Olivia Ghosh immediations 2016

Search for:

OLIVIA GHOSH // Drawing death and desire: Egon Schiele’s nudes and early twentieth-century Vienna




Tried and found guilty on a charge of public immorality, the Viennese artist Egon Schiele (1890–1918) served a twenty-four-day prison sentence in April 1912. The initial charge, the kidnap and rape of the teenager Tatjana von Mossig, had been dropped, but in the process of investigating it the police had raided his studio and confiscated a series of erotic works, deemed pornographic.1 The drawings, watercolours and gouaches, as well as other nudes from the period 1910–1912, have caused much debate ever since. Alessandra Comini is correct in saying that we must turn to the intellectual and cultural climate of Schiele’s Vienna to understand these images. However, her statement, ‘the elusive element that this Expressionist artist sought in his portraiture accurately mirrors the collective cultural quest of his time: the inner self – psychological man’ should be further nuanced to differentiate Schiele’s works from the fundamental Freudian definition of ‘psychological’.2

Fig. 1. Egon Schiele, Seated Male Nude (Self- Portrait), 1910, oil and gouache on canvas, 152.5 x 150cm, Leopold Museum, Vienna, copyright and courtesy of Leopold Museum.

Fig. 1. Egon Schiele, Seated Male Nude (Self- Portrait), 1910, oil and gouache on canvas, 152.5 x 150cm, Leopold Museum, Vienna, copyright and courtesy of Leopold Museum.

Broken down etymologically, psychology is the study of the soul or spirit, from the Greek ‘ψυχή (psychí)’. It is here that the first problem is encountered in much Schiele scholarship. There is a tendency to look for the ‘soul’ of the artist in the images he created, to read into the mottled flesh of his self-portraits the history of a syphilitic father, to perceive his ‘immorality’ in a woman’s splayed legs, or to uncover traces of his mother’s sorrow at her many stillbirths in the distorted figures of children. This article argues that this channel of enquiry so often taken by Schiele scholars is problematic. Can paint really contain the ‘soul’ of the artist? Instead, I propose to take on W. J. T. Mitchell’s recent (1996) challenge and use Schiele’s nudes as the basis for a ‘thought experiment’, questioning the idea of desire that is offered up by the images themselves, asking ‘what do they really want?’.3 In this endeavour, I would ask the reader for Mitchell’s suspension of disbelief.

The nudes of the period 1910 to 1912 like Seated Male Nude (Fig. 1, 1910) or Black-Haired Nude Girl Standing (Fig. 2, 1910), distinguished by their bold, pared-back linearity, appear to stand outside the model of the psyche created by Sigmund Freud, typically characterised by repression. These images allow, and often foreground sexual desire. Mitchell postulated an idea of images whose wants could be as numerous as the works they emanated from, though often they can be perceived as a lack.4 In the first part of this article, I would like to suggest that Schiele’s early nudes wish to capture the viewer through the visuality of sexual enjoyment and fulfilment. Viewed from this perspective, it becomes clear that Schiele’s works cannot be simply explained through use of Freudian theory.

However, turn-of-the-century Vienna was not a place in which the surface of society (or the surface of the paper) was intended to show such an unbridled social existence. It was supposed to be ‘a faultless, radiant façade’, yet behind the mirage of political and social stability flowed currents of prostitution, poverty, crime and social unrest.5 Though the ruling classes might have wished to continue believing in the strength of the old Hapsburg regime, these undercurrents were fracturing the Austro-Hungarian Empire long before the First World War sealed its fate. By ignoring the convention of the facade, Schiele’s images are aligned with alternative currents of thought of the day, Freud’s thought included, that were breaking ties with the outlook of the nineteenth century, and the perceived civic failure with which this was connected. Reacting to his environment, Freud aimed to provide what he considered to be the foundation for an a-historical view of the psyche removed from concepts of class and societal norms.6 In this way, Schiele’s images are connected to Freud more subtly than the later twentieth- and twenty-first-century application of psychoanalytic theory to the works makes clear. These figures deny society’s hold over them by appearing in a void. Stepping beyond this boundary, Seated Male Nude seems to reject not only society but also the very laws of science. The chair – a societal prop – having been removed, he is supported by and suspended in emptiness.

Fig. 2. Egon Schiele, Black-Haired Nude Girl Standing, 1910, watercolour and pencil, 54.3 x 30.7cm, Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna, copyright and courtesy of Graphische Sammlung Albertina.

