A barefoot young woman in a short summer dress swings from the doorframe of an interior in Rome, her body lifted high above a cool tiled floor. A breeze catches the soft fabric; the luminous figure, fragile, ethereal, seeming to sway in the wind, contrasts with the solid geometric forms of door and floor. There are echoes of angels and crucifixions from Rome’s baroque churches, but actually this is a teenager play-acting with a camera, leaving an untitled, fleeting image from a 1970s summer.
More than half a century earlier, in Vienna in 1913, a skinny youth hunches before a mirror and rapidly sketches himself in harsh, angular graphite lines, as if about to pounce. Jutting shoulders, pointed elbows, suggestions of muscles, tendons, bone; head thrust forward, spiky black hair, bright red lips, deep-set eyes are all punkish and alluring in “Self-portrait in Crouching Position”.
Precocious, narcissistic, mischievous, keenly experimental in creating staged but intimate self-portraits, and dead in their twenties: American photographer Francesca Woodman and Austrian painter Egon Schiele make a smart pairing for Tate Liverpool’s summer double bill Life in Motion. A commemoration of Schiele’s death, in the 1918 flu epidemic, the show also marks what would have been Woodman’s 60th birthday. Born in April 1958, she jumped to her death from a New York loft in January 1981.
Opening with the drawing “Nude Self with Decorative Draping”, an emaciated, hunched 19-year-old self-portrait with warm colour applied to face, nipples, knuckles, genitals, Tate is showing Schiele’s works on paper, the most gripping medium for this virtuoso draughtsman. Woodman’s oeuvre also begins — and ends — with self-depiction; 61 small black and white photos here featuring herself in blurs of movement — leaping up in “Several Cloudy Days”, scurrying behind a mirror in “Self-deceit” — read like a continuous performance of self-display, transformation, escape.
Juxtaposing the two artists to confront each other gallery by gallery, Tate enhances the sense of youthful instability, of identity in flux, that characterises both these fluent, febrile bodies of work. The resonance with the selfie generation is pronounced; so too are formal agendas exploring expressive postures, truncated compositions, spatial tension. Schiele’s figures, often posed with extreme frontality and perspective foreshortening — “Nude Girl with Arms Outstretched”, “Seated Model with Raised Left Knee” — seem projected into our space. Woodman, closer to our time, feels further away; she uses Modernist camera techniques to achieve distancing effects, merging her body with architecture, covering herself in wallpaper, crawling into cupboards.
Her recurring device is to exaggerate angles by pushing her body, as if trapped, into the corner of an architectural construction. In “Space”, she is a ghostly presence, crammed, naked, against a glass cabinet vertiginously tilting towards us. Elegantly posed, a smooth sculptural nude, she sits against a sun-drenched exterior wall nearly at its corner, where a single white lily leans in to rhyme with her silhouette in an untitled Roman work. Some Disordered Interior Geometries was the title of her only book published in her lifetime.
There is melancholy here but also terrific, surrealist playfulness. In a zoom-in torso Woodman pins her breasts and stomach with clothes pegs: St Sebastian, or an exercise in distortion? She makes herself both doll-like object and subject in “Horizontale”, where her legs are bound with bands of Sellotape; at her crotch, one hand holds a striped glove. In “Eel series” she curls her nude body into a pose imitating the spiralling fish lying alongside. In “A Woman; A Mirror; A Woman is a Mirror for a Man” she partly conceals her nude body behind a mirror, which protects her from our view, reflecting only a bare room.
Woodman has been claimed as a feminist, denying the male gaze with her half-hidden poses; this sometimes seems apt, while at other times her sensual, textural work has an adolescent innocence beyond the political. Months before she died she recounted in a letter how “3 seperate [sic] art dealers insinuated in various ways that to understand my work they would have to sleep with me and the idea that my pieces seems to evoke that kind of response revolts me is diametrically opposed to what I was trying to express”.
Sex and Schiele are inseparable; no major artist has made eroticism so fully his subject, or been so derided for it. “That little crook, that pornographer,” Oskar Kokoschka called him in the 1960s. There was no British institutional show until 2014; this is Tate’s first Schiele exhibition. It focuses on his elongated self-depictions, including the glowering, almost gothic “Self-portrait in Black Cloak, Masturbating”, and extremely explicit female nudes.
Schiele set out to shock. “I shall go so far that people will be seized with terror at the sight of each of my works of ‘living’ art,” he said in 1911 when he was emerging from the influence of his mentor Gustav Klimt’s decorative/psychological portraiture. Schiele learnt the impact of drapery, but used it to offset effects of flesh tinged with putrefying greens or sulphurous yellows, dramatically here in the flamboyant orange coat in “Standing Male Figure (Self-portrait)”, subtly for the model opening her legs, about to shed her clothes in “Seated Woman with Yellow-Red Chemise”.
In whiplash, flawless, economical lines, Schiele stripped his figures naked and also stripped down the setting. Awkwardly posed nudes such as “Squatting Woman”, “Female Nude Bending Forward, Back View” or “Squatting Girl”, one leg in high-heeled boots tucked under a bare thigh, still disturb and provoke partly because they are compressed on empty, timeless backgrounds.
Is Schiele co-opting us as voyeur, or frankly, radically, celebrating liberated female sexuality? “Woman in Boots with Raised Skirt”, depicted in one magnificent, coiling crayon line, regards us defiantly, absorbed in her own pleasure, as she hitches her skirt to reveal her sex. In “Reclining Couple”, Schiele’s red-haired teenage lover Wally Neuzil fondles his erect penis with sensuous abandon; by contrast the artist’s unhappy wife is clumsy and embarrassed in “Woman Disrobing (Edith Schiele)”.
Schiele is a fierce psychologist. “I paint the light that emanates from all bodies,” he explained; the metaphor is clear when he outlines figures in white gouache halos as in the scowling “Self-Portrait, Head” and a tender “Boy in Green Coat”. “I show you what you do not see — the body’s inner force,” Woodman said. Although Paris and Vienna host more substantial Schiele centenary shows this year, Liverpool’s double act, emphasising youth and earnest soul-searching, brings a fresh sympathetic approach to understanding both artists: unexpected, poignant, revelatory.
tate.org.uk, To September 23
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