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Can Genitals Be Beautiful?

Egon Schiele: The Leopold Collection, Vienna

exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, October 12, 1997-January 4, 1998., Catalog of the exhibition by Magdalena Dabrowski, by Rudolf Leopold
DuMont Buchverlag/Museum of Modern Art, 363 pp., $32.50 (paper)

In Civilization and its Discontents Freud found the civilized love of beauty something of a puzzle: “All that seems certain is its derivation from the field of sexual feeling. The love of beauty seems a perfect example of an impulse inhibited in its aim. ‘Beauty’ and ‘attraction’ [the German Reiz means “stimulus” as well as “attraction”] are originally attributes of the sexual object.” And yet, he goes on, “It is worth remarking that the genitals themselves, the sight of which is always exciting, are nevertheless hardly ever judged to be beautiful; the quality of beauty seems, instead, to attach to certain secondary sexual characters.”1

Breasts, hips, shoulders, and throat, for instance; in females, a rhythmic soft curvaceousness and in males an angular hardness, signifying strength. The beautiful nudes of Western art aren’t close-ups. Only in primitive art, with its urgent need to evoke the sources of fertility, are the phallus and the vulva emphasized, as it were, innocently; by ancient Greek and Roman times there already existed the specialized category of the pornographic—graphic art or writing supposed, like a harlot (pornæ), to sexually stimulate. In a compartmentalized society like premodern Japan’s, shunga erotica, with their giant genitals and decorous faces, form a distinct genre, and a district for prostitution could be set aside as a “floating world.” But in a questioning Western world, where the crucifix and the figures of Adam and Eve give the naked body a sacred sanction reinforced, in the Renaissance, by the artistic authority of classical statuary, the genitals awkwardly cling to an artistic humanism whose epitome and measure is the human form. If men and women have sexual parts and a sexual purpose, how can an art of re-presentation suppress them?

Indeed, Leo Steinberg has persuasively proposed, in his The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (recently issued in a revised and expanded second edition),2 that from before 1400 to the mid-sixteenth century, European religious art emphasized the genitals of the infant Jesus and the dead Christ in an ostentatio genitalium that enforced the doctrine of the divine incarnation. God became, so to speak, all man. But something, perhaps a sexual puritanism present in both Protestantism and the Counter-Reformation, caused a cloud of fig leaves and gravity-defying loincloths to descend, even upon such splendid works as Michelangelo’s boldly frontal Last Judgment and his statue of Risen Christ in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Human male genitals are hard to overlook—harder than those of four-legged animals—while those of the female, happily, are tucked out of sight. No incarnational theology ever championed pubic hair, and with its conventional omission a Diana or Venus as smooth and bland as soap could be displayed in parks and on façades and as decoration in bourgeois homes.

The reassimilation of the genitals into art that could be shown in public galleries and museums has been a relatively recent revolution. In 1917, the Paris police closed an exhibit of Modigliani’s paintings because he insisted on indicating—with a characteristic painterly tact—the pubic hair on his female nudes; in 1912 an Austrian court found Egon Schiele guilty of “distributing obscene drawings” and sentenced him to three days in jail, on top of twenty-one days of pretrial detention. Certain works are on display in Egon Schiele: The Leopold Collection, Vienna which not many decades ago would have been unthinkable in a public exhibit.

Schiele remains a test case in the moot matter of erotica versus art, the pornographic versus the merely lifelike. He is not the best witness in his own defense: he persuaded adolescent girls, including his younger sister Gerti, to pose for him in positions that thrust their vaginas forward, and he utilized his first long-term lover, Valerie Neuzil (called Wally), and then his petit-bourgeois wife, Edith née Harms, as models for drawings which were sold to prurient Viennese as hot stuff. His quite explicit Reclining Woman Exposing Herself of 1916 is an impressive instance of wifely submission; at this same time in his life Schiele was, according to rumor, having an affair with Edith’s sister Adele, and was certainly using her as a naked or half-naked model as well—she was “more audacious in her poses,” Magdalena Dabrowski tells us in the exhibition catalog.

If the litmus test of pornography is that it excite the (typically male) viewer, then Schiele is no pornographer. His nudes, gaunt and splotchy on the whole, make us tense and sad, even though many deserve to be called beautiful. He shares with his fellow Viennese Freud a dispassionate and rather melancholy sexual realism, with an eye to psychopathology. The genital facts are there, plainly enough, but as checkpoints on a map of anxiety; the figures are feverish not with erotic heat but with the fever of disease. The early nudes, especially, appear emaciated and contorted; there can be felt in Schiele’s work, as in Kafka’s, a progressive normalization, a good humor, relatively speaking, growing from a stark and dire ground. The impression of unhealth is so strong that we must remind ourselves that, though Schiele died young, at the age of twenty-eight, it was not of a wasting disease like that of Keats but, as with Shelley, of a sudden misfortune—in Schiele’s case the great Spanish flu epidemic, which carried off his wife, who was six months pregnant, three days before his own death on October 31, 1918.