Fig. 2. Egon Schiele, Black-Haired Nude Girl Standing, 1910, watercolour and pencil, 54.3 x 30.7cm, Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna, copyright and courtesy of Graphische Sammlung Albertina.

Fig. 3. Egon Schiele, Female Nude, 1910, gouache, watercolour and black crayon, 44.3 x 30.6cm, Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna, copyright and courtesy of Graphische Sammlung Albertina.

Fig. 3. Egon Schiele, Female Nude, 1910, gouache, watercolour and black crayon, 44.3 x 30.6cm, Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna, copyright and courtesy of Graphische Sammlung Albertina.

Challenging Mitchell’s hypothesis that images are not reducible to language, especially in light of their own desires, this article then considers Schiele’s nudes in relation to a different channel of Viennese thought: the turn-of-the-century Sprachkrise (language crisis) and, ultimately, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, first conceived of in 1913. In this seminal text Wittgenstein was grappling with the idea of how to make the nature of our thoughts clear. In a comparably perilous act, Schiele’s images seem to be trying to find a way to express clear or overt sexuality. Similar to Wittgenstein’s deconstruction of language into component cells, the sparse, linear figure that the nudes of 1910-1912 offer up is broken down into geometric blocks of flesh, where sexuality becomes a tangible component. In Female Nude (Fig. 3, 1910) the truncated figure is constructed of delineated shapes and sharp brushstrokes. The hexagonal face rests in a halo of broad purple, red and pink lines, the circle of the stomach is cupped in pink highlighting and divided in two, balanced precariously on a triangle of dark pubic hair. There is no attempt to fully integrate the various parts of the body. Instead, the thick white outline both highlights the angular collection of parts and prevents them from falling apart on the page.

Fig. 4. Egon Schiele, Black-Haired Girl with Raised Skirt, 1911, gouache, watercolour and pencil, 55.8 x 37.9cm, Leopold Museum, Vienna, copyright and courtesy of Leopold Museum.

Fig. 4. Egon Schiele, Black-Haired Girl with Raised Skirt, 1911, gouache, watercolour and pencil, 55.8 x 37.9cm, Leopold Museum, Vienna, copyright and courtesy of Leopold Museum.

The figure seems to exhibit no inhibition, the image bares itself fully to the viewer. The purple of her stocking tops mimics the triangle of the vagina, creating a mise-en-abîme of sexuality.7 This is a productive example of Mitchell’s suggestion that an image can want mastery over the beholder, that it might desire to change places with him or her, holding the viewer still in what he terms ‘the Medusa effect’.8 The onlooker’s gaze is trapped by the image between its purple stockings and its red-purple halo of wild, almost snake-like hair. In Freud’s writings the Ego (or the conscious) is responsible for the processing of perceptions and excitations coming from the exter­nal world.9 It is here that the balance between pleasure and unpleasure is regulated through the repression of certain excitations deemed too strong for the maintenance of the mental equilibrium. The Ego acts as the border between internal and external perceptions, both of which leave traces that become memory in the unconscious.10 The Id exists in two forms: the latent thought that can become conscious without aid and the repressed thought that can only become conscious through the aid of psychoanalysis.11 All repression stems from the socially aware Ego, developed through the repression of infantile sexuality, originally overt and free, which is incompatible with social reality.12

It is clear from his writings that Schiele was aware of the fluidity of Freudian boundaries within himself and within his reactions to the world around him. In his prison diary he wrote:

Have adults forgotten how corrupted they themselves were as chil­dren – that is, how incited and aroused they were by the promptings of sex? And, while they were still children, what terrible passion burned within them and tormented them? I have not forgotten, for I suffered dreadfully from it.13

Schiele acknowledges a certain ‘un-repression’ in himself. In the same way, his nudes offer the viewer images of their bodies freed from the binding social conventions that forbade open displays of sexuality.

Let us consider Male Nude Seated in this way. A number of stud­ies see Schiele’s use of truncation of the limbs in his portraits as a sign of the artist suffering from a castration complex.14 However, if we ask what the ‘nude man’ wants, then this fear of dismemberment is challenged by the placement of the truncated limbs. The viewer’s gaze is led from the pungent pubic hair and the genital area along the legs, which become an extension and multiplication of the sexual self: rather than being a sign of castration, they mimic the shape of the phallus. The transformation of the limb into an object with sexual potential shifts the socially accept­able status of the leg into the habitually socially-repressed sexual realm. This energy extends along the thighs towards the space of the external gaze, as though the figure is inviting the viewer to enter the visual field and indulge in similar freedoms. When viewed from this perspective Schiele’s charge of public indecency seems more complex. He had let loose in the world a multitude of characters who all had the power to invite supposedly respectable citizens to join them in unrepressed and unbounded expressions of desire. As the artist he might be charged with aiding and abetting, but was he the perpetrator?

