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Provocations to desire: Craig Raine delights in the nudes of Egon Schiele

Egon Schiele is candidly pornographic – but his obsession with anatomy tells the story of an artistic struggle.

Standing Nude in Red Jacket (1913) by Egon Schiele (Private Collection, Courtesy of Richard Nagy Ltd, London)

Sex and Schiele are synonymous, as Vienna is with venality. In Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, we read: “Sex is inescapable in Vienna. Prostitutes crowd the pavements. They advertise on the back ­pages of Die Neue Freie Presse. Everything and everyone is catered for.” The playwright Arthur Schnitzler confides in his journal that he has problems keeping up with the demands of his two mistresses. Ignace Ephrussi, a Jewish ancestor of de Waal, has affairs with his wife’s two sisters, plus a series of mistresses. Klimt is invoked. Schiele is invoked. Of course he is.

Is Schiele a pornographer? Of course he is. Does that mean his art isn’t art? Of course it doesn’t. It is a mystery that art and pornography are thought to be incompatible, a great either/or. Why not both?

Nudity isn’t necessarily pornographic, even if it is explicit. There is a 1917 oil by Schiele, Girl (the Virgin), which isn’t in “The Radical Nude”, the new exhibition of his work at the Courtauld in London. It is a brown study of nakedness. The girl stands facing us, four-square, sturdy, innocent and inexperienced, about as beguiling as someone at the swimming baths. We sense her sensible, burly, one-piece bathing suit just out of the picture. She is homely, wholesome and powerfully unarousing. Dull as dishwater, ordinary, unadorned, though not perhaps as sexually occluded as Bran­cusi’s great sculpture Torso of a Young Woman (1918) – which is a pseudo-pelvis, a short marble column, completely smooth, except for a brief, shallow groove to mark the theoretical divide of her closed legs. There is no point of entry, no ragged genitals, hardly even a mons. Compare these artefacts with Schiele’s more characteristic efforts and you see a step change.

John Updike has unnecessarily acquitted Schiele of the charge of pornography, on the grounds that his women are too gaunt and too ugly to be arousing. Julian Barnes, in a paroxysm of primness at the end of a piece about Lucian Freud’s nudes, claimed that Freud’s women are so mercilessly, so punitively exposed that it would be difficult to masturbate to them successfully. Really? Both writers seem to me to be lying about male interest in sexual fundamentals, in genitalia, and the role that obscenity and ugliness play in sexual excitement. Beauty isn’t a requirement and sometimes, like love, it can be a disadvantage. Look at Lucian Freud’s breathtaking and definitive Portrait Fragment (1971) and contemplate the undiluted sexual impulse. It is a painting of pure male desire in all its impurity. To the fore, a pair of open thighs and the indelicate, fundamental female thing in all its inextinguishable power. It is the business. The rest of the body – torso, breasts, the underside of the chin – is there but it’s beside the point.

There is very little Schiele in England – one drypoint etching in Birmingham and one in the V&A. So this exhibition is important. The 38 nudes on show at the Courtauld are deliberate provocations to desire – contorted, splayed, semi-clothed and often, therefore, candidly pornographic. The models display themselves to the painter and us “as to a midwife”, in the words of John Donne’s “To His Mistress Going to Bed”. In Guy de Maupassant’s great novel Bel Ami, Georges Duroy, undoing the clothes of the modest, morally muddled Madame Walter, with the nimble fingers of a maid, “left her boots on [and therefore her stockings] and carried her towards the bed”. However much we tell ourselves that sex is a straightforward activity, a healthy alternative to All-Bran, it turns out it isn’t. It’s dirtier, more difficult and profoundly absorbing. Well worth trying to paint.

Schiele had an eight-year career before he died of Spanish flu at 28. There are 6,000 drawings. How good is this porno-painting, how good is the art? Instantly recognisable, unmistakable, uncowed, courageous, striking, full of panache, with a genius for placing the image and for radical stylisation – but, in my judgement, inferior to his mentor, Klimt. Klimt has a greater range and a greater skill base. After two hours, a phrase came into my head: look, no hands. Not many feet either. And quite a few decapitations. The catalogue half-notices this tendency and vaguely relates it to the use of antique casts, the classic rubble in art schools – a typical art-historical move.

These amputations represent an artistic problem for Schiele. Hands are difficult for any artist. Dürer’s solution was to paint the hands on their own, so that they could upstage nothing. Modigliani found them an unmanageable distraction from the main composition and concealed them or morphed them into nondescript paddles. Schiele is a cleverer artist, adept at accommodation and compromise. His faces, for example, are often the minimalist faces you find in fashion plates – pinhole nostrils, simplifications, a kit, a routine – and he did do some fashion drawings. When you look at Schiele’s female faces, you confront a certain formulaic automatism, inoffensive and nearly invisible. There are, after all, other things to look at – pudenda, for one.

