In this series, Monday Modern Art Madness, as the frequent readers know, from the beginning i have pledged to take on the precarious endeavor of bringing the art world (as degenerated, bogie, and far left as it is) a wee bit closer to some possible convergences with reactionary, right wing, “Traditionalist” with a capital T, etc. thinking. Its hard to define what “modernism” in art is, or “Post-modern” art, and from experience, it is as a matter of principle it seems, even harder to define what “right wing” or “reactionary” means now a days. What every person on the Right, from the most mild of conservatives, to the most esoteric of niche Reactionaries, seems to agree upon when it comes to art is the loss of human decency and virtue. “Pornography is passed off as art don’t you know!” Well this may be true, I feel there is some loss of potential when you tend to throw the whole art world out with the feted modern world bathtub.
No artist has gotten as much of a scathing critique that sounds the same “this is just pornography passed off as art!” than Egon Schiele. Today we look at another piece of what has been dubbed “feminist art”, or Proto-feminist art that most Right wingers would most certainly label as “degenerate”, “obscene” or “pornographic”: Schiele’s “seated female nude, elbows rested on right knee” (1914).
To begin, there are quite a number of personal failings and foibles that would put Egon and his Aesthete dandyism under the label “degenerate”. From his hyper-sexuality, sleeping with underage girls, a rumored incestuous Trieste with his younger sister, and a litany of other bohemian excesses that characterized the zeitgeist of artistic Vienna at the time. However, Fear not reader, for despite Egon lacking the metaphysical direction of his mentor Gustav Klimt (quite the opposite in fact), there are some reactionary inklings in Egon’s erotica, even if it only comes out in a negative discourse of warning and lament.
Egon’s body of work, and especially his female nudes share a unique obsession with flesh. Not like renaissance nudes that attempted to get at the beauty of the Divine inside the subject, but to expose the subject in their most visceral, naked, and emotive forms; As the old virtues and rules of both European art and society withered and decayed, eventually having the void filled by pure horror and totalitarian ideologies, so to did the art world respond in a similar manner. Egon was a luminary in the Austrian and German expressionist movement, for in the fleshy, crumbling, emotionally torrid human form, he saw the highest of artistic feeling, especially when art dealt with the human subject in pain and anguish.
In Seated Female Nude, we see the impulse to delve deeper into the human erotic reality, as it was Egon’s life mission to expose the sensual. The subject here is probably one of many prostitutes he frequented and drew, exposed with every bit of skin and sexual erogenous zones for the world to see, there is a deeply covered innocence over layer upon layer of sexual embarrassment and profanity. Egon often painted women with a sympathy, having a deep penetrative gaze like a male figure, seductively yet powerfully propped up, not simply demure like an old master nude.
“It’s because he came across to his models as an equal, not as a predator,” argues Nagy. “He was young, unlike most artists of the time painting nudes, he was penniless and he seemed genuinely interested in them. The only other artist who worked with prostitutes as an equal in this way was Toulouse-Lautrec and that was for other reasons.”
There is also a genuine feeling of interest in the girls themselves, a compassion, that comes though in Schiele’s work.
Egon in this sense could be considered an originator of Feminist art, but not in the way our modern “sex positive” group of feminists and artists would have him be upon deeper reflection. In some ways, and this is where we find a negative discourse that peaks the interest of the Right, Egon is providing us an enigmatic warning on “The flesh and the power it holds” (to Quote Chuck Schuldiner)….
The word “sex positivity” seems odd in our age of increasing secular (and some would say profane) forms of sexual policing, not by the Church, but by another brand of “Cathedral” ideology; If by sex positivity, it is an effort on the part of millennial feminists to view sexuality as something to be affirmed rather than view like their feminist fore-mothers, a thing to be feared, exploitative, crude, patriarchal, etc. Then perhaps the term has some meaning. But if, like most pop-philosophy jargon in the modern world, it is a buzzword that is used to legitimize personal desires and prejudices, then perhaps the art of Egon Schiele isn’t for them. If i was so inclined to write an article as a performative Manosphere type (purely performative, lord knows i could write multiple essays on how the Manopshere went to bedlam), I would point out how this is not about a pure embrace of sex, but a selective embracing of sexuality and a demonization of male sexuality, slut walk cognitive dissonance, Etc, Etc, you all probably know that script by now.