Rather than try to read Schiele’s desires into this watercolour, it is more worthwhile to consider how Freudian theory can illuminate this visuality of desire. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) Freud proposes that all humans share an inherent instinct that urges them to return to an earlier state of things, the initial state of being, before life. Thus, the repressed aim of all life is death – the death drive or ‘Thanatos’ drive. The drives that do not seek to restore an earlier state are the pleasure drives or ‘Eros’ drives; these seek the sexual satisfaction of jouissance, though they can be sublimated to find satisfaction in non-sexual achievement. They are the constructive instincts that balance the destructive instinct of Thanatos.15

In Male Nude Seated the use of clear geometric shapes holds the gaze at the genitals, caught in the abdominal circle, then draws the eye up the body through the triangle of the ribcage to the more prominent triangle created by the red of the nipples and the eye, where the viewer comes to rest. Perhaps we can think of this as a movement beyond the Freudian pleasure principle into a state of unbalance usually modified by the repression of excess excitation.16 This is a visual encoding of the state of unpleasure. According to Freud, the divided human psyche would attempt to repress this, but the figure’s arms embrace the sensa­tion. Society found Schiele’s figures so difficult to accept because they showed what a place beyond the social ‘pleasure principle’ might look like. What Freud called the psychological and explored through language, Schiele made visual – in his works the study of the illusive ‘psyche’ could be replaced with the study of the body and its desires.

Fig. 5. Egon Schiele, Eros, 1911, gouache, watercolour and black crayon, 55.9 x 45.7cm, private collection, Australia, courtesy of Richard Nagy Ltd., London.

Fig. 5. Egon Schiele, Eros, 1911, gouache, watercolour and black crayon, 55.9 x 45.7cm, private collection, Australia, courtesy of Richard Nagy Ltd., London.

Historically, feminist art history has considered the nude repre­sentation of women as passive objects of the male gaze.17 That could be one way of reading Black Haired Girl with Raised Skirt (Fig. 4, 1911), in which the figure freely offers up her body to the viewer. However, situated within Schiele’s wider oeuvre, perhaps we can com­plicate conventional assumptions about the gendered gaze. For instance, Eros (Fig. 5, 1911) foregrounds male nudity and sexuality as the object of the spectator – the grey cloak framing the bright orange and red of the penis in the same way as the girl’s blue-black skirt frames the bright pink of her vagina. It remains unclear whether the artist envisaged a gendered gaze in this situation. I would argue that the ambivalence in his work surrounding the issue problematises the traditional western gendering of representation in feminist discourse. Schiele represents an unbounded sexual openness belonging equally to men and women.

Returning to the subject at hand, what exactly do we mean by making desire visual? Nudity was not a new concept in art. Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (1484–1486) rising from the waves is naked, Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) naked, Goya’s Maya Desnuda (1797–1800) had her clothes ripped from her body. However, in all these instances the figures in the images still block the vagina from the penetrating gaze of the beholder, either with their hands or their thighs. The Black Haired Girl with Raised Skirt in contrast sheds any means by which this might be denied to the viewer. Her hands disappear into the emptiness of the paper, and her skirt frames her vagina, mirroring the blue-black aureole of hair around her face. The equation of the two is further highlighted by the use of rose pink to pick out the lips and the labia. However, the head is marginalised. It is smaller than the circle of flesh revealed by the raised skirt and placed high on the paper. This allows for the vagina to be the initial focal point. The composition is inviting the gaze to rest on her vagina. The image visually constructs the figure’s desire to be sexually touched and again the viewer is caught by the ‘Medusa effect’.

When Gemma Blackshaw says that ‘Schiele’s practice was not … that of the voyeur, peeking through the curtain, at the woman unawares; rather the female body was represented as continually reacting to that of the artist spectator’ she is iterating a related notion.18 The figures on the page act on and react to the viewer, giving desire a visuality. The portrait becomes the visual ‘performance’ of a new un-repression of desire.

