New York

Egon Schiele

Galerie St. Etienne

The adolescent erotics that animate Egon Schiele’s figural drawings have become increasingly clear over time. These works suggest sexual curiosity and experimentation; in fact, they present the body as an experimental configuration of discordant parts, and they offer no consummation, emotional or physical. The genitals seem incommensurate with the rest of the body and irreconcilable with our sense of ourselves as social, civilized beings. dn one magnificent drawing entitled Reclining Girl in Dark Blue Dress, 1910, a startled girl lifts her dark skirts (the clothing signals social inhibitions), offering what can only be described as a bizarre vision of very white genitals; it is as though she is expelling them from the rest of her person. Whether she is deliberately exposing herself in a pathological gesture remains unclear, but she seems as startled by her sex as we are. Indeed, the vast majority of Schiele’s figural images set up the sexual parts of the body as a surprise. It is as though Schiele’s figures cannot accommodate these organs in their body representations; they keep falling out of place, or seem about to float free of the body.

In many works, a blotch of color that abruptly floods the sinuous lines of the figure functions as a formal emblem of Schiele’s conception of the sexual parts as interrupting the unity of the body—as in effect, a morbid sign of inner life. For Schiele the vagina is a volcano with no lid, its lips of flesh signalling the turbulence within. For Schiele, curiosity about the female body and especially its genitals never peaks, for its insides—both physical and psychic—are never more than momentarily glimpsed through its orifice.

The pervading narcissism of these works is also adolescent. Female models are shown luxuriating in their bodies—sometimes like sinister cats, sometimes with naive self-absorption. In Schiele’s self-portraits, the narcissism has an anxious tone. It has been said that Schiele could never pass a mirror without looking at himself, and what he seems to have seen in his reflection is an excitable, raw youth trying to estheticize his own awkwardness and often failing to do so. It is hard to tell whether narcissism is a defensive position for Schiele—a fallback from failed relationships—or a position he never advanced beyond, never finding anyone to really lure him out of his ostrich hole. In any case, there is the sense that neither Schiele nor his female models can get enough of themselves. They are endlessly fascinated by themselves; they are not really trying to be fascinating to us. They relate to us only exhibitionistically, without trying to seduce or arouse us; rather they invite us to admire their perfection of being. Their moods, however morbidly introspective, simply constitute so many veils.

Stylistically, these drawings reveal a development from the descriptive line used to articulate a foreordained scene, toward an abstract line that exists for itself, so much so, in fact, that at times the figures seem about to dissolve into indeterminacy. This late line seems simultaneously to destroy and to invent the figure; it exists insecurely on some margin of perception, even while it is vigorously given. Schiele in effect undermines the traditional sense of the inevitability of the figure. In his later drawings, he attempts to escape what seems inescapable, a trap; he wants to deny what tradition tells him is the academically proper subject matter of art. In a sense, the erotic intensity of Schiele’s figures bespeaks his adolescent disobedience—his refusal to submit to tradition at least without a struggle.

Thus the erotics of line is what ultimately counts in Schiele’s work—the development from a self-assured to a nervous (and nervy) line. Without this tortured line, at once ironical, caressing, and quizzical—both active and passive, dominating and submissive—Schiele would not have known how to relate to his nude models, what to do with their bodies.

Donald Kuspit

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