In Sneering Woman (Gertrude Schiele) of 1910, we find, as usual, many things to admire, touches that solicit the viewer’s attention almost peremptorily. His sister is wearing a huge dun hat. Nipples half-hidden, her breasts sag just above her folded arms and Schiele has caught brilliantly the way the line of one breast, the left, starts higher than the other. There is an overlap – an imperfection, an asymmetry so familiar it is moving. But it is the arms and the hands we need to look at, despite the distractions on offer – that sneer, those breasts, the great brown-paper gasometer of a hat. On the arms there is a lot of fussy pencil work to suggest hair or wrinkles or mass. It isn’t clear what Schiele intends. Neither hand is drawn particularly well. Both are fudge-brown with pencilled nails and knuckles – a fuss and fuzz of wrinkles.

Girl Kneeling on a Red Cushion (1913), (Leopold Museum/Manfred Thumberger)

In Girl Kneeling on a Red Cushion (1913), the hands to the left are a blather of pencil, whereas the hairless fanny is beautifully secure in its drawing skills. Standing Nude in Red Jacket (1913) chooses a pink, divided jacket and a red, divided vulva. It omits all potential difficulty. No feet, no hands, no face. Better, Schiele had already calculated, to leave out the hands altogether. Or set up a pose in which, say, they are wrapped around the sitter’s body or head so that only the ­fingertips show.

These weren’t his only solutions to the hand job and its intractable artistic task. Even looking at only 38 paintings, you notice a repeated stylised hand – the reddish claw that he handed out to nearly everyone. It isn’t a hand with the hand’s attention-­seeking plethora of finicky detail; it is the sign for a hand. And he knew he mustn’t overuse it. So he evolved a marvellous strategy. He foregrounded the difficulty.

Suddenly there were pictures, mainly of male subjects – himself and the mime ­artist Erwin Dominik Osen – in which the real subject is Schiele’s struggle with the hand. These hands are enormous and ­elongated, candidly unrealistic in their realism (something that is partially explained by Osen’s profession). Each hand is like a marionette. After a time, it becomes clear that Schiele’s drawing is based on the studio skeleton, with its separate phalanges. He has done his homework, gone back to basics. Dem bones, dem dry bones – but whimsically coloured red, lavender and green.

Feet also present a difficulty. Male Lower Torso (1910) has four fingertips at the top of the picture and two feet that are so long that they almost forbear to finish. Without instep arches, toeless, they belong to some prehistoric creature, almost longer than the calf from the knee to the ankle. Broadly, Schiele’s solution is to guillotine the feet and their pertinacious complications, substituting shoes and boots instead, which he can deliver with effortless bravura.

The other thing in this exhibition worth noting is Schiele’s incomparable skill with hair – pubic and cranial. All varieties of pubic hair are here – magnetised iron filings, sparse, thick, fuzzy, wiry, black burning bushes. The hair on the head is even more astonishing: Standing Nude with Stockings (1914) may not have solved the nipple problem (an orange limpet with beading around the edge like a lace doily) but the hair could not be improved. It is black and Schiele has used the wooden tip of the brush to score its density. It and Schiele’s other triumphantly successful hair exploit the contrast between delicate uncertainty and the firm, deliberate line surrounding the anatomy. At the edges of the hair, he uses a starved brush, as he does frequently for his green and pink touches to the texture of the body. With a starved brush, deliberation is impossible. The procedure is always chancy. The artist never quite knows how much pigment will be left behind. A continuous outline is impossible.

In the 1910 work Seated Female Nude with Raised Right Arm (Gertrude Schiele), Schiele has already worked out several techniques and strategies: her hands are shielded behind her head; her left arm hides half her face; her wonderful, totally convincing hair is a mixture of pinks and browns (for auburn) and bleeds a fraction beyond the vague, uncertain, multiple black crayon outline so we know for certain that this hair is buoyant, springy, dense.

The worst painting in the show is The Dancer (1913), an alleged self-portrait done in gouache and pencil. It is an action painting, striving for kinesis, but resembles a flayed portrait of musculature for Vesalius, defaced by a vandal. The face is disguised with paint and lines. The gouache is arbitrary. The pencil line is everywhere jerky, overemphatic and wayward, creating a hectic multitude of mistakes. The catalogue claims it is one of the “most remarkable of all Schiele’s works on paper”. It commends “a high degree of animation”. The catalogue is wrong. When it says, “Some lines serve to delineate the principal contours of the figure, others seem little more than a kind of frantic scribbling,” the catalogue is right.

The greatest single work here is Sick Girl (1910). Its means are spartan in their restraint. It is primarily a drawing in black chalk with local colouring, beautifully judged. She is supine. Her hands are folded and raised to her mouth, masking it and hiding their own distracting detail. The gesture is almost prayer-like but equally anxious and simply tense. The simplification of the face is completely appropriate. The nose is two tiny, clean nostrils; the eyebrows are so fine they are nearly invisible; the expression in the black eyes is heartbreaking, withdrawn, patient, waiting for things to improve, single-minded and self-absorbed.

And the hair! In its way as fine as the eyebrows – close to the head, blonde, with two strands escaping. The gouache is sparse white on the stomach, tinged with lightest apricot at the vagina, forked at the top with two tender lines, almost invisibly rounded at one side of the base. It is a drawing all frailty, untouched by sexuality. A great masterpiece. The catalogue advises that it may be influenced by Edvard Munch’s morbid, melodramatic paintings of the children’s sickroom. The catalogue is wrong. 

Until 18 January 2015

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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