Any discussion of repression and expression of desire within Schiele’s portraits would not be complete without consideration of his repeated representations of the cadaverous or sick. In line with tradition­al Freudian scholarship Jane Kallir says that this fascination stems from Schiele’s family history: his father was syphilitic, a disease passed on to his wife who, as a result, suffered a number of stillbirths.19 I should stress that I do not wish to deny or refute such a claim, but I will consider the entanglement of sex, death and life in his work rather than his biography.

In Schiele’s drawings the focus on death and the disintegration of flesh betrays another step ‘beyond the pleasure principle’, incorporat­ing a representation of the state of the body once its flesh has begun to decay into pictures of unrepressed desire. Though Freud opposes the sex drive to the death drive, for Jacques Lacan all drives are sex drives and all drives are death drives because every drive is excessive, repetitive and ultimately destructive.20 The death drive is the constant desire in the subject to break through the pleasure principle to achieve excess jouis­sance; jouissance becomes the path to death and insofar as every drive is an attempt to reach jouissance every drive must be a death drive. In this respect, the combining of the two drives in Schiele’s figures brings them closer to a Lacanian model of the psychical drives.


Fig. 6. Egon Schiele, Self-Portrait in Black Cloak Masturbating, 1911, Gouache, watercolour and pencil, 48 x 32.1cm, Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna, copyright and courtesy of Graphische Sammlung Albertina.

Fig. 6. Egon Schiele, Self-Portrait in Black Cloak Masturbating, 1911, Gouache, watercolour and pencil, 48 x 32.1cm, Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna, copyright and courtesy of Graphische Sammlung Albertina.

Kathryn Simpson writes about Self portrait in Black Cloak Masturbating (Fig. 6, 1911), ‘Schiele pictures himself doomed by Eros and Thanatos together, coiled tightly like a snake about to execute a lethal strike … where he appears as some kind of neutered vampire’.21 Setting aside the idea that this ‘is’ the artist, and considering that the ultimate goal of the subject is, according to Freud, the unity of the body with both Eros and Thanatos, can we really see this figure as doomed? Rather, is this not a representation of the jouissance brought about through the death and sexual drives? The pale, mottled greens, ochre and grey of the flesh come together with the less translucent tones of the genital area between his hands. The movement in this work seems to compress the figure. The curve of the head into the body on the left and the oval brush work on the stomach that creates the sensation of the spine sink­ing both enhance the tension of the body, which can be seen teetering on the edge of dual release – the pleasure of death and the unpleasure of jouissance. Eros and Thanatos are encrypted and un-concealed in paint, leaving iconographic traces on the figure on the paper.

In Eros (Fig. 5) the fusion of the two drives is iconographically more pronounced. The face has become more skull-like – Schiele’s distinctively pointed nose has lost its cartilage and all that remains are the holes in the bone, thinly veiled in greying skin – a memento mori made man. The flesh is closer to decomposition; the light wash gives the impression of it disintegrating into the background, the hand and cloak becoming almost indistinguishable – flesh becoming inorganic matter. The legs – which, as with the truncation in Male Nude Seated (Fig.1), can be seen as extensions from the phallus rather than a ‘castra­tion’ of the subject – and the lining of the cloak seem to intertwine. In this picture of decomposition the bright orangey pink of the phallus draws the viewer’s gaze. Because this is such a clear focal point, the rest of the work is relegated to the role of a frame for the visually encoded sexual drive. The more powerful death drive is balanced by the physical and visual prominence of the Eros drive lauded by the piece’s title. As with Black Haired Girl with Raised Skirt (Fig. 4), the framing within the work traps the viewer and invites the gaze to ‘touch’ the figure’s genitals: once again the viewer is caught between the figure’s desire to ‘paralyse’ the beholder, and the figure’s desire to spur him or her into movement. Both drives thus combine in an image of jouissance and decomposition, a complicated depiction of a dual pictorial desire.

