Cut, sharp, angular, these are the contours of the bodies in Egon Schiele’s work. The curves, when they are apparent, are soft, even flabby and at the same time picked up, contracted, concentrated because the body is not sought after for what it has aesthetic but of drive. Everything is spasms, convulsions, acute and the angles are twisted, the hips almost cadaverous. Finally, the hands, disproportionately large and with hooked fingers. We are very far from Renoir and his reassuring curves because the bodies in Egon Schiele are not sensual but sexual, not erotic but pornographic, scandalous, outrageous.
Schiele on Animality
It’s all about mimicry, grimace, close to caricature as if the artist wanted to give an account of what is most animal, most beastly in man. It’s a notch painting. Yes, behind the police surface, yes, behind the academic pose hides the agitation of the nerves, the movement of the muscles, the circulation of the blood and this until unbearable for the sight, to the limit of ugliness because all modesty has been violated.
Immodest, the work of Egon Schiele because it presents the flesh in its most intimate abandons, it highlights what usually remains veiled as if to testify to a truth of the body that one refuses to see. Everything oozes sex in the work of the Viennese artist, to the confines of the most extreme immodesty. The body in disorder, the body caught in the chaos of its nervous agitation. Violate this venomous art because everything smells of the fucking streets. But here it’s not about Toulouse Lautrec brothels. We are far from the entertainment of the bourgeois in the place of public girls indulging in French cancan. No, in Egon Schiele, there is nothing playful in damaged bodies, nothing dancing in the exposed flesh. Here, the whore does her job, she is flesh offered to the eyes, taken in erotic games (the masturbation scenes are numerous, the sapphic scenes just as much). But what Egon Schiele is looking for is not the pleasure that an erotic scene can bring to the viewer. He presents the flesh in the rawness of his exhibition, of his almost biological pornographic agitation as if the artist responded to psychoanalysis without ever sinking into it: yes, everything is sexual, behind each gesture, each expression, hides from the sexual. Behind the social, familial, childlike mask, there is only the sexual. And it’s embarrassing to see the naked bodies of very young girls in evocative poses. We lower our eyes to the candor of the body shapes not yet affirmed by young children, we flee to the insistent look of the very young brunette girl with lascivious pose surely learned by one or an informed adult. It is a work that hurts the eye, which hurts because on the one hand, we know that at the time, in Vienna, we were not too offended (even if Egon Schiele was condemned) for the frequentation of all young girls by mature men and on the other hand, because many street children resorted to prostitution for food.
The objectification of beings
And it is these children that Egon Schiele uses as models: “Naked girl with black hair” 1910: naked little girl still too young to be pre-adolescent, the breasts are barely budding. We are shocked to see the sex and the lips of the little girl painted in the same coral color: these two sexual attributes stand out against the whiteness of the body and the black of the hair. The pose is lascivious, more than tendentious, it has both the assurance of the one we taught and the legitimate awkwardness of her young age. Everything here is excruciatingly shameless, bordering on the obscene. It is difficult to maintain his gaze in front of this very young girl already corrupted by the adult world. And the observation is there: there are beings who force you to lower your eyes. The roundness of the face contrasts with the skeletal appearance of the rest of the body. And if, at first glance, this work seems to evoke something languid, it is in fact of an unnamed violence because it is not sustainable. Below the beauty of the work, there is a view of the viewer who violates, participates in the objectification of the child. The girl is close to the rag doll with which you can indulge in all the games you want.
Children looking like rag dolls, such as those found in the 1917 work “Mother with two children III”. The two infants are swaddled, wrapped in layers of endless clothing. They are as if frozen in their chubby, chubby air. In the center, the mother: cadaverous, more like an undead than a human being, we are closer to the corpse than to the living subject. Halfway between the corpse and the nun, the mother contrasts with her particularly disembodied, emaciated physical appearance. By her physical features and her dress appearance, she looks like a nun. Very far from the lappers of the Madonna, she is the austere nun, exhausted, who cries out famine. His gaze is not on his children, he is crossed by a distance, an elsewhere, sucked by the void, nothing, nothingness. This is why there is something tragic in this work: the mother no longer has the strength to be loving, as if after having fed plump children, she was too exhausted, too “emptied” to still be able to sketch any affectionate look at his offspring. She is a mother on the verge of despair, on the verge of agony, who no longer has the strength of any gesture of tenderness. Only the two hands of the children, placed on the mother’s body still seem to signify an attachment of the children to the mother.
And it is the same in “Blind Mother” of 1914. The bodies here seem as if cut in stone, the body becomes abnormally large. If it is emaciated, it remains monumental in terms of its size. The blind mother is by definition the one who cannot see her children, she is the one for whom the faces of her children will remain unknown to her. Is that why the subjects represented here seem closer to sculpture than to pictorial art? Carved in stone, struck in marble, the bodies are heavy, stiff, they are as if petrified. The flesh here has become impossible, the fluidity is completely nonexistent, everything is too heavy, too inscribed in the rock to let pass even a single crack through which a softness could appear. Unlike most watercolors by Egon Schiele in which the paint remains extremely diluted, too liquefied, works in which the colors are earthy, clayey, manifesting here a feeling of liquefaction, of what is crossed by water ; the work “Blind Mother” manifests a thick, grid-like painting with fine angles. And the composition of the work is more like the landscapes of houses made than the usual portraits made by the painter.
