By William Boyd

In London, in June this year, Sotheby’s sold a 1914 Egon Schiele townscape  — Häuser mit bunter Wäsche (Vorstadt II) – for €27,635,665.  It was a world record for the artist and was bought by an anonymous bidder over the telephone.  One would like to think this bidder was acting for one of London’s great public collections but that is just wishful thinking.  Perhaps the most dispiriting revelation for Londoners that emerged from the wonderful exhibition ‘Egon Schiele. Women’ at Richard Nagy in May and June was to learn that no public gallery in London displays or even owns a significant Egon Schiele work of art.  Consequently this show of some fifty drawings was a powerful lure for Schiele-lovers and an exceptionally rare chance to see what we have been missing and expose this glaring oversight of our art-institutions.

The title of the show reflected the homogeneity of the work exhibited and provided a potent focus on Schiele’s personality and his astonishing gifts as a draughtsman.  For me what was memorable about the exhibition was not so much its palpable eroticism and the near-pornographic obsessions that were so candidly displayed but the absolute brilliance of Schiele’s graphic line.  He has to be considered one of the finest ever draughtsmen of the last two centuries – the equal of an Ingres, a Toulouse-Lautrec or a Degas or Picasso, I would claim. 

The key aspect of Schiele’s drawings is the confident emphasis of the line.  I studied these drawing at the closest possible range – my eye a few centimetres from the paper surface.  There is no evidence of the preliminary sketchy mark, of the initial hesitant touch of the pencil or crayon that would allow the artist to get his bearings and select the position for the first expressive line.  Moreover, the line is drawn with real pressure — whether crayon, pencil or charcoal – hard, dark and jagged.  You can clearly see the speed and assurance of execution sometimes, the uninhibited flow of the hand denoting – in a few quick seconds of activity — tumbling curls of hair or crumpled fabric, or the fluid confluence of flank and hip and thigh.  It is, above all else, a display of unparalleled virtuosity.

The same could be said of Schiele’s use of composition, of ‘framing’ in the cinematic sense.  Heads and arms are left outside the drawing surface, cut off by the paper’s edge. The figures are placed high in the paper’s rectangle or dramatically to one side, the blank space of the un-drawn-on surface as much a key to the overall composition as the drawn figure itself.  This has the effect of making the figurative drawing more abstract, paradoxically.  For example, the provocative partial figure of ‘Reclining nude in velvet stockings’ with spread legs, pubic hair and full breasts has its eroticism diminished as a result of being placed in the top half of the page with the heads and arms invisible.  This is a woman’s body, of course, wantonly exposing her sex – but it’s the arrangements of the shapes that the body forms that makes the drawing great: the triangle of the splayed legs, the interlocking of the high-heeled shoes, the way the paper edge cuts off one raised knee, sheer.

Schiele added colour to these drawings later and this too de-eroticises the image with flat blocks of water-colour or scumbled gouache counterposing the three- dimensionality of the drawing. A drawing called ‘Dark-haired girl’ – a model who appears several times — is a case in point. Unidentified, she has the body of an adolescent – probably a young prostitute. This drawing shows her unashamedly naked, her eyes half closed, her arms behind her back, presenting the dark triangle of her pubis to the viewer. But on her right hand side Schiele has placed three vivid blocks of colour (part of a shawl? a bedspread?) – emerald green, rich purple and orange – that give the composition a kind of imbalance, an abstract heaviness set beside the sketchy suggestiveness of the way her naked body is depicted.  If there is an initial urge to stimulate erotically then it becomes defused or dissipated by the painterliness of the juxtaposed colour.  In all the explicitly sexual poses that he draws Schiele introduces this element: time and again one senses Schiele looking for the artistic dividend, searching for the way to make these studio drawings function as works of art.

And of course the other subtext of the show that has to be confronted is precisely the erotic or quasi-pornographic aspect of these graphic images of naked or partially clothed women.  As a thought-experiment it’s worth trying to imagine looking at these drawings at the time they were composed in early 20th century Vienna.  There would have been a shock-effect then that is perhaps lost on us now, so saturated is our omnipresent visual world with images of near-nudity and sexual suggestiveness.  There was, I’m sure, an auto-erotic impulse at play also – one of the drawings is a dehumanized self-portrait of the artist masturbating – but even the most explicit drawings retreat from the pornographic or masturbatory-aid because of the mannerism of the drawn line – its elongations and deformity — the boldness of the composition or the stridency of the colouring.

The social hypocrisy of Austro-Hungarian Vienna was the same as existed in Victorian London.  Repressive cultures and public prohibitions stimulate an underworld that is the inverse, sexually and behaviourally, of the values and attitudes enshrined in the public face of these societies.  Schiele’s short life (he died aged twenty-eight) was lived in exactly this social climate and his work is, amongst many other things, an effort to strip away the lies and pretences at large in the world of early 20th century Vienna.  And like all great artists who die young, one can’t help but wonder what might have happened had he lived longer – what direction his artistic course might have taken.  Long productive lives are not necessarily a boon to certain artists – think of Kokoschka or André Derain for example.  It’s another intriguing thought- experiment but finally irrelevant.  If Schiele had lived to be seventy perhaps his paintings would not be selling for tens of millions of euros today.  The intensity and the brilliance of those ten years or so — before he died of Spanish influenza in 1918 — when he was finding himself as an artist are his real legacy.  This exceptional exhibition only served to underline the tremendous power and magnificent generosity of his gifts as an artist.