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Egon Schiele

Fondation Louis Vuitton

8, avenue du Mahatma Gandhi, Bois de Boulogne
October 3, 2018 - January 14, 2019
Curated by Suzanne Pagé and Dieter Buchhart

Published at Hyperallergic as Egon Schiele’s Quivering Line Tells All


Partial installation view courtesy of Fondation Louis Vuitton

Apparent at the Foundation Louis Vuitton’s exhibition of mostly delicately colored drawings
by Egon Schiele is his vivid virtuosity as a draftsman. Particularly in the execution of his
expressive nudes, Schiele’s line is frequently full of an elegant erotic intelligence that conveys
to some a sense of tortured subjectivity, but I don’t quite read them that way. What others see
as existential angst in Schiele’s whiplash-fluid drawings, I see as the writhing, whimsical lines
of sassy sexuality that stems from his Art Nouveau roots: a playful movement concerned with
feminine forms and swirling, tendril-derived lines of frivolous and erogenous spirit.
“Female Nude with White Border” (1911) gouache and pencil, 44 x 28.5 cm, Johan H. Andresen collection, photo ©
Christian Øen

For example, with “Female Nude with White Border” (1911) Schiele plays with open space by
partially outlining the odalisque-like nude woman with jaggedly quivering white gouache to
separate her body from her surroundings, thereby whiting out context — a trademark of
modernity and what testified to the work’s inscription within a modern time and place. Yet in
the sensitive intimacy of her curly-hair armpits and pubis region, there are traces of the writhing
world of Art Nouveau, and little of the influence of Oskar Kokoschka’s expressionism that
marks many of Schiele’s more mawkish paintings in this show of roughly 120 works (mostly
“Reclining Nude Girl in Striped Smock” (1911) Pencil and watercolor on paper, 44.3 x 30.6 cm, Private Collection.
Courtesy Kunsthandel Giese & Schweiger, Vienna

In another work from 1911, “Reclining Nude Girl in Striped Smock,” a weepy sexuality is
delicately suggested by a flushed pink ear and a soft watery eye topping-off the beautifully
colored-in contour lines that adhere to the kind of voluptuous natural forms popular with Art
Nouveau: the flowing curvature of seaweed and lilies. Schiele’s shivering sinuous style here
quivers like a slapped slimy eel, endowing the somewhat-emaciated girl with slightly sad, but
still lascivious, overtones.

“Standing Man” (1913) gouache, watercolor and pencil, 48.1 x 31.8 cm, collection of Ömer Koç photo: © Hadiye Cangókçe
“Seated Male Nude, Back View” (1910) watercolor, gouache and black crayon, 43.8 x 31.1 cm, Neue Galerie New York.
Gift of the Serge and Vally Sabarsky Foundation, Inc. photo: © Hulya Kolabas for Neue Galerie New York

By using equally long, thin, wavy lines in “Seated Male Nude, Back View” (1910) and
“Standing Man” (1913) (perhaps the best drawing in the show with its magnificent messy
maroon shirt that re-establishes the flatness of the picture plane) Schiele’s men are sensually
elongated to the point of mystic suggestion. Their wavering stretched-out proportions put the
figures into stringy oscillation reminiscent of the spiritual Mannerism of El Greco. With such
virtuoso windblown lines, Schiele, who emerged at the end of the historical process of the
development of Fin-de-Siècle dandyism, seems to caress the litheness of the men in a way that
disposes me to feelings of watching opium smoke rise and curl or writhing seaweed sway.
“Standing Nude with a Patterned Robe” (1917) gouache and black crayon on buff paper, 29.3 x 45.9 cm, National Gallery
of Art, Washington. Gift of The Robert and Mary M. Looker Family Collection, 2016

Four years later, he is still at it, as seen in “Standing Nude with a Patterned Robe” (1917) — a
drawing that makes clear that with his long squishy lines Schiele, once famously the protégé
of Gustav Klimt (following a short span of Art Nouveau-inspired works), ripped Klimt’s
ornamental decoration away but left the tottering Art Nouveau lines alone. Thus, through his
skill as an extraordinary draughtsman, Schiele was able to play with a tantalizing eroticism,
making his nudes achingly stretch and shiver. The lanky lady depicted in “Standing Nude with
a Patterned Robe” has a transparent left arm, an apparently shaved pubis, and two powerfully
grotesque satyr-like legs: the combination of which creates a visual mythical delight that is
almost involuntary.
“Self-Portrait” (1914) gouache, watercolor and pencil, 47 x 30.6 cm, collection of Ömer Koç, photo © Hadiye Cangókçe

It has generally been assumed that this stretched-shivering quality in Schiele’s work showed an
artistic anguish that arose from his 1912 April arrested and 24 day imprisonment in
Neulenbach following accusations of indecency for seducing a young girl below the age of
consent (a false charge) and exhibiting erotic paintings in front of children (proven true). But as
I have noted above, that line, that touch, is already fully evident in the 1910 “Seated Male
Nude, Back View” and 1911 “Reclining Nude Girl in Striped Smock” drawings that both
smack of Art Nouveau’s noodling nervousness.

But regardless of what were the carnal beginnings, that strained shivering quality certainly
came to foreshadow horrors of the coming World Wars and Schiele’s own fate. Such strained
shivers were sadly actualized in the autumn of 1918 (100 years ago), when the Spanish
flu pandemic that claimed more than 20,000,000 lives in Europe, reached Vienna and the virus
penetrated his pregnant wife, Edith, who then succumbed to it. Schiele died three days later in
like viral fashion, at only 28 years old.

Joseph Nechvatal