PARIS — Apparent at the Foundation Louis Vuitton’s exhibition of mostly delicately colored drawings by Egon Schiele is his virtuosity as a draftsman. Particularly in the execution of his expressive nudes, Schiele’s line is frequently full of an elegant erotic intelligence that conveys to some a sense of tortured subjectivity, but I don’t quite read them that way. What others see as existential angst in Schiele’s whiplash-fluid drawings, I see as the writhing, whimsical lines of sassy sexuality that stems from his Art Nouveau roots: a playful movement concerned with feminine forms and swirling, tendril-derived lines of frivolous and erogenous spirit.
For example, with “Female Nude with White Border” (1911) Schiele plays with open space by partially outlining the odalisque-like nude woman with jaggedly quivering white gouache to separate her body from her surroundings, thereby whiting out context — a trademark of modernity and what testified to the work’s inscription within a modern time and place. Yet in the sensitive intimacy of her curly-hair armpits and pubis region, there are traces of the writhing world of Art Nouveau, and little of the influence of Oskar Kokoschka’s expressionism that marks many of Schiele’s more mawkish paintings in this show of roughly 120 works (mostly drawings).
In another work from 1911, “Reclining Nude Girl in Striped Smock,” a weepy sexuality is delicately suggested by a flushed pink ear and a soft watery eye topping-off the beautifully colored-in contour lines that adhere to the kind of voluptuous natural forms popular with Art Nouveau: the flowing curvature of seaweed and lilies. Schiele’s shivering sinuous style here quivers like a slapped slimy eel, endowing the somewhat-emaciated girl with slightly sad, but still lascivious, overtones.
By using equally long, thin, wavy lines in “Seated Male Nude, Back View” (1910) and “Standing Man” (1913) (perhaps, the best drawing in the show with its magnificent messy maroon shirt that re-establishes the flatness of the picture plane), Schiele’s men are sensually elongated to the point of mystic suggestion. Their wavering stretched-out proportions put the figures into stringy oscillation reminiscent of the spiritual Mannerism of El Greco. With such virtuoso windblown lines, Schiele, who emerged at the end of the historical process of the development of Fin-de-Siècle dandyism, seems to caress the litheness of the men in a way that disposes me to feelings of watching opium smoke rise and curl, or writhing seaweed sway.
Four years later, he is still at it, as seen in “Standing Nude with a Patterned Robe” (1917) — a drawing that makes clear with his long squishy lines that Schiele, once famously the protégé of Gustav Klimt (following a short span of Art Nouveau-inspired works), ripped Klimt’s ornamental decoration away but left the tottering Art Nouveau lines alone. Thus, through his skill as an extraordinary draughtsman, Schiele was able to play with a tantalizing eroticism, making his nudes achingly stretch and shiver. The lanky lady depicted in “Standing Nude with a Patterned Robe” has a transparent left arm, an apparently shaved pubis, and two powerfully grotesque satyr-like legs: the combination of which creates a visual mythical delight that is almost involuntary.
It has generally been assumed that this stretched-shivering quality in Schiele’s work showed an artistic anguish that arose from his 1912 April arrest and 24 day imprisonment in Neulengbach following accusations of indecency for seducing a young girl below the age of consent — a false charge — and exhibiting erotic paintings in front of children, which was proven true. But as I have noted above, that line, that touch, is already fully evident in the 1910 “Seated Male Nude, Back View” and 1911 “Reclining Nude Girl in Striped Smock” drawings that both smack of Art Nouveau’s noodling nervousness.
But regardless of the carnal beginnings, that strained shivering quality came to foreshadow horrors of the coming World Wars and Schiele’s own fate. Such strained shivers were sadly actualized, one hundred years ago, in the autumn of 1918 when the Spanish flu pandemic that claimed more than 20 million lives in Europe, reached Vienna. The virus penetrated his pregnant wife, Edith, who succumbed to it, only days before Schiele. He was 28 years old.
Egon Schiele is on view at Foundation Louis Vuitton (8, avenue du Mahatma Gandhi, Bois de Boulogne) through January 14, 2019, curated by Suzanne Pagé and Dieter Buchhart.