The human body was Egon Schieleâ€™s most frequent subject; he obsessed over it, idealized it, and degraded it throughout his brief and brilliant career. He was haunted by controversy, and briefly imprisoned on charges of kidnapping a thirteen-year-old girl; although he was eventually acquitted, he openly used little girls as models for pornographic drawings. Many critics have been tempted to speak of Schiele as an artist martyred for his brilliance; few are willing to address the unpleasant truth, which is that an extremely talented man went to jail for child abuse, and went free because none of the laws of the day precisely corresponded to his crime. This winter, the Neue Galerie presents an overview of his life and career, which aims to give the viewer a sense of Schiele (1890-1918) in all his guises: Schiele the student, Schiele the pornographer, Schiele the martyr, and even Schiele the artist.
Along with rooms dedicated to timelines and juvenilia, the exhibit includes a room almost entirely devoted to Schieleâ€™s female nudes; in that relatively small space, his attitude toward sexuality becomes painfully clear. He frequently drew and painted women without faces or heads, in classic skin-rag poses: licking their own breasts, fingering their genitalia, lying prone before the viewer/voyeur, or holding each other close in girl-on-girl bliss. He drew a series of women with shirts on and panties off, culminating in the frank â€œSeated Girl with Hat, Masturbating,â€ which is exactly what it sounds like. In this work, women are reduced to their erotically salient features; the headless female nudes speak to Schieleâ€™s need to strip women of their complicated humanity. Heads have eyes, which can observe and pass judgment, and mouths, which can criticize. Misogyny often expresses itself in terms of a longing for simpler, more pleasant relationships, which conform to a convenient object/subject dynamic. In the sexist worldview, one eats hamburgers because hamburgers are objects made for that specific purpose, and one fucks women for the same reason. Certain Schiele drawings are reminiscent of the famous Hustler spread which showed a woman being fed, headfirst, into a meat grinder: her head and torso were ground chuck, but, as in Schieleâ€™s work, her legs and vagina were still conveniently exposed.
Schiele redeemed himself from the Hustler aesthetic by his willingness to question himself, and his own desires. The male figures in his paintings are almost invariably dark, distorted, and intrusive. They disrupt the landscape of shapely female flesh with their own needs and their own lacks. This dynamic is aptly summarized in â€œMother and Child,â€ in which the â€œchildâ€ is a fleshy, featureless, tumor-like mass clinging to the motherâ€™s curved and posed physique. Schiele didnâ€™t hesitate to paint himself, skinny and naked, grimacing at the viewer with beastly features and atrophied limbs. Itâ€™s important to note that his self-portraits bear no resemblance to the reasonably attractive man that we see in his photos; they seem more like sketches of a hideous, half-animal id that surfaced when he sat down to work. Taken as a whole, the exhibit is more mea culpa than Maxim, like a Woody Allen routine without any jokes.
It seems irrelevant to speak of pleasure in regard to Egon Schiele; so much of his work seems to call pleasure into question, to suggest that it is far more dangerous and degrading than we know. But of all the shows in New York at the moment, the Neue Galerieâ€™s Egon Schiele exhibit is one of the most provocative; it incites a visceral response, and it asks difficult questions. It may infuriate or repel some viewers, but it also commands respect. They donâ€™t call it â€œshock valueâ€ for nothing. - Sady O.
â€œEgon Schiele: The Ronald S. Lauder and Serge Sabersky Collectionsâ€ is on display until February 20th at the Neue Galerie, 5th Ave. & 86th St. For more information, visit http://www.neuegalerie.org
Ms. Sady O. is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic. She also writes the Brain Porn Culture Blog.