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Art & artists

Schiele and Saville – painting the physical

— January 2015

Article read level: Academic

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Egon Schiele, Selbstbildnis mit hochgezogener nackter Schulter, 1912. Öl auf Holz 42.2x33.9cm Leopold Museum, Wien

There are some surprising correspondences in the work of two artists from opposite ends of the 20th century

Egon Schiele – Jenny Saville by Oskar Bätschmann et al.

Before you open this book you will be struck by its especially large format.  Just handling the book is awkward. It is heavy and its dimensions mean you need a large clear surface upon which to set it before you can hope to open it up and explore its contents. All reading is a physical embodied experience but reading this gargantuan book feels more physical than most and this is perhaps indicative of its subject.

The generous, lumbering figures of Jenny Saville (b.1970) weigh heavily upon the page whilst, at the same time, pressing their physicality upon the reader. Meanwhile, the fragile angst-ridden figures painted by Egon Schiele (1890–1918) suggest a kind of intimacy that pierces the viewer's gaze and ranges from merely uncomfortable to downright distressing. The juxtaposition of Saville’s and Schiele’s work makes for an acute viewing experience. I'm hardly the first to note that the work of both artists privileges the body and the physicality of lived experience. Encountering their artworks in the museum space, in the flesh, as it were, we feel this physicality acutely. But how does that effect translate onto the pages of a book? In this case the large format of the publication and its weighty pages demand a physical engagement from the reader and these often difficult images are placed at an uncomfortably close range. In other words, they seem to insist upon their physicality and that is perhaps as it should be.

Both artists deal with the human figure in relation to the self-portrait and, in this sense, display a remarkable willingness to expose themselves and their vulnerabilities for all to see. These paintings, pastels and drawings are personal and despite their difference in scale, both bodies of work display a degree of intimacy that is at times unnerving, calling upon the viewer to consider their own subjectivity as well as that of the artist.

Saville’s, often, monumental paintings may present a contrast to Schiele's much smaller works, but they are no less intimate for all that. Flaps and folds of mountainous flesh roll across the canvas and the page, contained by its limits, but only just. In works such as Ruben’s Flap and Fulcrum, both of 1999, the voluminous nudes do not, however, threaten to engulf the viewer. Rather, they expose the figure as withdrawn and cut off from the world while the viewer is moved to a deeply sympathetic response.

In Schiele's studies a more intense portrait of human frailty is presented, as the extremes of lived experience bracket a career that lasted less than 10 years. The rawness of Schiele’s images is accentuated by his use of bold colours where we might not expect them. In Newborn Baby and Lying Newborn, both of 1910, reds, yellows and blacks mark out a contorted rather than contented infant figure. Even in his depictions of towns and cities in works such as Dead City (1912) and The Small Town II (1913) Schiele’s use of intense areas of colour amongst the blacks, browns and greys of the buildings seems to insist upon the broken lives of those who live there.

Bringing together the work of Saville and Schiele in this way is novel and insightful.  The encounter of an Austrian Expressionist and one of the ‘young British artists’ who launched their careers in the early 1990s is surprising. The reader can of course draw their own conclusions as they leaf through this beautifully illustrated book. A collection of scholarly essays offers further opportunity for reflection. The emotional and psychological impact of these images certainly demands reflection both on the images, the artists and ourselves. The self-portraits are not self indulgent but self-reflexive and gesture towards their relevance to the wider human condition.

Egon Schiele – Jenny Saville  by Oskar Bätschmann, Maria Becker, Martin Harrison, Diethard Leopold, Helena Pereña Sáez, Franz Smola, Oliver Wick is published by Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern Germany 2014. 176 pp., 123 illus, €49.80, $75.00, £45.00. ISBN: 978-3-7757-3851-4 (English)


Beth Williamson
Independent art historian

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