The missing human
In fact, the canvases representing towns and villages in the work of Egon Schiele (for example, “House Wall on the River” from 1917), have a perfectly structured geometry. The whole is as a whole: everything is rectilinear, in perfect alignment. Symmetry is relentlessly rigorous. Linens and mansions are perfectly aligned. The solidity of the stone is rendered by the use of a carefully arranged paint, playing with browns, greens, purples, the whole reflecting a kind of almost military harmony in the layout of the buildings. Everything seems in its place, no space indicates possible disorder, everything is grid. In these well-ordered villages, no humans are present, only the hanged linen echoes a life in the city. But outside, or through a few free spaces, no human trace, no body, no flesh, it is the whole of the city which is a massive body, in its raw state as if there were a too full of stone to accept a human presence. And the same goes when the painter tackles the theme of the plant.
Indeed, to see the trees present in the work of Egon Schiele, it is clear that these are in the yardstick of his characters: skeletal, stripped: some unhappy leaves seem to cling in vain to a trunk of the most starving. The tree trunks thus appear as a kind of slender spine, extremely thin, to which are connected some thin growths. In the same way that a man, once stripped of his clothes, of his polished flesh, appears as a bony structure which already perspires the corpse, the tree, purified of its foliage, manifests the feverishness of its essential framework. Under the pageantry, there is only bones, calluses and the tree appears as a body not far from the “Male Nude with red cloth” or multiple self-portraits made by Egon Schiele.
Without concessions, the self-portraits of Egon Schiele: he paints himself particularly thin, grimacing, in not very advantageous poses. There is theatricality in these exhibitions of oneself, theatricality which is reminiscent of the keen interest that the painter had in Java puppets for which each gesture is codified, symbolic, carrying a meaning. The slightest variation in the hands, the posture of the back evokes a meaning, a meaning. Egon Schiele, in his self-portraits therefore seems to break down each gesture to see its muscular movement, nervous agitation, drive activity. The decomposition of the movement was already found in “The Wrestler”, or “Masturbation”. The bodies are then contracted to the extreme, fully picked up in the action they are performing. Report the action taken, the action performed, make manifest what is going on under the flesh, what is agitated under the skin when the outfit is no longer required, when all social and socializing elements have faded away. And beyond the mimicry, beyond the spasmodic gestures, there is the last spasm, the one that ends in agony.
“Death and the girl” 1915-1916. The man is dressed in penitent clothes. He holds in his arms a young woman half-lying, half on her knees. The colors used are particularly dull, earthy. The whole is massive, solid, contracted, picked up. The whole is closer to the landscape than to the description of an agony. The composition of the work manifests a rectilinear, square geometry. The monk represented is austere, his head is clipped. Death appears here as a penance that will not take place. Even if the monk takes the girl in his arms, the gesture is not reassuring. Even symbolic, the agony is dull here, without possible redemption. The colors used here only mean one thing: to reach the earth, to become dust again, to be stuck in clay. And it is this earthy, earthy aspect that we find in the canvas “the family”.
“The family”: the shape of the work is pyramidal. Above, Egon Schiele, arms disproportionately large, as if framing the woman, herself protecting the child. Egon Schiele appears to be protective, the muscles are contracted, the blood flow is nervous, the whole seems to be lumpy. The body, in its representation, is between the tree and the building. The woman, on the other hand, manifests maternal curves, which remains exceptional in the work of Egon Schiele. The cheeks are full, arms and thighs testify to the roundness of the one who retained weight after the birth of the child. His gaze, unlike that of Egon Schiele, does not face the spectator, nor does he dive towards the newborn. No, the gaze is drawn to another place, a distant one. She has the gaze of the desperate, of those glances that fall, that slide towards a place and a time that elude everyone. In this canvas, only the child is dressed, swaddled in several layers of clothing. His face is pale, sharp with the earthy color of his parents’ skin. This painting is not a united family and for good reason, birth will never take place, Egon Schiele will never be a father (his wife dying of the Spanish flu in the eighth month of pregnancy, Egon Schiele following her for a few days , reached by the same evil). So it’s a dying, bloodless family found on this canvas.
A drive work
Egon Schiele wanted his works to be placed in temples. What should we deduce from such an assertion? Would the certainty of his talent lead to an identification of his work with what is sacred or does Egon Schiele summon the place of the divine to desecrate him with his scandalous works? Is it because the painter considers the work of art as “divine” that he hopes that his will be installed in temples? To see his works, it is clear that each subject, each model seems to be “violated” by the painter. The last gesture would it then be to pose in a place of worship the works of the Viennese painter as if to say that the sacred must be desecrated because it is only police cover of what is agitated at the bottom of everything which is: drive, nothing but drive, of the body behind the flesh, in a word, what comes to mean the desacralization of the subject?