Egon Schiele's Women

October 23, 2012 to December 28, 2012

The Austrian artist Egon Schiele (1890-1918) is probably best known for his depictions of women. His nudes, in particular, not only challenged the taboos of his time, but presaged the more fluid, open-ended approach to gender and sexuality that prevails today. Although the artist was repeatedly accused of peddling pornography, even a cursory review of his work shows that it more often evokes anxiety than sexual arousal. The work is, moreover, revolutionary in form as well as content; Schiele literally invented a new way of looking at women. For this reason, he has been an important influence both on male artists and on such women as Marina Abramovic, Vanessa Beecroft, Marlene Dumas, Tracey Emin, Nan Goldin and Sherrie Levine. While Schiele, in his personal life, was hardly a feminist, in his art he freed women from the controlling male narrative that had heretofore shaped the interpretive discourse.

Ever since Eve plucked the apple from the Tree of Knowledge, woman has been viewed, in Judeo-Christian mythology, as a purveyor of sin, an evil temptress. While the female was associated with the physical body, instinct and nature, the male came to be identified with the spirit, reason and civilization. However by the turn of the twentieth century, these dichotomies were increasingly being called into question. The notion of a soul—or indeed even a fixed self—residing within but inherently separate from the body no longer seemed intellectually viable. Darwin had shown that humankind is an essentially biological construct. Freud had demonstrated that human behavior is shaped by unconscious forces beyond an individual’s rational control. At the same time, the socio-economic changes wrought by industrial capitalism were propelling women beyond the domestic sphere, encouraging them to demand equality in the wider world. Seen as heralding a final, dreaded triumph of instinct over reason, this assault on male hegemony inspired numerous rearguard attempts to shore up the barrier between the sexes.

The new sciences of evolution and psychoanalysis were among the tools used to define and dictate a woman’s proper role. Females were said to be weaker and stupider than the opposite sex by evolutionary design. Furthermore, theorists like Otto Weininger opined, evolutionary progress required gender differentiation; equality would send the species tumbling into a downward, “degenerate” spiral. Whereas Weininger and many other men believed that women were purely sexual creatures, there were those, including Freud, who contended that psychologically healthy bourgeois females have little interest in sex as such. These contradictory attitudes were reconciled by dividing women into two groups, based loosely on the Christian paradigms of the whore and the Madonna. Fin-de-siècle art and literature were awash with primitive sex goddesses, dangerous femmes fatales, pathetic prostitutes, innocent virgins and saintly mothers. Rampant prostitution enabled men to eat their cake and have it, too; they could run wild with Vienna’s street hookers and then return home to chaste brides.

Such, it seems, was the case with Egon Schiele’s father, Adolf. He chose his future wife, Marie Soukup, when he was twenty-three and she only twelve, and by the time they married five years later, he had contracted syphilis. Probably due to this lethal wedding-night “gift,” Marie would endure numerous stillbirths and the death of her first surviving child, Elvira, at the age of ten. Egon, at fourteen, witnessed his father’s descent into madness and eventual death from syphilis. The origin of Adolf’s illness made a mockery of bourgeois propriety, which attempted to deny or suppress the human sex drive. Egon, in the throes of puberty, was left to confront his own raging desires without any reliable adult guidance. At the same time, he was now the only male in a family comprising his mother, Marie; an older sister, Melanie; and a younger sister, Gertrude (Gerti). Coming of age in the company of women undoubtedly honed Schiele’s sensitivity to the female psyche.

Family members were Schiele’s obvious first models; they were readily available and did not need to be paid. The artist’s early portraits of his mother, exuding an impassive world-weariness, already evidence a remarkable ability to capture a female sitter’s personality. But Schiele’s favorite model, at least through mid-1910, was Gerti. Four years his junior, Gerti was fully equal to the artist in her willingness to explore her own burgeoning sexuality. Here was a different type of woman: neither an innocent victim nor a wicked temptress, but a female in comfortable command of her body. Schiele clearly felt a freedom with his little sister that he couldn’t, at this stage, have experienced with a stranger.

