Egon Schiele in London & New York

London and New York have recently mounted important museum exhibitions focusing on the works of Egon Schiele, a key figure in the development of modern Western art. The Courtauld Gallery’s Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude, running until 18 January 2015, marks the first British exhibition of the Austrian artist’s works in over twenty years, while the Neue Galerie will bring Egon Schiele: Portraits to Manhattan audiences until 19 January 2015.

The London show focuses on watercolours and drawings of the tortured nude figures that marked the artist’s divergence from traditional figuration and brought him to prominence with art collectors and the public alike. “Schiele overturned and transformed old traditions of art school life drawing classes with his raw and unidealised approach to the nude”, the Courtauld spokesman explains. “Rather than just depict conventional artists’ models in familiar poses, he took as his subjects an unusual variety of people including himself, his sister, male friends, his lovers and wife, female prostitutes, pregnant women and babies observed in a medical clinic, and a number of young female models.”

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New York’s Neue Galerie’s concurrent exhibition examines the artist’s portraits, nude or otherwise; nearly 125 paintings, sculptures and illustrations. Exhibition curator Dr. Alessandra Comini asserts that, compared with his contemporaries, Schiele was “the most consistently engaged in overturning conventional portraiture”.

Schiele’s strong output was cut short when he died of Spanish flu at 28, and this narrow span of work invites us to speculate on how his work could have evolved. Despite his youth he “played a critical role in the development of Austrian Expressionism”, the Neue Galerie writes on its website. “His candid portrayal of the human figure, with hidden desires exposed, unleashed the floodgates of what was acceptable to create and collect in his wake”.

Both exhibitions are well-placed to offer visitors the opportunity to witness the genius of what the Courtauld calls “one of the 20th Century’s most exceptional artists”. Schiele was indeed exceptional, and not just for his creative output; like his mentor Gustav Klimt, he was enduringly popular with art world insiders.

Jewish collectors have played a major role in maintaining the cache of Schiele’s works, a fact evident in both current exhibitions. Several of the Courtauld’s drawings are on loan from the prominent Jewish gallerist Richard Nagy; the Neue Galerie is itself a venture of Ronald S. Lauder, the Jewish businessman and philanthropist whose own artistic possessions form a substantial part of the museum’s collection. Some Jewish collectors have begun the process of reestablishing their collections long ago decimated by Nazi looting.

Dr. Barnaby Wright, a curator at the Courtauld, is keen to emphasise the show’s timeliness and importance. “As the first museum exhibition of the artist in the UK for over twenty years, this is an unique opportunity to bring together a remarkable group of Schiele’s nudes for public display”, he said. “The psychological charge of his work is palpable in the distinctive line of Schiele’s nudes, the influence of which reverberates in the work of important contemporary artists today”.

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