4 June 2018

Surprising Similarities Between Schiele and Woodman

At first glance, Egon Schiele and Francesca Woodman are an unlikely match. The former was a painter of contorted, anguished figures working in turn-of-the-century Vienna; while the latter was a photographer of arresting self-portraits navigating the early ’80s New York art scene. Yet, a new exhibition at Tate Liverpool unites these two unexpected artists in a one-of-a-kind show entitled, “Life in Motion: Egon Schiele and Francesca Woodman”. Described as a “close encounter” between Schiele and Woodman, “Life in Motion” initiates a searingly intense dialogue between these two figures, who, as it turns out, have a lot more in common than meets the eye.

Born in 1890 in Tulln, Lower Austria, Schiele is regarded as one of the 20th century’s most significant artists of the human body. His knotty, sexually-charged and troubling forms have unsettled viewers since their inception on account of their transgressive confrontation of psychological and physical struggle. Woodman, meanwhile, was born in Denver, Colorado in 1958 to artist parents, George and Betty Woodman. While a student at Rhode Island School of Design, she produced the majority of her haunting, monochrome photographs, which display her signatory long-exposure technique. Her images are lauded for their disturbing intimacy and bold treatment of the nude female form — something she has in common with Schiele. 

The exhibition’s curator, Tamar Hemmes, notes how both of these artists “capture a moment of time” through their unrestrained artistic experiments that sought to realise all the vigour and verve of human complexity, both corporeal and cerebral. On the opening of this momentous exhibition,  I spoke to Hemmes to discover the other unexpected similarities shared by these two subversive souls.

L: Francesca Woodman, Eel Series (1978); R: Egon Schiele, Squatting Girl (1917)

they were precociously talented from a very young age
The earliest work by Woodman exhibited is a self-portrait she took in 1972, aged just 13. In 1975, she enrolled at RISD, earning a scholarship to study abroad in Rome two years later. Meanwhile, Schiele attended Vienna’s prestigious Academy of Fine Arts at the tender age of 15, going on to become a protégé of Gustav Klimt. Although both artists are known as much for their tragically short lifetimes as they are for their outstanding artistic abilities — Schiele died aged 28 from Spanish flu; Woodman took her own life at 22, leaping from a loft window — they were remarkably prolific. Woodman made close to 800 photographs in her short career, while Schiele produced hundreds of oil paintings and thousands of drawings. “Schiele worked for about ten years, Woodman for about four or five, but they both produced so much work, which indicates how amazingly talented they were,” says Hemmes. “It shows how driven they were and that they had these incredibly creative minds. Their passion really does connect them.”

Francesca Woodman, Untitled, Providence (1975–1978)

the human body dominates their work
According to Hemmes, the decision to pair Schiele and Woodman together was based on their “very similar approach to depicting the human body — how they looked at the physicality, but also the emotional state of their subjects”. Schiele is renowned for his entangled, sinewy figures rendered in ragged pencil marks or murky oils, whereas Woodman used a long exposure to create blurred, almost ghostly forms that merge with their surroundings. “I think our starting point for this exhibition was how they looked at the nature of the body and how they almost choreographed themselves and their models,” explains Hemmes. “There are quite a lot of unusual poses in Schiele’s work, while Woodman forms her body to fit certain spaces. It’s this idea that the movement of the body doesn’t just express physicality, but that it also gives a clear indication of the psychological state of the subject — that’s really important in both artists’ work.” And how might their depictions differ? “In Schiele’s early work, his figures are quite tortured. He creates a lot of emaciated bodies, using sharp pencil lines. With Woodman, I think she was more interested in an inner energy in the human body, manifested through transitional states of appearing and disappearing. For me, her work has more of a spiritual layer to it.”

Egon Schiele, Self-Portrait in Crouching Position (1913)

they explored the self as subject
Crouched against a wall, or awkwardly hunched over a mirror, Woodman unnervingly addresses the camera with a defiant gaze. Where the photographer is considered to be an early proponent of the selfie, Schiele, on the other hand, made darkly expressive self-portraits with troubled eyes and cavernous frown lines. Both used their naked bodies in subversive ways to confront the viewer with the urgent, pulsating energy of their own form. Hemmes regards the prevalence of the self in both artists’ work to be two-fold. “On the one hand, it’s an exploration of the body and the self. But, there was also the practical element that they were always available. As a student it was easy for Woodman to depict herself, and for a long time Schiele didn’t have the financial means to pay for models. When he wanted to draw a male figure, he just used a mirror to draw himself.” 

Francesca Woodman, From Polka Dots (1976)

their influence is far-reaching
As prodigious talents, both Schiele and Woodman have continued to inspire generation after generation of creative minds, across visual art, music and fashion. Hemmes is quick to confirm the breadth of their influence. “Woodman’s influence can be seen in fashion photography quite a lot, which is interesting because that’s what she was interested in towards the end of her life. Artists like Cindy Sherman have also said they are heavily inspired by her — they were the same age, working at the same time. For Schiele, his influence is quite broad. Tracey Emin has said that she absolutely loves his work and is very much inspired by him. I think that there are a lot of similarities in the quick marks that you can see in her drawings. But, also people like David Bowie, for example. If you look at the album cover for ‘Heroes’, he has adopted a very similar pose that emphasises the hands that you see quite often in Schiele’s work as well.”

L: Egon Schiele, Reclining Woman with Green Slippers (1917);R: Egon Schiele, Standing Nude Girl (1914)

they were radical purveyors of female sexuality
Both Schiele and Woodman share a profound interest in the expressive potential of the body, particularly the female form. For Schiele, this interest is more explicitly erotic than it is for Woodman. In his works, nude women are often arranged, splayed and fleshy, as thrilling sources of erotic fascination. Hemmes points out the significance of his sensuous figures: “Schiele was interested in female sexuality at a time when that was very much taboo. In early 20th century Vienna, this was something that wasn’t even spoken about, so for him to depict it was quite radical”. The sexuality present in Woodman’s work frequently touches upon the enigmatic nature of female desire. Hers is often deeply personal, both a visceral and psychological investigation into the cryptic current of feminine passion. Hemmes maintains that her work is not sexual in the same way that Schiele’s is — “there is not a lot of temptation in her work. She was working at a time when feminism was on the rise in America, but I think it’s quite interesting that her approach to the female nude and female body is not political but very personal,” affirms Hemmes. “There is a sort of fragility to it. Not in the sense that the female body is fragile, but some of her works come across as quite tender. Meanwhile, others are an experimentation in deforming the female body, not necessarily in a harmful way, but more so in exploring its boundaries and limitations.”