Among Schiele’s first adult nude models were the pregnant patients of the gynecologist Erwin von Graff. The resulting watercolors, dating to the first half of 1910, reflect a mix of unease and incomprehension that must have been mutual on the part of artist and sitters alike. Limned in a garish combination of red, mauve and yellow, these frequently faceless women, with their bulging bellies and gaping vaginas, encapsulate Schiele’s projected sexual fears. Sometimes the models (probably indigent prostitutes pressed into posing by their doctor) stare back at him with undisguised disdain and resignation. Unlike traditional nudes, these women are not passive objects, but participants in a complex emotional interchange. And unlike traditional nudes, they are fiercely, almost aggressively, unattractive.

Historically, various pictorial devices were used to suppress the nude’s erotic volatility and turn her into an object of serene aesthetic contemplation. Conventional foreshortening and perspective pinioned the naked female in her own separate space, where she could be ogled from a safe distance. A supine pose reinforced her passivity. Beauty—smooth contours, unblemished skin, a pretty face and perfect body—was implicitly associated with moral goodness. For more explicit moral credibility, the nude might be given an allegorical, mythological or religious role to play. Gustav Klimt had begun dismantling these stereotypes by stripping his nudes of literary context and populating his allegories with lusty vixens. But his society portraits, devoid of sexual nuance, conform to the “Madonna” paradigm, and the women in his erotic drawings are often so inert as to appear virtually comatose.

Between 1910 and 1911, Schiele took the final steps necessary to liberate the nude from established artistic convention. During this period, he worked intensively with a pair of unnamed models who, based on the color of their tresses and the title of a contemporaneous painting, may be referred to as the “black-haired girls.” Probably they were prostitutes (since proper young ladies did not pose naked), and it is evident that Schiele had sexual relations with at least one of them. Like Gerti, these models willingly “performed” for him, albeit in far more erotic positions. Like some of the gynecological nudes, the black-haired girls lock eyes with the artist, but it is impossible to know whether the images reflect their reactions to him or his reactions to them. The girls’ forthright stares challenge the primacy of the male gaze, blurring the boundary between subject and object that had heretofore been central to the genre of the nude.

The boundary between subject and object is further undermined by Schiele’s compositional methods. His emphasis on negative space creates a tension between the figure and the edge of the picture plane that calls into question the ability of the latter to contain the former. Far from receding into the distance, his women seem to jump out at the viewer. Most disturbing is the artist’s habit of drawing the prone female from above, and then dispensing with all surrounding props that might serve to locate her in space. By imparting a vertical orientation (often reinforced by the placement of his signature) to these clearly recumbent figures, Schiele negates the illusion of passivity that traditionally held in check the nude’s erotic potency. Forgoing any attempt to recalibrate the gender balance in favor of men, he visually affirms female sexual autonomy.

In the spring of 1911, Schiele became involved with a new model, Wally (also known as Valerie or Walburga) Neuzil. While he continued to work with the black-haired girls on into 1912, sometimes even arranging threesomes, it soon became evident that Wally had assumed a special place in his life. Until his marriage in 1915, she was the artist’s steady companion, assistant, lover and muse. Like all his best models, Wally partnered organically with him, and Egon gratefully recognized her as his equal in a shared creative mission. The mute standoff between subject and object that had characterized his earlier nudes was broken by the obvious affection with which Wally returned Egon’s gaze. His more formal portraits of her were characterized by a profound tenderness, a nascent humanism that gradually came to inflect his subsequent portraits. The artist’s relationship with Wally taught him to understand and appreciate the unique integrity of other individuals.

Egon may well have been in love with Wally, but her lowly profession, basically no better than that of a prostitute, made her an unfit wife for a man of his social class. In 1914, as the artist struggled to come to terms with the double standard that was part of his bourgeois heritage, his nudes underwent a striking series of changes. On the one hand, his drawings of women grew more three-dimensionally voluptuous, and on the other hand, the resulting images are surprisingly abstract. Perpendicular cross-hatching, resembling primitive scarification, imparts volume to the principal contours, while faces are reduced to ovoid masks, with saucer-like or pinprick eyes. It would be tempting to characterize these changes as a re-objectification of the female nude, but for the fact that Schiele applied identical pictorial strategies to his contemporaneous self-portraits. The “blind” figures that proliferate in the 1914-15 oeuvre seem to be a more general, metaphorical commentary on sightlessness: the soul’s intrinsic solitude; the inability of human beings to ever properly “see” one another.

