BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 03 MAR 98
Featured in
Issue 39

Egon Schiele

BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 03 MAR 98

Let's begin where Egon Schiele would have wished us to. Schiele liked his pre-pubescent pudendum scarlet and enraged. There is this hot and pudgy vulva decorated by wisps of fairy-like pubic hairs sitting near the centre of Schwarzhaariges Madchen mit hochgeschlagenem Rock (Black-haired girl with Raised Skirt, 1911). Passively receptive, it is positively awaiting a response. It is the seat of sensitivity, rendered more the blood pump, an aggrandised organ more vital to Schiele's taste than the heart of the girl could have ever been. It slumps gently to the right nestled between pods of thigh as white as heaven's gates. And it is braced from beneath by a darkening crease that slips silently from view on its way back up again towards her fleshy arse. This is not a vagina the mind considers with grace.

Nothing else in this picture from 1911 has captured his attention with such alarming crispiness. This labial gewgaw is surrounded by a cumulous spiralling, a cupola of black dress, then a red tinged slip, and then the dingy knickers. Atop it all, a muddy torso holds her head in place. Her face hangs out in hair that is lush, but still not velvety like her pudendum. Her appearance is an immature girl's unsteady attempt at make-up ­ excepting of course the lips which are nearly as scarlet with colour as the heart shaped vulva is red with blood. The Schwarzhaariges Madchen's fetishised vagina is simply laden with unashamedness. If it seems to be an overwrought vagina, it is.

Egon's 'rapture' was not only a missile guided to destinations pubescent and female (though it is incessantly the youngest of the spread girls that our contemporary culture seems unhinged by): there is an El Dorado of egalitarian sex. The 1908 masturbation scene of the nude boy, and then the loving couple coupling of 1915, the reddened fissure-pose he asked his wife to hold for his watercolour one year later, the lesbian duets, and this tiny list is far from complete.

He held himself against his culture when he made these pictures, and if they were intrepid it was because he was groping with sexuality when it had unexpectedly become the most concupiscent in culture, albeit an often unfeeling and therefore awfully misguided culture. Otto Weininger, another Viennese, wrote Sex and Character only eight years before Schwarzhaariges Madchen mit hochgeschlagenem Rock appeared in the world ­ Weininger claiming that the female character is all carnal appetite and that the sexual thrill, was for women, unrivalled in their lives. Egon not only held himself in contact with this culture, he lived the dream too: brought up on charges of seducing a minor, in the end he served time for merely distributing obscene drawings. Nolo contendre as they say.

This assertive exhibition at the Modern has brought to mind our own sagging fad called 'Body Art'. A roll call of its conscripts is a parched affair: John Coplans, Sally Mann, John Currin, Andres Seranno, Sue Williams, Karen Finlay and so on, and so forth. With Schiele in mind it seems that these artists have succeeded only by setting their standards exceedingly low. Many, like Mann and Seranno, seem hopelessly infatuated with their own self-centred ability to rehearse the 'escalation of the explicit' as though they had opened our eyes to something both radical and original. The Schiele exhibition has become something of a focusing and editing instrument ­ making unequivocal how Sherman, Gober, Nauman and Bourgeois hold themselves flinty against our culture as Egon once did his. The others fall away like so much unneeded and unheeded tokens. After a walk though the Modern, who really wishes to fight about 2 Live Crew and Piss Christ?

I have a few thoughts about a drawing worth the combat. It is titled Sitzendes krankes Madchen (Seated Ill Girl, 1910). Once again the subject is someone's pre-pubescent vagina, but not one that is so sexually notorious that it unearths unhealthy renditions of desire. Instead it is poignant, and ill. This is a line drawing with white, yellow and red watercolour made on paper that would have been yellowish when Schiele made it. Now time has pushed that sickening colour a little further along. It makes a difference. Since the middle ages yellow has stood in for 'contagious' as capably as it does here, and so Egon has painted her face a heightened and acrid yellow, letting the paper tint the rest of her failing body. This self-conscious little girl, reclining so that her vagina is nearer the artist than need be, is the unflinching picture of vulnerability ­ her knees are locked together, and she must have had a chill too. Fearful, and not at all knowing what is to come next she has thrust her hands into her mouth holding on to herself, in order that Schiele be held off. Her dark rueful eyes glance off the artist never making contact so as to absent herself from this ugly, nerve- racking situation where dread and dying cannot be left a private affair. But Schiele, nearly as self-conscious as this child, has made his melancholy drawing wholly to set death against its ultimate rival, the organ of generation ­ death versus her vulva. Red-tinted, bald and still plump enough to see traces of baby fat, Schiele grants her vagina a whitened nimbus that rests where the womb was destined to be, were it true that destiny would grant life to give life.

Ronald Jones is on the faculty of the Royal College of Art, London, and a regular contributor to this magazine.