Art | Egon Schiele: Egon Schiele

Self-Portrait as Kneeling Nude, 1910
Black chalk and gouache on paper
Leopold Museum-Privatstiftung, Vienna, Austria

The Radical Nude
The Courtauld Gallery
London, United Kingdom
23rd October 2014 > 18th January 2015

Standing Nude with Stockings, 1914
Black chalk and gouache
Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, Germany

If you like Egon Schiele’s work, there’s no better time than right now to see a great deal of it. No less than three exhibitions of the Austrian artist’s work are currently showing around Europe and in America, respectively, while Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude, opens at the Courtauld Gallery in London next week, and is claimed be the first ever museum show in the UK devoted entirely to the artist. A fact that, if true, is a shocking oversight.

Revered today as not just a central figure in Austrian expressionism, but as one of the most important artists of the early 20th century, Egon Schiele (1890 > 1918) had his first solo exhibition at Vienna’s Galerie Miethke in 1911. Just seven years after, he and his pregnant wife, infected by the Spanish flu epidemic that swept across Europe during 1918, tragically died. Despite Schiele’s short life, however, he produced a prodigious amount of work, and the mere fact that his oeuvre can sustain so many simultaneous exhibitions – Egon Schiele: Beginning and End, at the Egon Schiele Museum, Tulln, Austria, Egon Schiele: Portraits at the Neue Galerie in New York, Egon Schiele – Jenny Saville, at Switzerland’s Kunsthaus Zürich, in which 35 paintings by Schiele are juxtaposed against 16 large-format works by the British artist, Jenny Saville (1970-) – pays tribute to its superb quality and breadth.

Two Women Embracing,1915
Gouache, watercolour and pencil
Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

In 1906, judged a failure at the village school because all he wanted to do was draw pictures, the fifteen-year-old Schiele was sent to Vienna to study art, where he was immediately accepted at the city’s prestigious Academy of Fine Arts. Soon after he met Gustav Klimt, one of the most prominent members of the Austrian Secession, and was adopted as one of the great artist’s protogés. 1909 saw four of Schiele’s pictures accepted for the Internationalen Kunstschau / International Art Show, organised by a committee headed by Klimt. At this point Schiele made the decision to leave the Academy and to set up his own art group, the Neukunstgruppe / New Art Group, with eight others, of which he was both president and secretary. His work beginning to draw international interest, he was invited to join the Sema artists association in Munich, which numbered Paul Klee among its members. Schiele also exhibited at the Goltz Gallery in Munich with Der Blaue Reiter / The Blue Rider group whose prominent members included Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky.

In 1912, Schiele was arrested and charged with the kidnapping of a minor – the charge was later dropped – and 125 of his erotic drawings were confiscated. ‘Hindering the artist is a crime,’ he wrote after being forced to spend three days in prison for his alleged dissemination of immoral images.

Erwin Dominik Osen, Nude with Crossed Arms, 1910
Black chalk, watercolour and gouache,
Leopold Museum-Privatstiftung, Vienna

His first exhibitions outside of the Austro-Hungarian empire, in Rome, Brussels and Paris came in 1913. Between 1915 and 1917, he saw military service in Prague – during which he continued to take part in exhibitions. Released from service, Gustav Klimt having died, Schiele took responsibility for organising the 49th Wiener Secession exhibition for which he also produced the poster. The event was an enormous success, and earned him many commissions from Viennese society.

Sharply focussed, Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude homes in on some of Schiele’s most radical, inspirational and influential works. The Courtauld Gallery exhibition includes more than thirty items – oil paintings, watercolours and drawings – all of them nudes, assembled from international public and private collections. Their frank content draws comparison with some of those Schiele almost certainly influenced, for example, Lucien Freud, albeit Freud’s nude figures were mostly set against some sort of background, whereas Schiele’s were not. Freud’s nudes would surely have been a better choice for comparison than Jenny Saville’s, for the Zürich show.

Images courtesy The Courtauld Gallery

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