Self-Portrait with Arms Thrust Backwards, 1915
Art,  English,  Erotic

Schiele: Sex, Introspection and Breaking Taboos

The text below is the excerpt of the book Egon Schiele (ISBN: 9781783102846), written by Esther Selsdon and Jeanette Zwingenberger, published by Parkstone International.

Unlike Klimt, Schiele found his models on the streets: young girls of the proletariat and prostitutes; he preferred the child-woman androgynous types. The thin, gaunt bodies of his models characterised lower-class status, while the full-bosomed, luscious ladies of the bourgeoisie expressed their class through well-fed corpulence. Yet, the attitude of the legendary Empress Sissi is symptomatic of a time in which the conventional image of women began to change. She indeed bore the desired offspring, however, she rebelled against the maternal role expected of her. The ideal of a youthful figure nearly caused her to become anorexic. At the same time, she shocked Viennese court society not only with her unconventional riding excursions, but also in that she wore her clothing without the prescribed stockings.

Self-Portrait, 1910, Egon Schiele
Self-Portrait, 1910. Gouache, watercolour and black crayon, 44.3 x 30.6 cm. Leopold Collection, Leopold Museum, Vienna.

Around the time of the fin de siècle, Schiele portrayed young working class girls. The number of prostitutes in Vienna was among the highest per capita of any European city. Working-class women were where upper-class gentlemen found the defenceless objects of their desire, which they did not find in their own wives. The young, gaunt bodies in Schiele’s nude drawings almost stir pity; red blotches cover their thin skin and skeleton-like hands. Their bodies are tensed; however, the red genitalia are full and voracious. Like little animals, they lie in wait for the lustful gaze of the beholder. Despite their young age, Schiele’s models are aware of their own erotic radiance and know how to skilfully pose. The masturbating gesture of the hand on the vagina accompanies the provocative gaze of the model.

Contrary to the hygienic taboos of the upper class, for example, not to linger overly long while washing the lower body and not to allow oneself to be viewed in the nude, Schiele’s drawings testify to a simple body consciousness and a matter-of-fact attitude. For the lower levels of society, “love for sale” pertained to earning one’s daily bread. Outraged, the Viennese public lashed out at Schiele, stating that he painted the ultimate vice and utmost depravation, while he confronted both male and female spectators with their own, hypocritical sexuality. In a letter he wrote: “Doing an awful lot of advertising with my prohibited drawings” and went on to cite five notable newspapers that referred to him. Were his nude drawings but a sales strategy that helped draw attention to himself?

Landscape in Lower Austria, 1907, Egon Schiele
Landscape in Lower Austria, 1907. Oil on cardboard, 17.5 x 22.5 cm. Private collection.

Klimt’s picture of women is based on the analogy of the female body as a personification of nature. Curled tresses become stylised plant formations and the wave-like silhouette melts into a consecrated atmosphere. Schiele, however, broke with the beautiful cult of organic art nouveau and ornamental art. It is here, where Klimt offended the authorities in various episodes, namely in violating modesty, that Schiele found his main objective. He stripped his models of every decorative accessory and concentrated solely on their bodies. Yet, in contrast to the academic nude drawings, which mainly limited themselves to a neutral portrayal of anatomy, Schiele showed erotically aroused bodies. He knew of the erogenous function that charms the eye and set erotic signals with red painted lips, fleshy labia and dark moon circles under the eyes. The Observed in a Dream even opens her vulva.

Drawings served Klimt as preliminary studies for his paintings. In contrast, Schiele signs his watercolour sketches as finalised works of art. It is precisely the sketch-like, unfinished product that characterised Schiele, who unfolded the art process even in his oil paintings. In contrast to the ornamental surface decoration in art nouveau painting, his sharp line executions and jagged aggressive style suggest the artist’s subjective guiding hand.

Moa, 1911, Egon Schiele
Moa, 1911. Gouache, watercolour and pencil. 48 x 31 cm. On loan to the Museum of Modern Art, New York

The contour line captures the physical presence and becomes a sculpture-like containment within space. Thereby Schiele dispensed with every spatiotemporal specification. Like a person regarding himself in a mirror, only seeing his face and body, and like a lover who within the body of his love, forgets the world around him, Schiele created his self-portraits before a mirror, as well as some of his female nude drawings. Schiele, Drawing a Nude Model in front of a Mirror illustrates this.

The scene is illuminating, the duplication of frontal and rear views of the nude woman are revealed in the reflection, however there, where the mirror is, stands the viewer. He functions as the mirror in which the model regards herself, reassuring herself of her body, and in whose gaze it moves. The intimacy between painter and model is countered in the relationship between viewer and drawing…

Portrait of Friederike Maria Beer, 1914, Egon Schiele
Portrait of Friederike Maria Beer, 1914. Oil on canvas. 190 x 120.5 cm. Private collection

See more on:

Egon Schiele Museum

Leopold Museum

Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien

Graphische Sammlung Albertina

Neue Galerie for German and Austrian Art (New York)

Museum of Modern Art

National Gallery of Art

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