By Carlo Rey Lacsamana
Despite the lamentable shortness of his life, the Austrian artist, Egon Schiele (1890-1918) achieved a strikingly personal style which had been falsely described as pornographic during his time. It cost him a brief stay in prison on the charge of “immorality.” If the state is left to manage art—art will be denied all its creative possibilities and reduced into a dogmatized, politicized craft. Art and pornography are subjects too problematic for the state. It cannot distinguish which is which so it judges by the terms it only knows: force and cunning. But today nobody complains about the ubiquitous advertisements more degrading, more psychologically pernicious, more pornographic in essence that assault our senses every day. Because our present culture has recklessly mingled advertisement with art. The line that divides these two different fields has almost vanished. Schiele wrote in his prison journal:
“At the hearing, one of my confiscated drawings, the one that had hung in my bedroom, was solemnly burned over a candle flame by the judge in his robes! Auto-da-fé! Savonarola! Inquisition! Middle Ages! Castration, hypocrisy! Go then to the museums and cut up the greatest works of art into little pieces. He who denies sex is a filthy person who smears in the lowest way his own parents who have begotten him.”
But never let the state get in the way of art. In prison, Schiele produced several striking watercolors depicting the experience of being locked in a cell. And that’s how he paints: like someone locked in a cell! Is not the human body a sort of prison? A prison of blood, flesh and bones in which we’re all condemned to live for the rest of our life. In front of one of his works one becomes conscious of the sentient body. How the body feels, how it succumbs to all sorts of sensations, pain, bliss, sex, desire, terror… To look at it as a pornographic image is to undervalue not only Schiele’s profound imagination but also the depth of the humanly sensibilities which distinguishes his art.
The controversy regarding the alleged pornography of his art is referred to the artist’s choice of models, their provocative appearance, their “pornographic” postures. Young girls and couples posed, bare before the artist’s and spectator’s eyes. Schiele believed in the beauty of the human body, physical beauty, but didn’t idealize it. He was scrupulously attentive to the feelings of the body, its sexual needs and satisfactions. And he saw pain as the center of it all. Schiele projects how pain and beauty coexist side by side, how they welcome each other in the human body. To perceive beauty is to affirm our awareness of suffering. The experience of beauty is also the recognition of the existence of pain. Schiele has placed this perspective in the human body.
He saw in the physicality of love-making the vulnerability of the human body. The acute sensitivity of the human body to pleasure, and to pain which the body involuntarily submits. This intimate acquaintance with pain finds voice in a poem by the feminist poet Adrienne Rich:
“I put my hand on your thigh to comfort both of us, your hand came over mine, we stayed that way, suffering together in our bodies, as if all suffering were physical…”
As if all suffering were physical. This corporeal awareness is the core of Schiele’s art.
Pornography eradicates the body’s susceptibility to pain through false representation of pleasure. It turns bodies into cold, distant, austere love-objects decorated with violence, disengaged from love, and ornamented with false love. Its presentation directly appeals to the base pleasure of uncomprehending and consuming mind. Pornography is oblivious to the pain of the body. It is the undoing of respect for the body and the person. Thus, the exact opposite of Schiele’s art. To miss this fundamental distinction is a failure of seeing.
Art historians often refer to Freud’s interpretation of unfulfilled sexuality. This psycho-analytical reference is facile and explains only partially the actual experience of sex which Schiele has attempted to go beyond in his art. Most
characters erotically play: teasing, exposing, open to a kind of violence. But it is this openness that challenges the viewer with a sympathetic human contact. This openness is not unfulfilled. It is the unreserved space of contact where the erotic and the intimate meet. Schiele’s images come together and struggle to come to terms with their sexual needs and identities.
Sex satisfies a need, a hunger; it serves as a release of the animal impulse yet it also tries to reach the core of the body’s essence: the vulnerability, the incompleteness which is transcended in the nature of making love, by a couple in love.
Love-making is the gradual accommodation of two bodies to each other, their needs, their longings, their desires and fears being shared. Through and by love does sex cease to be entirely physical and becomes immaterial: like a form of understanding, like a secret shared in a whisper, like solitude. Thus the expression “make-love” is just a more romantic word for sharing. The dark side of love-making is when a calculated act of one’s will is imposed over the other: the violence.
The traditional nude in Western art epitomizes this violence. The nude as a mere objet du désir is meant to arouse and affirm the (male) spectator’s sexuality. Today, this traditional reception of the nude as a feeder of appetite is perpetuated by the power of the modern techniques of advertising. The human body unloved is processed as an object to be possessed, surveyed, bought.
Schiele’s unique style—the use of agitated lines, the deformed bodies with their angular sharpness and the strict use of limited shades—confronts the dogmatic representation of the nude. While the latter is depicted as ornamentation like a furniture in one’s home, Schiele liberates the nude by depicting the human body as a compressed space of interacting tensions of life: personal, political, historical all merging. No longer is the spectator flattered by the nude as in the traditional form, Schiele’s is a mirror of a state of mind.
Often Schiele’s figures are punctuated with a sharpness similar to fear. Like the fear an animal feels when it scents in the air about it the threat of a hunt. In the face of universal anxiety (the looming devastation of the First World War) Schiele’s figures become helpless animals. Thus the distortion, the nakedness, the emaciation, the solitude of couples, as if all suffering were physical. There were moments when Schiele was confronted by violent thoughts: love as unseizable, comfort impossible. His brief, intense life (Schiele died at the of age 28) lived amidst the turmoil of a disintegrating empire (Austro-Hungarian), the demoralization by the first global war and the attendant revolutions in Europe, the pervading theories of Freud and Lenin which accepted acts of violence, and a series of unrecorded incidents which shook the entire consciousness of the world had a particularly devastating effect on the individual. The human body is, in Schiele’s art, an expression of history.
When I say Schiele paints like someone locked in a cell, I say it not only in metaphorical terms but also as a kind of experience. When he paints he enters into the other’s body only to enter his own. He searches and finds what he already knows: the transient nature of pleasure and the enduring pain. He was fascinated by the human body for its capacity to carry and endure the weight of consciousness; of its receptiveness to objects, to events and above all, to human contact. Most of the figures are drawn with eyes looking at the spectator, as if saying: “Look at me, touch me, complete me.” But we, the spectators, are not invited as voyeurs, nor as surgeons, but something more personal, more attached, like a sort of companion. He wants us to enter the image/the body to search beyond the flesh and bones of anatomy, a contact, not strange but familiar. A human contact that will allow us to reach the pain of the other’s body, and perhaps by looking with love and patience we might perceive and sense it in our own. And in this act of generosity the possibility of sharing each other’s pain might lead to more than the experience of fleeting pleasure.
Listen again to the voice of Adrienne Rich:
“Whatever happens with us, your body will haunt mine… your touch on me, firm, protective, searching me out, your strong tongue and slender fingers reaching where I had been waiting for years for you … whatever happens, this is.”
Carlo Rey Lacsamana is a Filipino born and raised in Manila, Philippines. Since 2005, he has been living and working in the Tuscan town of Lucca, Italy. He regularly contributes to journals in the Philippines, writing politics, culture, and art. His works have been published in magazines in the U.S., Canada, U.K., Italy, Germany, The Netherlands, Scotland, India, China and Mexico.
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