Monday, December 7, 2015

Egon Schiele: Androgynous Eroticism

Egon Schiele: Androgynous Eroticism
            The human form has fascinated and intrigued both artist and viewer throughout history. One of the most notable figurative artists was the early twentieth century Austrian modernist by the name of Egon Schiele. As part of the second generation of Viennese moderninsm, Schiele was particularly influential and well known due to the highly erotic content of much of his work.[1] Throughout his short, twenty-eight year life, the bulk of Schiele’s work was about exploring the human body, creating paintings and drawings which often depicted the human form as a contorted grotesque object. This focus was especially important to Schiele as notions of masculinity were beginning to change during this specific period of Viennese modernism. These new notions of masculinity steered away from artists and towards businessmen and factory workers as more masculine careers. Therefore, much of Schiele’s work seems to respond to this new cultural outlook on masculinity.[2] These new cultural ideals caused Schiele to adapt and cope through representations of the females functioning as self-portraits as a means of expressing his “feminine self.”[3] This notion alters the typical reading of the portraits he created later in life, giving the viewer a more distinctly analytical view of the body which functions simultaneously as his own body. This becomes especially clear when comparing Schiele’s  drawings and paintings of the female figure with those of the male figure, particularly his own. In a way, Schiele is working through a sort of self-exploration of his own personal sexuality, setting up a personal concept of eroticism that blurs gender lines, favoring a more androgynous form of eroticism.

[1] Izenberg, G. N. 2006. "Egon Schiele: Expressionist Art and Masculine Crisis". Psychoanalytic Inquiry. 26 (3): 462.
[2] Ibid., 464
[3] Ibid., 480.

Seated Woman, Back View, Egon Schiele, 1917, Watercolor, gouache, and graphite on paper, 1984.433.294
Placing the viewer above the subject, looking over her right shoulder, Schiele gives the viewer a position of voyeuristic dominance. The female subject, who appears to be in her undergarments, does not seem to know the viewer is behind her. In composing the figure in such an unconventional way, Schiele eroticizes the figure, despite the lack of nudity. The implications of the seemingly unaware female, in a state of incomplete undress adds to her eroticization, as it places the viewer in a position of discovering this woman in a private space, while she is in the process of undress. Therefore, Schiele uses these compositional elements, along with the lack of color and value to effectively reduce the woman to an erotic object, lacking life, for the primary purpose of viewing and analyzing her body.

Standing Male Nude With a Red Loincloth, Egon Schiele, 1914, Watercolor, gouache, and graphite on paper, Albertina, Vienna, Austria
Schiele continues his reductionist erotic voyeurism as an analytical exploration of the figure. Although the viewer is able to see the figures face, he not making eye contact. Instead, he is looking away, covering part of his face in a seemingly ashamed manner. By covering the nude figure’s genitals with a loincloth, similar to his Seated Woman, Back View, Schiele lessens the objective visual queues by which to judge the male figure’s masculinity, giving the viewer only more subject qualities by which to judge his masculinity. Additionally, Schiele again places the viewer in a more voyeuristic situation of seeing the viewer in an incomplete process of undress. As a result, Schiele appears to be taking into account possible subjective qualities of eroticized masculinity and femininity as they relate to a particular culture—in Schiele’s case, early twentieth century Vienna.

Seated Female Nude with Raised Right Arm, Egon Schiele, 1910, Watercolor, gouache, and graphite on paper, The Courtauld, London
With a position that closely parallels that of his Male Nude With a Red Loincloth, Schiele places the figure looking away from the viewer and covering her face with her arm. Despite the compositional similarities, the figure is stylistically different from the aforementioned male figure. With softer curves and less distinct angles, the figure is a bit more gender distinctive. However, while there are visible breasts, Schiele does not draw significant attention to them, which still allows the figure to appear more androgynous. Additionally, by covering the genitalia with the position of her legs, Schiele continues to primarily give the viewer subjective qualities on which to base her gender. Regardless of the lack visible genitalia, the figure is still eroticized as an object.

Seated Male Nude, Egon Schiele, 1910, Oil on Canvas, Leopold Museum
With arms positioned to cover the face and head turned, the figure—which in this case is himself—almost exactly mirrors that of Seated Femal Nude with Raised Right Arm. However, Schiele begins exploring a bit more of the key differences in the eroticism of both genders by drawing attention to the male genitalia using the diagonal lines of the body to draw the eye downwards towards the figure’s open legs. In this way, while Schiele still places the figure in a passive position, without of a choice as to by whom he is seen, there is a more explicit connection to the figures masculinity, rather than a vague implication. This is especially noteworthy due to the fact that it is a self-portrait, as he turns his own body into a passive erotic object for all to observe and distinctly points out his own masculinity.

Standing Nude in Black Stockings, Egon Schiele, 1917, Watercolor and charcoal on paper, 1984.433.316
While this female figure does display visible genitalia and breasts, Schiele renders the rest of her figure in a more masculine pose displaying a more overall masculine figure. Schiele seems to be examining what happens when the exposed female body is rendered without obvious femininity. Again, Schiele continues to explore the androgynous eroticism as is consistent with much of his other work. However, he appears to be doing so by drawing attention to objective gender characteristics juxtaposed against more grotesque androgynous aspects of a figure in order to explore the fluidity of gender regardless of subjective cultural standards.

Kneeling Male Nude with Raised Hand (Self-Portrait), Egon Schiele, 1910, Charcoal and gouache on paper, The Courtauld, London
Again, Schiele positions his own figure with an open stance, exposing his genitalia. However, while he may not be looking at the viewer, his face is clearly visible. As the center of the composition, the genitalia are unavoidable. The exposed genitalia coupled with the sharp angles and open stance gives this figure more gender specificity than some of the prior self-portraits that Schiele made. However, the slender figure does still appear somewhat androgynous, and yet still very erotic.

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