Egon Schiele: Depictions of the female nude as empowering or egotistical?

Egon Schiele’s life and work came to a sudden halt in 1918 when he and his pregnant wife Edith died from the Spanish flu epidemic, which raged through Europe. Although Schiele was only active for a limited number of years, his work is brimming with a plethora of vibrant paintings and drawings – the large majority of which depict the nude female form, often eroticised.

Love Act, study, 1915, coloured pencil on paper,

Schiele’s style has been criticised as grotesque and corpse-like, with his frequent use of a sickly colour palette and harsh rendering of human flesh. In addition, his female sitters were repeatedly positioned in explicit and revealing poses – their anatomy thus becoming the focus of the works. This tangled merging of the grotesque and erotic continues to intrigue us: are Schiele’s portrayals of the female form radical, allowing women to reclaim their bodies and embrace their sexuality in a time of strict female oppression, or are they the subject of Schiele’s own misogynistic desires?

Standing Nude with Orange Drapery: Study of Nude with Arms Raised, 1914, watercolour, gouache and graphite on paper

Schiele was classically trained at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, where he developed traditional artistic skills and was introduced to life drawing. This subject would be his obsession throughout his lifetime. As a modern artist, Schiele wanted to challenge the tradition of art, and he saw the Academy as being stuck in its ways, while the rest of society was progressing. The city around him was ripe with change. Schiele would have been aware of the work of Sigmund Freud, also living in Vienna, who introduced psychoanalysis and made advances in the study of psychology. Additionally in Vienna was Gustav Klimt, Schiele’s mentor. Klimt’s influence is clear as the sexualised female form was his focus as well.

Gustav Klimt, Reclining Nude with Drapery, 1912-13

Schiele’s nude drawings are more than mere studies and are often infused with a desire and sexuality which is hard to ignore. In many cases, Schiele’s female nudes are depicted with spread legs and unapologetic attention to their anatomy; at times he presents them in acts of sex and masturbation. Schiele portrays the female subject as much more than a passive muse; often the women’s gaze confrontationally meets that of the viewer. For example, his Seated Female Nude stares out from the canvas, her body cross-legged and folded over itself. She is not depicted as a submissive nude, but as a woman with her own agency.

Egon Schiele, Reclining Nude with Boots, 1918, charcoal on paper.
Egon Schiele, Seated Female Nude, 1914
 

Revealing the power and personality of the Modern Woman

Schiele’s female figures present themselves unabashedly towards the viewer, nothing like the academic nude which was repeatedly disguised as a passive portrayal of the goddess Venus. Many of his female nudes appear in an unarticulated space, their bodies placed on a blank canvas with no scenic context. This non-space calls attention to their nudity, and the fact that they are not a Venus, and that therefore the viewer cannot consume the female bodies behind the guise of mythology. Schiele’s images are honest in their raw emotion and the sexual desire which suffuses them. However, it was Schiele who posed these women. The revealing and explicit positions were largely of his choice, not the models’, which complicates the idea of their agency.

Lying Female Nude Torso, 1910, black chalk, gouache and watercolour
Woman with Black Stockings (Woman in Red Garters), 1913, gouache, watercolour and pencil

Schiele as user and abuser of the female form

Depictions of Schiele’s sister Gertrude are common, as well as those of Wally Neuzil, his lover and loyal companion, but they are few compared to those of the many more unnamed women who posed for him. Schiele’s female subject mostly has no identity, she is simply ‘nude’ or ‘woman’. With countless of Schiele’s nudes, such as Lying Female Nude Torso and Standing Nude in Red Jacket, the women have no head or face at all. This disembodying of the female figure arguably acts as another way in which Schiele takes away their identity and uses the female form as a subject of his own artistic and sexual desire. Schiele does not idealise these women, and he does not alter their bodies to please the eye of a man. They are instead gritty portrayals of the human body. He often pays close attention to the female anatomy; the vulvas of many of the women are pronounced and are sometimes the only aspect of the artworks containing colour. This could be argued as sexualising the bodies into objects for male consumption; however, the female body is shown for what it really is, with all its parts. Do we only view these images of the female nude as sexual due to the societal notion that a woman’s body is inherently sexual? Significantly, Schiele does not shy away from depicting himself in the same way as he depicts women – as unselfconsciously nude. But is this enough to enable us to classify his female nudes as empowering?

The choice is yours

Schiele’s female nudes present an entanglement of human desire and consumption of the female form. In some respects the female subject is given power and agency, she confronts the viewer, and her body is not idealised for the male gaze, making Schiele’s depictions of the female nude empowering, particularly for the early 20th century. However, there are fundamental issues with how women have been represented by the artist. Ultimately, Schiele’s female nudes are not about the women but about Schiele himself and his relationship with them. This detracts from the empowerment which at first appears to be engrained into his depictions. Whether you believe that Schiele’s portrayal of the female body is empowering or egotistical, these incredible artworks will continue to entice viewers due to their gritty and grotesque style, while seeming to also hide an insight into the mind of the modernist artist.

Written by Sarah Daniels for the second cohort of Student Ambassadors for The Art Story.

I have recently graduated from Plymouth University with a degree in Fine Art and Art History. I am interested in representations of the self, reception of women artists and depictions of the female form in Modernism. As well as many other aspects of the art world and history!