Schiele’s drawings are figures who give visuality to sexual desire. In answering the question ‘what do these pictures really want?’ there is no need for recourse to the personal history of the artist. In these instances the viewers are caught up by what we may term the ‘subjectiv­ity’ of the painted figure, their gaze is brought into a sexual game. The figures want satisfaction and ask for it openly through the composition of their bodies and iconographic encryptions of abandon, pleasure and pain. This visualisation of these desires separated these drawings from a society whose stability depended on repression. Though we might use Freud to understand Schiele himself, to confuse the works and the artist is to ask more of the viewer than even Mitchell dares. Similarly, Comini’s statement that Schiele sought to portray ‘psychological man’ oversteps the mark. However, it is possible to argue that elements that were also found in Freud’s model for the ‘psyche’ are captured icono­graphically in paint. Taken beyond the psychological confines of their creator, these works could be used more freely in examinations of fin-de-siècle Viennese culture, ideas on sexuality, or gender roles to name but a few possibilities.

With these first thoughts in mind, I would like to address a different aspect of Mitchell’s essay – the idea that pictures want equal rights with language but not to be turned into language. However, pre­viously in his ‘thought experiment’ he had come to the conclusion that the ‘picture as subaltern makes an appeal or issues a command whose precise effect and power emerge in an intersubjective encounter com­pounded of signs of positive desire and traces of lack or impotence’.22 The Oxford English Dictionary, under its entry for ‘language’ includes the definition ‘a style or method of expression in a non-verbal artistic medium such as music, dance, or the visual arts’.23 By ascribing sub­jectivity to the picture Mitchell also ascribes them with the power of expression, a language of sorts, in his case made up of ‘signs’ and ‘traces’. I wish to extend my own ‘thought experiment’ to demonstrate that, though there will always be parts of a picture that defy comprehension or translation, there are integral visual elements of ‘language’ that allow us to ascribe a kind of ‘subjectivity’ to the image.

To do so, I will not turn to Structuralism, which has been widely deployed in twentieth-century art analysis, but to a further channel of thought that emerged in Vienna at the turn of the century – the Sprachkrise and a new philosophy of language. As a product of the same intellectual and cultural climate, I believe that this a more appro­priate ground for my exploration. The Sprachkrise first began to appear in cultural and linguistic theory in the last decades of the nineteenth century, and centred on the idea that language could no longer be used adequately to describe abstract concepts or the nature of the world. Friedrich Nietzsche encapsulated the beginning of this crisis of faith in 1878: ‘It is only now that it is dawning on man that he has propa­gated an enormous error with his belief in language’.24 In 1902 Hugo von Hofmannsthal took this idea further in the ‘Lord Chandos Letter’, which detailed the gradual loss of trust in language, starting with words such as ‘spirit’, ‘soul’ and ‘body’. The arbitrary connection of the word to the object became an insurmountable problem, and the body became the focus of much discussion of this issue as the place in which the individual and the linguistic universals converged.25

Michael Hunter suggests this emphasis on the body can be seen as Vienna’s desire to communicate ‘what is too big, too general, too close to be expressed in words’.26 The younger generation of writers and art­ists became obsessed with a language and an aesthetic that had a strict claim to authenticity – they wanted a marriage of fact and expression. This endeavour affected Schiele’s practice, as well as that of contem­poraries such as Oskar Kokoschka.27 In the same way that they can be seen to visually project elements of sexual desire closely connected to contemporary psychoanalytic channels of enquiry, Schiele’s portraits arguably contain a system of pictorial signs analogous to the ‘logical lan­guage’ posited by Wittgenstein in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which, though published in 1921, was first conceived of and drafted in 1913.

Wittgenstein was concerned with the conditions that would have to be fulfilled by a logically perfect language. He was aware that such a language was a technical impossibility, but the nature of language is such that it only fulfills its purpose of conveying meaning insofar as it approximates to the ideal language postulated. Essentially, he believed that the function of language was to assert or deny facts. The first req­uisite of such a language was that there should be one name for every ‘simple’ object. The name would be the symbol for the object in lan­guage. A name was a ‘simple’ symbol because it could not be reduced further. When something is not a simple Wittgenstein termed it a whole or ‘complex’, which contained the symbols for the constituent parts. In the material world a complex is a fact. He defined two types of fact: a non-compound fact was known as a Sachverhalt or ‘atomic fact’, and a compound fact was known as a Tatsache. The example used in Bertrand Russell’s introduction to the text is that of ‘Socrates was a wise Athenian’. This contains the facts ‘Socrates was wise’ and ‘Socrates was an Athenian’ and is, therefore, a Tatsache. The fact ‘Socrates was wise’ is an atomic fact or Sachverhalt, though it is still a complex rather than a simple as it contains the different symbols, ‘Socrates’ and ‘wise’.28 Schiele’s portraits and the subjectivity they develop can be expressed within the tenets of Wittgenstein’s general premise. The desires expressed can be broken down and thought of as the ‘facts’ of the figures, underlining the nature of what they really want.