Toward the end of 1914, Schiele began courting two sisters, Adele and Edith Harms, who lived across the street from him in Vienna. Either of these bourgeois young women would have met with the approval of the artist’s family, and by the spring of 1915 he had settled on the younger sibling, Edith. Wally was summarily dismissed, and in June the couple married. The marriage did not have an auspicious start. For one thing, Egon had been drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Army, and he began his basic training just three days after the wedding. Edith, an inveterate flirt, turned out to be less innocent than he had expected. Yet she was also a far less accommodating artistic partner than Wally. Posing naked embarrassed her; running business errands was something she had never before been asked to do. Forced to accompany her husband to various army posts, she found herself far from home, virtually alone and friendless. At the same time, Egon’s artistic production suffered, reduced by the demands of military service. Given Edith’s reluctance to disrobe, he executed relatively few nudes during this period, but he did produce numerous perceptive portraits of his sad, implacable bride.

Schiele’s return to Vienna in early 1917 enabled him to resume his studio practice with renewed vigor. Now hailed as one of the city’s leading artists, he was, for the first time in his life, able to afford an extensive roster of professional models. Portrait commissions poured in from men and women alike. Through his relationships with his own family, and then with Wally and Edith, Schiele had become keenly attuned to female psychology, and the humanism developed in portraits of these intimates now colored his commissions. He had long worked with models much as photographers do, capturing fleeting gestures with stop-action precision. Speed of execution enabled him to craft a new conception of self, not as an immutable essence, but as a constant process of becoming. The faces in his late portraits are sensitive barometers of that process; body and soul mesh for a moment that is all the more poignant because we know it will not last. By honoring the transitory nature of personal identity, Schiele makes his women modern.

In his 1917-18 nudes, Schiele followed through on the trend toward greater volumetric verisimilitude presaged already in 1914. His lines had become bolder, surer and more capable of capturing, in a single stroke, every nuance of a three-dimensional body. His application of pigment augments this effect, caressing and molding each bony protuberance, firm mound of muscle or lacy garment. Disruptive elements like erratic cropping and skewed poses persist, but the figures’ erotic volatility is subdued by their self-contained realistic presence. They tend to recede into their own space, and when they make eye contact with the viewer, there is little sense of emotional engagement. Despite their almost classical beauty, however, the late nudes, like the portraits, are thoroughly modern. The women own their sexuality; they take pride in their seductive bodies and are empowered by their allure.

In some respects, it would seem that Schiele had by the end of his life arrived at a more conventional view of gender than that explored in his art between 1910 and 1915. Whereas his female portraits depict fully realized human beings, the nudes are comparatively impersonal sex objects. The artist’s reversion to the bourgeois double standard was reflected in his marriage as well. Indeed, Egon was far more sympathetic to Edith in his art than he was in real life. Back in Vienna, he was soon cheating on her, perhaps even entertaining a dalliance with her sister, Adele. As Edith felt her husband slipping away, she sought to mend the marriage by having his child. Egon remained concerned but distant. His wife was six months pregnant when the Spanish influenza epidemic swept them both to early graves in October 1918.

Although the divergent approaches taken in Schiele’s late portraits and nudes may be interpreted in terms of the double standard, these antithetical representations of womanhood can also be seen as two sides of the same coin, exemplifying, respectively, female intellectual and sexual autonomy. Whether these attributes are viewed as mutually exclusive, complementary, threatening or welcome depends on the viewer’s own prejudices. Schiele’s genius lay in his ability to accept and integrate opposites. He was a master of both soul and body, spiritual and physical, subject and object, self and other. He instinctively rejected the binary thinking that, in his day, attempted to segregate the masculine and the feminine into two distinct camps. He likewise rejected the stereotypical views of woman that classified her as either Madonna or whore, chaste or sinful. He did not judge his women; he merely observed.

We would like to express our warmest thanks to all the lenders who made this exhibition possible: the Museum of Modern Art, the Neue Galerie New York, Judy and Michael Steinhardt, and numerous anonymous private collectors. Copies of Jane Kallir’s new book, Egon Schiele’s Women (312 pages, 265 illustrations, hardbound) may be ordered for $85.00, plus $12.00 handling & U.S. shipping; New York residents, please add 8.875% sales tax. If you are ordering from abroad, please contact us in advance for shipping costs. Checklist entries are accompanied by their catalogue raisonné numbers.