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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

MILES COLE
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The new Brexit economics

George Osborne’s austerity plan – now abandoned by the Tories – was the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s.

George Osborne is no longer chancellor, sacked by the post-Brexit Prime Minister, Theresa May. Philip Hammond, the new Chancellor, has yet to announce detailed plans but he has indicated that the real economy rather than the deficit is his priority. The senior Conservatives Sajid Javid and Stephen Crabb have advocated substantial increases in public-sector infrastructure investment, noting how cheap it is for the government to borrow. The argument that Osborne and the Conservatives had been making since 2010 – that the priority for macroeconomic policy had to be to reduce the government’s budget deficit – seems to have been brushed aside.

Is there a good economic reason why Brexit in particular should require abandoning austerity economics? I would argue that the Tory obsession with the budget deficit has had very little to do with economics for the past four or five years. Instead, it has been a political ruse with two intentions: to help win elections and to reduce the size of the state. That Britain’s macroeconomic policy was dictated by politics rather than economics was a precursor for the Brexit vote. However, austerity had already begun to reach its political sell-by date, and Brexit marks its end.

To understand why austerity today is opposed by nearly all economists, and to grasp the partial nature of any Conservative rethink, it is important to know why it began and how it evolved. By 2010 the biggest recession since the Second World War had led to rapid increases in government budget deficits around the world. It is inevitable that deficits (the difference between government spending and tax receipts) increase in a recession, because taxes fall as incomes fall, but government spending rises further because benefit payments increase with rising unemployment. We experienced record deficits in 2010 simply because the recession was unusually severe.

In 2009 governments had raised spending and cut taxes in an effort to moderate the recession. This was done because the macroeconomic stabilisation tool of choice, nominal short-term interest rates, had become impotent once these rates hit their lower bound near zero. Keynes described the same situation in the 1930s as a liquidity trap, but most economists today use a more straightforward description: the problem of the zero lower bound (ZLB). Cutting rates below this lower bound might not stimulate demand because people could avoid them by holding cash. The textbook response to the problem is to use fiscal policy to stimulate the economy, which involves raising spending and cutting taxes. Most studies suggest that the recession would have been even worse without this expansionary fiscal policy in 2009.

Fiscal stimulus changed to fiscal contraction, more popularly known as austerity, in most of the major economies in 2010, but the reasons for this change varied from country to country. George Osborne used three different arguments to justify substantial spending cuts and tax increases before and after the coalition government was formed. The first was that unconventional monetary policy (quantitative easing, or QE) could replace the role of lower interest rates in stimulating the economy. As QE was completely untested, this was wishful thinking: the Bank of England was bound to act cautiously, because it had no idea what impact QE would have. The second was that a fiscal policy contraction would in fact expand the economy because it would inspire consumer and business confidence. This idea, disputed by most economists at the time, has now lost all credibility.

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The third reason for trying to cut the deficit was that the financial markets would not buy government debt without it. At first, this rationale seemed to be confirmed by events as the eurozone crisis developed, and so it became the main justification for the policy. However, by 2012 it was becoming clear to many economists that the debt crisis in Ireland, Portugal and Spain was peculiar to the eurozone, and in particular to the failure of the European Central Bank (ECB) to act as a lender of last resort, buying government debt when the market failed to.

In September 2012 the ECB changed its policy and the eurozone crisis beyond Greece came to an end. This was the main reason why renewed problems in Greece last year did not lead to any contagion in the markets. Yet it is not something that the ECB will admit, because it places responsibility for the crisis at its door.

By 2012 two other things had also become clear to economists. First, governments outside the eurozone were having no problems selling their debt, as interest rates on this reached record lows. There was an obvious reason why this should be so: with central banks buying large quantities of government debt as a result of QE, there was absolutely no chance that governments would default. Nor have I ever seen any evidence that there was any likelihood of a UK debt funding crisis in 2010, beyond the irrelevant warnings of those “close to the markets”. Second, the austerity policy had done considerable harm. In macroeconomic terms the recovery from recession had been derailed. With the help of analysis from the Office for Budget Responsibility, I calculated that the GDP lost as a result of austerity implied an average cost for each UK household of at least £4,000.

Following these events, the number of academic economists who supported austerity became very small (they had always been a minority). How much of the UK deficit was cyclical or structural was irrelevant: at the ZLB, fiscal policy should stimulate, and the deficit should be dealt with once the recession was over.

Yet you would not know this from the public debate. Osborne continued to insist that deficit reduction be a priority, and his belief seemed to have become hard-wired into nearly all media discussion. So perverse was this for standard macroeconomics that I christened it “mediamacro”: the reduction of macroeconomics to the logic of household finance. Even parts of the Labour Party seemed to be succumbing to a mediamacro view, until the fiscal credibility rule introduced in March by the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. (This included an explicit knockout from the deficit target if interest rates hit the ZLB, allowing fiscal policy to focus on recovering from recession.)

