Martin Gayford

Egon Schiele at the Courtauld: a one-note samba of spindly limbs, nipples and pudenda

The Viennese artist painted most of the works in this exhibition when he was just 20 - and it shows

One day, as a student — or so the story goes — Egon Schiele called on Gustav Klimt, a celebrated older artist, and showed him a portfolio of drawings with the abrupt query, ‘Do I have talent?’ Klimt looked at them, then answered, ‘Much too much!’ One gets an inkling of what Klimt was getting at from the feverishly intense work on show in Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude.

From childhood, Schiele drew with manic fluency. His father, a syphilitic stationmaster, was irritated to discover that a sketchbook, a gift to the boy intended to last for months, had been filled in less than a day. In 1906, at the age of 16, he sailed through the entrance examination to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts to become the youngest student in his class (the following year Adolf Hitler ignominiously failed the same test).

As time went on, the Vienna Academy seems to have regretted letting him in. His teacher, the severely conservative Professor Griepenkerl, implored Schiele when he left, ‘For God’s sake, never tell anyone you studied with me!’ The reason was that Schiele was simultaneously a prodigy and an enfant terrible.

He found his distinctive style very early. His entire oeuvre is that of a young man; most of the work in the first of the two rooms of this densely packed little exhibition dates from 1910–11, when Schiele (1890–1918) was just 20. That helps to explain some tendencies: a half-disgusted preoccupation with sexuality and a similarly queasy fascination with examining his naked self. The male figures mainly seem to have been modelled by the artist, though it is hard to be certain since the head is often not included.

As the title indicates, this is a selection that concentrates on drawings of people without any clothes on — which make up the majority of Schiele’s works on paper (although his themes also included portraits and landscapes). This gives it focus but also makes it a bit of a one-note samba: a succession of spindly limbs, nipples and pudenda.

Schiele’s nudes were radical more in what they represented than in how they did so. His style — which you might define as art nouveau plus extreme angst — was sufficiently innovatory to upset Professor Griepenkerl but not modern enough for the avant-garde Blaue Reiter group of Munich, which refused to accept him as a confrère. Naked self-portraits such as ‘Male Nude’ (1910) are spiky, emaciated brothers of more robust men of Rodin and Klimt.

The outrageousness of these nudes — especially what the catalogue describes as an ‘obsessive interest in genitalia’ — resulted in their being denounced as pornographic. As a result, Schiele was briefly imprisoned in 1912, and one of his works burnt with a candle flame in the courtroom. After his death in 1920, prints derived from his works were seized by the police and apparently destroyed.

These episodes might seem quaint examples of the philistinism of a century ago, if it were not for Schiele’s predilection for very young models. This would get him into far worse trouble in the 21st century than the 24-day sentence he actually received for exhibiting an erotic drawing in a place accessible to children. The catalogue cautiously notes that it is impossible to be sure of the age of the sitter for, say, ‘Seated Nude Girl with Pigtails’ (1910), but quite possibly she was under the age of consent in Austria at the time, 14.

‘Two Girls Embracing (Friends)’, 1915, by Egon Schiele
‘Two Girls Embracing (Friends)’, 1915, by Egon Schiele

Leaving this aside, how important was Schiele as an artist? He was certainly quite as brilliant a draughtsman as Klimt proclaimed. Schiele drew fast, always from the live model, and according to his friend and dealer, Otto Benesch, he never erased a line or made a correction. If a model moved he either threw his drawing away and started again, or simply drew new lines over the old ones. It is easy to believe he worked at lightning velocity; the spiky lines in works such as ‘Girl Kneeling on a Red Cushion’ (1913) crackle with speed.

There is, however, an odd disjunction between the bodies — viewed with exaggerated attention to angularities and private parts — and the wide-eyed, doll-like faces that verge on the sentimental. There is a touch of glamorisation and also of self-pity coexisting with all the provocative truthfulness. The figures are gaunt like famine victims, but also like fashion models. ‘Standing Nude with Stockings’ (1914) has typical, pretty features, with a bright red mouth that suggests she’s wearing lipstick.

This doesn’t make Schiele a bad artist, but it doesn’t make him a very grown-up one either. I suspect he appeals greatly to people as young as he was when he was making these works, both artists and viewers. He was reaching maturity — as well as achieving financial success — at the point when he died in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, aged only 28. What Schiele might have achieved had he lived into old age is a conundrum as imponderable as what would have happened to the world if Hitler had not been failed by Professor Griepenkerl at that entrance examination.