Let us return to Black Haired Girl with Raised Skirt (Fig. 4) and deconstruct our previous visual analysis of the figure’s desires along Wittgenstein’s lines. As was observed, there is a broad circle of blue-black paint that surrounds a small, deep pink area. We can translate these two images into the sentence ‘the skirt frames the vagina’ (this is not to claim that the image and the word are interchangeable, but for the purpose of thinking about the image as a form of language such a translation is necessary). For Wittgenstein this would be an ‘atomic fact’, on the paper it is the unalterable composition of these two components of the image. We can create further ‘atomic facts’: the hair frames her face; the skirt mirrors the colour and shape of the hair; the lip colour matches the labia colour. All of these are unalterable parts of the image.

When we ask ‘what does the image want’ these are the ‘facts’ that enter into the response. As Wittgenstein did with language, the viewer has to break down the images to their component parts, into the indisputable elements before they can go beyond the surface of the paper and postulate a response to the question. Only once this has occurred can the viewer move into the realm that Mitchell saw as a ‘suspension of disbelief ’, or Wittgenstein would have termed an impos­sibility – the point at which these elements are ascribed a further mean­ing, a subjective meaning. In this respect Mitchell and Wittgenstein were proposing very similar ‘thought experiments’ to their audience: a technically impossible move from objecthood to subjectivity.

We can begin to see ‘the skirt frames the vagina’ as an indica­tion of sexual desire because of our knowledge of other facts in the world, such as ‘Boticelli’s Venus hides her vagina’, and facts specific to the image, such as ‘the viewer’s gaze rests on the vagina’. We build up the ‘truth’ of what the image wants by performing an act very close to Wittgenstein’s linguistic analysis. By comparing and contrasting various ‘facts’ we come to the conclusion that Schiele’s images are asking some­thing different of the viewer to other nudes. This is the body ‘showing’ its sexual desire. Such a process is only possible if we consider that the image has a semiotic function of its own. In his analysis of what pic­tures want Mitchell implicitly accepts this whilst explicitly denying it.

Experimenting with visual ‘facts’ can be extended further to compare versions of sexual desire displayed by different images. For example, in Black Haired Girl Nude Standing (Fig. 2) the carefully spaced use of rose pink creates a rhomboid between the mouth, nipples and vagina. Wittgenstein uses the geometric shape as a visual metaphor for the simple as it exists in different languages – it can be projected in many different ways, but its inherent properties will always remain the same. The shape in the image guides the viewer’s gaze over the body; moving from the objecthood to subjectivity we can say that the image ‘wants’ to be touched by the beholder. Schiele’s use of white heightening around the girl’s outline further delineates the figure from the background. This is in line with Wittgenstein’s proposition that ‘a spatial object must be situated in infinite space’.29 The absence of all extraneous material in the watercolour focuses the viewer on the ‘facts’ of the body and its desires.

Fig. 7. Egon Schiele, Nude Girls Reclining, 1911, watercolour and pencil, 56.5 x 36.8cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, copyright and courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art (www.metmuseum.org).

Fig. 7. Egon Schiele, Nude Girls Reclining, 1911, watercolour and pencil, 56.5 x 36.8cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, copyright and courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art (www.metmuseum.org).

In Nude Girls Reclining (Fig. 7, 1911) the lower figure contains the same rhomboid configuration seen in Black-Haired Nude Girl Standing, with the pink detail on the pubic bone, the nipples and the mouth. However, in Nude Girls Reclining a second rhomboid can be seen, created by the lower nipple of the prone girl, the visible nipple of the propped-up figure and their two mouths. A comparison of the differ­ent rhomboids in the two pictures opens up our questioning into want the pictures want. Where one rhomboid appears the image’s subjective sexual desire is projected out at the viewer. Where two rhomboids inter­act on the paper the relationship is more complex. Are these rhomboids inviting the viewer’s gaze to roam over their bodies as an active com­ponent in the visual game, or are they depicting a mutual desire for one another that the viewer witnesses passively?