It is obvious why a focus on the deficit was politically attractive for Osborne. After 2010 the coalition government adopted the mantra that the deficit had been caused by the previous Labour government’s profligacy, even though it was almost entirely a consequence of the recession. The Tories were “clearing up the mess Labour left”, and so austerity could be blamed on their predecessors. Labour foolishly decided not to challenge this myth, and so it became what could be termed a “politicised truth”. It allowed the media to say that Osborne was more competent at running the economy than his predecessors. Much of the public, hearing only mediamacro, agreed.

An obsession with cutting the deficit was attractive to the Tories, as it helped them to appear competent. It also enabled them to achieve their ideological goal of shrinking the state. I have described this elsewhere as “deficit deceit”: using manufactured fear about the deficit to achieve otherwise unpopular reductions in public spending.

The UK recovery from the 2008/2009 recession was the weakest on record. Although employment showed strong growth from 2013, this may have owed much to an unprecedented decline in real wages and stagnant productivity growth. By the main metrics by which economists judge the success of an economy, the period of the coalition government looked very poor. Many economists tried to point this out during the 2015 election but they were largely ignored. When a survey of macroeconomists showed that most thought austerity had been harmful, the broadcast media found letters from business leaders supporting the Conservative position more newsworthy.

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In my view, mediamacro and its focus on the deficit played an important role in winning the Conservatives the 2015 general election. I believe Osborne thought so, too, and so he ­decided to try to repeat his success. Although the level of government debt was close to being stabilised, he decided to embark on a further period of fiscal consolidation so that he could achieve a budget surplus.

Osborne’s austerity plans after 2015 were different from what happened in 2010 for a number of reasons. First, while 2010 austerity also occurred in the US and the eurozone, 2015 austerity was largely a UK affair. Second, by 2015 the Bank of England had decided that interest rates could go lower than their current level if need be. We are therefore no longer at the ZLB and, in theory, the impact of fiscal consolidation on demand could be offset by reducing interest rates, as long as no adverse shocks hit the economy. The argument against fiscal consolidation was rather that it increased the vulnerability of the economy if a negative shock occurred. As we have seen, Brexit is just this kind of shock.

In this respect, abandoning Osborne’s surplus target makes sense. However, there were many other strong arguments against going for surplus. The strongest of these was the case for additional public-sector investment at a time when interest rates were extremely low. Osborne loved appearing in the media wearing a hard hat and talked the talk on investment, but in reality his fiscal plans involved a steadily decreasing share of public investment in GDP. Labour’s fiscal rules, like those of the coalition government, have targeted the deficit excluding public investment, precisely so that investment could increase when the circumstances were right. In 2015 the circumstances were as right as they can be. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the International Monetary Fund and pretty well every economist agreed.

Brexit only reinforces this argument. Yet Brexit will also almost certainly worsen the deficit. This is why the recent acceptance by the Tories that public-sector investment should rise is significant. They may have ­decided that they have got all they could hope to achieve from deficit deceit, and that now is the time to focus on the real needs of the economy, given the short- and medium-term drag on growth caused by Brexit.

It is also worth noting that although the Conservatives have, in effect, disowned Osborne’s 2015 austerity, they still insist their 2010 policy was correct. This partial change of heart is little comfort to those of us who have been arguing against austerity for the past six years. In 2015 the Conservatives persuaded voters that electing Ed Miliband as prime minister and Ed Balls as chancellor was taking a big risk with the economy. What it would have meant, in fact, is that we would already be getting the public investment the Conservatives are now calling for, and we would have avoided both the uncertainty before the EU referendum and Brexit itself.

Many economists before the 2015 election said the same thing, but they made no impact on mediamacro. The number of economists who supported Osborne’s new fiscal charter was vanishingly small but it seemed to matter not one bit. This suggests that if a leading political party wants to ignore mainstream economics and academic economists in favour of simplistic ideas, it can get away with doing so.

As I wrote in March, the failure of debate made me very concerned about the outcome of the EU referendum. Economists were as united as they ever are that Brexit would involve significant economic costs, and the scale of these costs is probably greater than the average loss due to austerity, simply because they are repeated year after year. Yet our warnings were easily deflected with the slogan “Project Fear”, borrowed from the SNP’s nickname for the No campaign in the 2014 Scottish referendum.

It remains unclear whether economists’ warnings were ignored because they were never heard fully or because they were not trusted, but in either case economics as a profession needs to think seriously about what it can do to make itself more relevant. We do not want economics in the UK to change from being called the dismal science to becoming the “I told you so” science.

Some things will not change following the Brexit vote. Mediamacro will go on obsessing about the deficit, and the Conservatives will go on wanting to cut many parts of government expenditure so that they can cut taxes. But the signs are that deficit deceit, creating an imperative that budget deficits must be cut as a pretext for reducing the size of the state, has come to an end in the UK. It will go down in history as probably the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s, causing a great deal of misery to many people’s lives.

Simon Wren-Lewis is a professor of economic policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. He blogs at: mainlymacro.blogspot.com

 Simon Wren-Lewis is is Professor of Economic Policy in the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. He blogs at mainlymacro.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt