September 9, 2005

Johnson Museum Thrills Again

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The heading of the Johnson Museum’s Egon Schiele exhibit is quite noteworthy. Titled Passion: The Watercolors of Egon Schiele, it is interesting to examine the discernible dispassion in many of the exhibited paintings. While both portraiture and poster art are showcased, the collection of Schiele’s nude drawings is most stimulating, presenting a provocative juxtaposition of eroticism with indifference; the unashamed human body with the vacant soul. It is in this juxtaposition that the title Passion holds its irony. In the small, intimate room that houses the display, the eerie allure of Schiele’s art can be grasped in a glance. Aside from the exhibit’s bold orange poster piece, “Standing Figure with Halo (Cardinal)” (1913), color is used lightly, creating a faint, watery look that appropriately mirrors the absence of expression and emotion in the eyes of his figures. This is prominently illustrated in “Nude with Green Turban” (1914), where a woman lies with parted legs, touching herself. While this alone is stirring, it is the woman’s face that makes the piece particularly intriguing. Not only is it devoid of the sensuality that characterizes her body, but it is devoid of any expression at all. This vacancy is similarly apparent in “Kneeling Nude” (1915) as it is in all of Schiele’s nude women showcased in the exhibit, for while they are all posed provocatively, their eyes speak nothing of sex. While in the nude female paintings section of the exhibit, there is an evident contrast between sexual bodies and asexual expressions, the nude male paintings are simply not sexual. Their figures are drooping, their eyes vacuous. In “Two Seated Nude Boys” (1910) the figures are listless; in “Male Nude” (1910) they are lifeless and in “Standing Male Nude with Arms Crossed” (1911) they are soulless. It is only in a sampling of Schiele’s self portraits that the figures hold any facial expression, but even these are indecipherable. In the “Self-Portrait with Arms Spread” (1912), the figure is distorted, inhuman, almost possessed. In the exploration of these self portraits, it is necessary to consider the darker fragments of Schiele’s life while questioning what he grappled with. Unlike artists whose nude paintings glorify beauty and the body, Schiele’s work glorifies the grotesque side he sees in human form. If one understands his Expressionist style, this is not surprising. His “Newborn Baby” (1910) for example, is monstrous and misshapen, and like the rest of the art shown, the only thing that keeps it from vulgarity is the absence of sentiment. This exclusion is what makes the exhibition title so curious. When viewing Schiele, the question remains, when faced with emptiness, where does one find passion?

Archived article by Ilana Papir
Sun Contributor