The point of this article is not to write a “return of kings” rag piece, but to show the genuine expose’ on the overtly-sexualized human condition displayed in Seated Female Nude; Egon’s work was often banned or censored, even in today’s galleries, he is still called into question and censored by an entirely different type of puritan, the usual suspected groups that need not be mentioned explicitly (as we all know this painfully banal dialectic of outrage and “ISM” accusations by now). Egon is accused of being exploitative and lewd, a purveyor of the “male gaze”, even if nothing could be further from the truth. Egon was in awe of women, but he was honest with what unregulated libidinal energies could reduce the subject to, a naked and incensed beast of desires. Egon exposed what it is like being a prostitute, the gaunt and emaciated frames, his color schema of pale and sickly-brown flesh wrapped over a wasted skeletal structure. Their faces look beat, plastic and doll-like, covered by the machinations of their hard and isolating lifestyles. The Female face and body is filled with allure, intrigue, yet mystery and danger, and some have accused Egon of the dreaded “othering male gaze“. This might be an exaggeration or an outright attack on his artistic merit, but one thing for sure is that there is no “sex-positivity” as in a guilt-free and crass (edgy?) celebration of sexuality. There is no “YAAS QUEEN” empty enthusiasm and fake “empowerment”, where art becomes a tool not of inner expression but of merely political propaganda (like so many examples of bad political art). What is present is an honest look at female and male fragility, vulnerability and shame that comes about when sexuality is rendered meaningless in a profoundly sick and profane society. It is eroticism with a conscience if you will.
Egon comes far too close to the real truth about “sex work” and passions warmed over into lust for him to be held up on a pedestal by today’s ultra-progressive art establishment, despite his immense popularity. to quote a piece from The Financial Times’ art and culture section, which reviewed an exhibit that placed the brilliance of Egon next to the crass, lewd, and narcissistic hackery of Tracy Emin:
“Little wonder Schiele’s exhibition, The Radical Nude, at the Courtauld Institute has been hailed a triumph. His miserable, ardent figures, their genitals often exposed with a bleak flamboyance so that the figures are simultaneously shameless yet wracked with shame, resonate with our self-obsessed era; an age in which people photograph themselves nude then feel traumatised if those images circulate further than intended. One could argue the age of the selfie has its roots in Freudian Vienna. Had Schiele lived now he would have presided over a beautifully illustrated blog”.
Egon depicted a world of Voyeuristic self-exposure, yet the crushing feelings of shame and embarrassment that entails such an open and worldly existence. In a strange and not very touched upon way, Egon’s nudes, both of men and especially women, exposes the contradictions and hypocrisies of modernity’s post-sexual revolution sexual ideology. We simply can’t escape the dangers of unregulated sexuality, and the mental damage it can potentially inflict.
Egon’s art is not simply crass pornography, but an artist trying to reconcile and come to terms with the nature of lurid and profane forms of sexuality, whilst trying to get back to, in a very broken and tragicomic way, the original sentimentality, romance and even divinity of the flesh in the bodies of the most ravaged and socially ostracized. This was long before the ideology-speak of “BODIES” became another academic pastiche of genuine critique; We now obsess over BODIES as if they are a replacement of the soul, instead of the worldly (in the Augustinian sense) tattering our souls, the worldly inflicts wounds and historic traces of trauma upon the body.
Egon embraced that trauma and anguish, yet somberness and tenderness of the human form. The image of the “hot pretty mess”, “Unkempt beauty” or what is referred to as “the pretty damaged girl” is such a stale cultural trope. Egon was doing an authentic and powerful image of that a whole century before Hollywood and legions of tone-deaf geeky beta male writers turned that trope into a pile of repetitive and insulting garbage.