In the dialogue between the images and between image and viewer we start to build up an understanding of what the images might want. In the case of Schiele’s nudes this is, for the most part, sexual desire. In fin-de-siècle Vienna this was a complex notion. Schiele’s arrest for public indecency in 1912 indicates that his contemporaries, like so many art historians of more recent years, felt that the images were a reflection of the artist’s character or psyche. However, attempts to psychoanalyse Schiele through his works will always be problematic. This thought experiment has attempted to move away from this and to open up Schiele’s works to a new avenue of exploration. By taking these works beyond the psychological confines of their creator they can begin to play a much more interesting part in a consideration of sexuality in fin-de-siècle Vienna than might otherwise be the case. They become part of the wider dialogue surrounding the breakdown of the faultless façade of Viennese society.

  1. Jane Kallir, Egon Schiele Life and Work (New York: Harry Abrams, 2003), 127–149.
  2. Alessandra Comini, Egon Schiele’s Portraits (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 1–2.
  3. W. T. J Mitchell, ‘What do Pictures Really Want?’, October, 77 (1996), 71–82.
  4. Mitchell, 82. 5. Stefan Zweig, Die Welt von Gestern (Frankfurt: S. Fischer Verlag, 1970), 78.
  5. Carl Schorske, Fin de Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1980), xx–xxv.
  6. Sigmund Freud, ‘The Ego and the Id’ (1923), in James Strachey ed., The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 24 vols, vol. 19 (London: The Hogarth Press, 1995), 13.
  7. Mitchell, 76.
  8. Freud (1923), 17–19.
  9. Freud (1923), 24.
  10. Freud (1923), 20–22.
  11. See also Sigmund Freud, ‘Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality’ (1905) and ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ (1920) in Strachey, vol. 7, 207–222; vol. 18, 7–64.
  12. Arthur Roessler, Egon Schiele im Gefängnis: Aufzeichnungen und Zeichnungen (Vienna: Carl Konegan, 1922), 33.
  13. See for example Comini; Wolfgang Fischer, Egon Schiele: Desire and Decay (Köln: Taschen, 1995); Kathryn Simpson, ‘Dionysian Ugliness and Radical Beauty in Egon Schiele’s Oeuvre’ in Peter Vergo and Barnaby Wright eds., Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude (London: Paul Holberton Publishing, 2014), 50–65.
  14. Freud (1920), 36–45.
  15. Freud (1920), 21.
  16. Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, in Amelia Jones ed., The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader (Routledge: London, 2003), 44–52; Griselda Pollock, Avant-Garde Gambits, 1888-1893: Gender and the Colour of Art History (London: Thames and Hudson, 1992), 7–9.
  17. Gemma Blackshaw, ‘The Modernist Offence: Schiele and the Naked Female Body’, in Peter Vergo and Barnaby Wright eds., Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude (London: Paul Holberton Publishing, 2014), 31–49, 38.
  18. Kallir, 136.
  19. Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis (New York: Brunner-Routledge, 1996), 32–91.
  20. Simpson, 56.
  21. Mitchell, 79.
  22. ‘language, n. (and int.)’, OED Online (Published n.d., Accessed 25/9/2016, http:// www.oed.com/view/Entry/105582?rskey= rkQMQv&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid).
  23. Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Die Sprache als ver­meintliche Wissenschaft’, in Karl Schlechta ed., Friedrich Nietzsche: Werke in drei Bänden: Band 1 (Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1954), 453.
  24. Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Der Brief des Lord Chandos: Schriften zur Literatur, Kunst und Geschichte, Mathias Mayer ed. (Stuttgart: Reclam Verlag, 2000), 18-21.
  25. Hugo von Hofmannsthal, ‘Essay on Mime’, in Michael Hunter, ‘Body as Metaphor: Aspects of the Critique and Crisis of Language at the Turn of the Century with Reference to Schiele’ in Patrick Werkner ed., Egon Schiele: Art, Sexuality and Viennese Modernism (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994), 119–129, 125.
  26. Ferdinand Opll and Peter Csendes eds., Wien: Die Geschichte einer Stadt, Band 3:Von 1790 bis zur Gegenwart. (Vienna: Böhlau, 2006), 269.
  27. Bertrand Russell, introduction to Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, David Pears and Brian McGuiness trans. (Abingdon: Routledge Classics, 1974), ix– xxiv.
  28. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico- Philosophicus, David Pears and Brian McGuiness trans. (Abingdon: Routledge Classics, 1974), 6.
  29. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico- Philosophicus, David Pears and Brian McGuiness trans. (Abingdon: Routledge Classics, 1974), 6.

Share This

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Close