Couple (1912), where Wally wears more clothes than he does, where he seems passive to her, where I confess I didn’t at first spot her hand. Could this have been a position drawn from life? Which of the two — if either — is more humiliated? And where does consent lie?

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