Earlier that year his mentor and only local equal, Gustav Klimt, had died at age fifty-five, leaving Schiele acknowledged as the premier painter of Austria; his one-man exhibition at the Vienna Secession in March sold out, and, amid the privations of the World War’s final year, mounting commissions and invitations to exhibit encouraged the painter to expand to a larger studio. In that era’s millions of casualties, his was one of the burgeoning talents poignantly cut down, though it is hard to imagine him sustaining the pace and surpassing the intensity of his youthful production, achieved in the scant ten years from 1909 to 1918.

The scathing morbidity of his early work owes something, of course, to the ferment of Austrian modernism and the glittering permutation of Art Nouveau called Secessionism, epitomized by Klimt’s bejeweled, two-dimensional tableaux. In Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, a generation younger than Klimt, Secessionism became Expressionism, distinguished by violent color and a wiry, bony linearity. But the scabrous violence of Schiele’s precocious drawings had personal sources as well; these are described in the fall issue of Museums New York:

The central, traumatizing fact of Egon Schiele’s life was his father’s syphilis, madness and death. The untreated illness pinballed hellishly throughout the family, infecting (and demoralizing) his mother and killing four of his siblings. Egon, already a brooding adolescent, was psychologically seared by the association of sex, insanity and death—and it shows in his brilliant, disturbing art.

The catalog biography for the MoMA exhibition, by Romana Schuler, disputes some of this melodramatic summary; for syphilis she substitutes “some kind of progressive paralysis” and says he was not “actually insane, as some scholars would have us believe.” But he did die when his son Egon was fourteen, and Dabrowski in the catalog assumes that venereal disease was the cause, so that Egon “lived in terror of the possibility of his own insanity and death related to his sexuality.” She also asserts that the young artist had “a rather complicated relationship with his mother, by whom since the early years he felt victimized and neglected.” His oil painting Dead Mother (1910) is vivid enough to support a notion that his mother was dead for him; even in the fine portrait profile of Marie Schiele done when Egon was a seventeen-year-old art student, she radiates little warmth.

But psychoanalysis takes us only so far into an artistic accomplishment; suffice it to say that the first works in which Schiele unmistakably strikes his own note show naked males, usually himself, as fearfully thin and isolated. In the Kneeling Male Nude of 1910, a ruddy stick figure is striking an incongruously jivey attitude. In the Seated Male Nude of the same year, the drawing is more polished, even academic in its stylized anatomy; the yellowish body, so distinctly muscled as to look flayed, shows five red spots—two nipples, one eye, a navel, and the genitals—lit as if by a fire within. Emaciation, and a flesh coloring as if of decaying meat, become more pronounced in gouaches later in that same year; Nude Self-Portrait in Gray with Open Mouth and Nude Self-Portrait could be studies from a Buchenwald where the victims’ arms have been lopped off. Concave hairy bellies and tufted armpits have a weedy vitality that succumbs, in oils like Poet (1911) and Self-Seer II (1911; also titled Death and the Man), to a tilted patchwork of monstrously elongated heads and hands, the fingers spatulate and stiff, like dead men’s.

A kind of assault on the painter’s own image is in progress; in Grimacing Self-Portrait (1910; see page 10) he has knocked out most of his teeth. Gazing even upon relatively undistorted self-portraits like the two showing him in a shirt, and upon the caricatural pair of the nude, dandified mime Erwin Osen, we uneasily feel ourselves in the presence of an ongoing process, a matter not merely of self-examination but of self-flagellation, in cells devoid of any hint of furniture or perspective. A gouache not in the show but reproduced in the catalog, Self-Portrait in Black Cloak, Masturbating (1911), makes explicit a quality latent throughout his studies of males: a joyless, quizzical onanism, a morose fondling of a problem.

The male to Schiele is the self, a realm in essence immaterial. The female is the other, whose material opacity awakens a sense of bulk, of linear grace. Most of us, I suspect, would not really like to live with his lurid male nudes on the wall—their blotchy skins, hectic stares, and dangling genitals. His female nudes, however, are among the great drawings of the century, and even those with the vulval cleft foregrounded have the guileless animation that occurs when self-absorption lifts and observation begins. True, Reclining Nude Girl and Three Nude Girls, both from 1910, have the jittery line and pained elongation of the male figures of the time, but the Sick Girl, Seated and the two sketches of pregnant women permitting examination (a friend and collector, Dr. Erwin von Graff, let Schiele draw women and infants at his gynecological clinic) show real presences, whether in the yellow-tinted, hot-eyed face of the first, the dramatic red sprawl of the second, or the intent appraising gaze of the third, who sizes up the viewer while exposing to view a densely curly pudenda and a distended, pale green abdomen.

Schiele’s fascination with female genitals gives many of his pictures a double focus; Red-Haired Girl with Spread Legs (1910) and Black-Haired Girl with Raised Skirt (1911) are subdivided into two zones: an upper and a lower, a public and a private, a lightly but skillfully indicated face and a perhaps more studiously dwelt-upon sex. This is me, the models seem to be saying—for it is clear that in some of his models, recruited from the more liberated ranks of the fair sex, Schiele provoked a jaunty exhibitionism. Women in the age of voluminous long skirts and petticoats, we are more than once reminded, did not wear underpants, and a casual flash was more possible then than in our age of short skirts revealing only the impregnable crotch of pantyhose. Seated Woman Clasping Her Feet (1915) is a beautiful drawing because our eyes are led into the secret cave as if in life, by an inadvertence of natural intimacy, through a maze of lines every one of which reads as limning a woman’s figure—her arms and legs laid parallel as she clasps her feet, her sex centered but not pornographically highlighted.

Our sensation is fond rather than lustful, and much the same could be said of such lovely late works as Reclining Female with Spread Legs (1913), Kneeling Girl (1913), Girl (Seated with Yellow Cloth) (1913), the two titled Crouching Woman in 1914, and Nude with Raised Right Leg (1915). Not all of the sketches disclose genitalia; Seated Nude with Red Garter, Seen from the Back (1914) contains the suggestion of masturbation only in a certain tension of the back, and in the more clearly masturbating Kneeling Woman with Head Bent Forward (1915), her labia and fingers and the folds of her red slip are indistinguishable. Female privacy, we feel, is observed without being exploited, because the draftsmanship is so evenly intent.

Beauty lies, perhaps, not in the eye of the beholder but in the hand of the creator. Around 1910 Schiele took from Rodin the technique of “continuous drawing”—drawing directly upon the paper without taking one’s eyes off the model. The difficulty of so spontaneous a method lies in keeping the segments in proportion and properly integrated; Schiele developed a consummate fluidity, rendering the most complexly foreshortened poses with an apparently effortless fidelity—e.g., the Seated Woman praised above, and the very late Girl Lying on Her Back with Crossed Arms and Legs (1918). In the first, the roughness of the underlying drawing board or table was engagingly incorporated into the lines; in his last year he took to using a darker, softer pencil, and to shading with the side of the point. Nude Girl with Crossed Arms (1913) and Standing Nude Girl with Stockings (1914) could not be more confident; they have the squared-off, slightly metallic elegance of Modigliani’s pencil drawings, with not a line wasted or groped for.

In his late paintings, Schiele approaches fussiness, which hitherto was never a trait. The lightly tinted attack of pencil line gives way to a dabbly oil color and a stolid naturalism. His models become conventionally voluptuous (Female Nude with Long Hair Propped up on Her Arm, 1918) and in two large unfinished canvases, Two Crouching Woman and Three Standing Women, oddly static—labored studio pieces with which to claim the throne vacated by the death of Klimt.

His drawings and watercolors of females, usually with a peep at their genitals, contain most of this show’s electricity. In this narrow but central field Schiele went farther than any artist of his calibre had quite gone before, unsentimentally searching out women in their sexual being. Sexuality acquires a nervous system in his best work, though his few renderings of embracing couples—Lovers (1914- 1915) and Act of Love (1915)—convey an effect almost comic, of a puzzlement, both wide-eyed and weary at being caught in such a fix. Schiele’s vigorous voyeurism becomes inhibited; the man and woman of both couples are looking away from each other, outward at us, into the unhealthy mirror.

Away from the grip of his own sexual fascinations, Schiele had yet to prove himself an interesting artist. His cityscapes, usually based on sketches of Krumau, his mother’s birthplace, suggest a darker, less witty Paul Klee; his topic paintings, such as Hermits (1912), a representation of himself and Klimt, Cardinal and Nun (1912), a blasphemous parody of Klimt’s The Kiss, and Blind Mother (1914), a variation on the theme of stony maternal inadequacy, all have Klimt’s hieratic flatness without the decorative dazzle. His superb drawing skill, when directed, during his military service, to desktops and packing rooms and nondescript architecture, remains in the realm of craft rather than that of art. What he would have done with his talent had he lived—in 1950 he would have been merely sixty years old—cannot be known; he was moving, it would seem, in the direction of a safer, more pompous style. As it is, more than Klimt, more than Kokosch-ka, he seems a contemporary, a brief jagged flare on the edge of the scandalous, who expressed with a new forthrightness the link between sex and seeing, in the territory that Freud was simultaneously exploring, between sex and “modern nervousness.”3

  1. 1

    Translation by James Strachey (Norton, 1961).

  2. 2

    University of Chicago Press, 1996.

  3. 3

    Phrase used in the title of the 1908 essay, “‘Civilized’ Sexual Morality and Modern Nervousness.”

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