Looking at Works of Art: Egon Schiele "Two Crouching Girls" and others (1910-12) at the MFA, February 28, 2018
I went to the current show, Klimt and Schiele: Drawn, right after it opened at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Sixty drawings of the 2 artists are on loan from the Albertina Museum in Vienna from Feb. 25 to May 28. I share with you some of my thoughts.
I came to spend some time with these works with some trepidation. Klimt I knew well having passed through a “love all things Deco” period in my youth. But that old enchantment had long faded into a pleasant nostalgia. Schiele on the other hand was someone whose art I didn’t enjoy looking at in the past. It’s not the raw sexuality that bothered me; it was the ugliness or at least profound emptiness and sadness that I saw in the souls of so many of the people in his art. Or perhaps that he was projecting into the people in his art. I looked to try and understand but then I did not want to return to look again if given the chance. But it can be enlightening to look again at times.
These are drawings as well. Drawings require a different take than paintings in that they may be less finished than a painting or other work. They can unmask an artist in some ways because of this. They are closer in time to the act of looking closely and responding in a more spontaneous way. A single drawing may not support a full 45 minutes of looking as a consequence, but can be quite revealing none the same.
Choosing a Piece
 Note: if you have been following my “Looking” series in my blog, you know I choose a piece from a show to spend time on based on an emotional response from a quick perusal of a show in its entirety.
As expected, the Schiele works caused a much more emotional response than Klimt’s but it was hard to choose one work to spend extended time with. Part of this had to do with the nature of drawings and the environment of the show. The 60 works were hung fairly close to each other and by necessity (paper is fragile) were dimly lit. So you needed to be close to see enough detail for first impressions to soak in. Further it was crowded and everyone wanted to be close enough to see the work. There was only one bench in the section with nudes and otherwise there was no place to reasonably stand and take notes. So I took images with my phone and made the notes later. I was able to return a month later to see if I had changed my choice.
In the end, I found myself gravitating to “The Boy with Long Coat” because of the incredible power of his eyes. In this show, Schiele’s eyes and hands hauntingly dominate. this boy’s particularly so. It was hung with two other works of children: “Two Crouching Girls” and “Young Peasant Girl”. They were drawn in different years but I wondered if the curator chose to hang them together on purpose. They made a singular triptych that I came to see as a single piece. The boy was eyes; the pair of girls were hands; the peasant girl was emotion (sadness). Together they combined to represent for me Schiele in his best light. I spent more of the time on the two girls, then the boy, and then the girl alone. The last was in the corner and hardest to have time with given the crowds…..I wanted more time with her.
First Responses: What am I looking at?
I focus on Two Crouching Girls first. The obvious response is that I’m looking at 2 girls sitting on the floor and staring at me. STARING at me. Isn’t that the point. They accuse me, they invite me, they say, "We look like paper dolls, but we aren’t. WE ARE PEOPLE." They have a story, “WHY DON’T YOU ASK?” The dark haired one is particularly zoned in on me. The eyes of the light haired one don’t have the same focus. The left eye wanders.
What is this about?
Why are they alone?
Are they threatening or inviting?
What is their world?
Why are they here?
Why do they know Schiele?
Mostly, what do they want and need? What is inside them?
Back to What Am I Looking At?
Then there are the hands. I am avoiding them and they are the loudest aspect of this drawing. 'Dark Eyes' has one hand that is so clinched that you don’t see the fingers. The other is more open but it is claw-like. She seems so benign in every way….blue bows, pink cheeks….oh so cute….but those hands will scratch your eyes out. 'Light Eyes' has a particularly pale almost dead face. Her pale eyes, one of which is wandering, both have dark shadows under them. What child has dark shadows but one who hasn’t slept peacefully for a long time …or worse has been hit. She has altogether different hands. Both reach down to support her, as if she could faint and disappear at any moment. One is bent backwards in an impossible right angle. Her fingernails are black…..what has she been digging in? and for what? The other hand rests on a knee, actually gripping the knee. It is an oversized hand as if enlarged from much use in supporting her, even though the wrist and arm are thin and undernourished.
The girl on the right is relatively chubby as if she has figured out how to find things to eat with her grasping hands. The one on the left is thin with pointed chin and gaunt face, in a kind of defiance. What compromising has the girl on the right made? How has she learned to use that enticing stare to her advantage, while the girl on the left is disappearing?
As you look at these two for a while, their bodies underneath the clothing start to emerge. The lighter areas of the skirt on the left becomes a thigh, a stomach emerges from the one on the left. In the gallery, the black areas come off as just blobs of dark watercolor, it takes a while to get away from the eyes and hands to see the modeling of the figures beneath. [I do not know if the title “crouching” comes from Schiele, the Vienna museum, or the MFA curators but the idea of “crouch” is so much a word of fear and this comes out of this drawing before knowing the word from the title.]
The ability to draw is special and aptly admired. Some seem born with a direct connection between what the eye perceives and how the hand moves, though it requires steady practice to take advantage of that talent. I wasn’t given the drawing gift but I try anyway on occasion. With Schiele though, we have a natural. His ability is extraordinary. The Two Girls ‘drawing’ was done when he was 21. So there is much to discover by carefully trying to figure out what he did; how his hand moved with his eye. The particular pieces I chose to focus on didn’t provide much by way of illuminating the process however. You could barely make out some initial charcoal lines and then the dominant watercolor.
This led to a break to look closely at other pieces in the show. The more you look at them the more haunting they become. Many are stronger works than these three of children. Perhaps they take longer to respond to or give permission to let them grow on you. Eyes and hands. Eyes and hands.
In terms of technique however, some of the other works clearly reveal key first lines: perfect curves shaping a head and nose for example. They appear never erased or adjusted. He seems to continue to make these key sweeps of lines that capture the essence of the subject. Often he fills in with more lines in the areas of the hands and eyes: his messengers of the inner soul. Then he goes back and sometimes adds color, often watercolor as with the Two Girls.
I have no experience with watercolor but it seems that here in Two Girls he uses it to create additional key lines on a different plane. So the chin of the left girl is made with one sweep of the watercolor brush. This sweep can’t be done over: it has to be perfectly expressive the first time. Again and again in this show you see this sweeping expression. It is completely effective and efficient and beautiful in its precision.
Going back to the Girls, what is not evident from the above image (made on a phone and transferred to the web necessarily reducing detail, color, and depth) is that the skin of the faces and hands aren’t touched by anything. They are just the surface of the paper. The resulting flatness is important. It makes the subjects a cypher, more unknown and unknowable. With this bare paper, Schiele limits his story about these beings. We will never know them: who they were and would become.
Schiele also takes time to add a few details however: in this case the fingernail color and the tiny lines clearly painted on at a later point to make the teensy bangs on the forehead of the girl on the right. Why he felt the need for certain details in an otherwise seemingly rapidly made piece is worth more thought.
Boy with Long Coat was the initial piece that attracted me to this triptych. His radiant eyes stare across at you way into the room….you don’t have to be up close to feel his energy and challenge. Like 'Light Eyes' in the next drawing, he has deep shadows under his eyes causing all the same questions they aroused. His hands are important but more subtle, blending into the colorations of the coat or hair but they are protecting, defending, hiding, avoiding, and hurting. The image above does not capture the deepness of the red of his face that almost glows in the gallery setting. The drawing is off center…a force is coming from the right. The item in his pocket is both weapon and penile. It is not easy to look at those miserable, angry eyes for long.
Peasant Girl is in many ways so ‘not Schiele’ in a stereotypical way. She is fully clothed. Nothing but a side of her face and a bit of a left arm pulling away from us is visible as bare. But the face is full of pain, frustration, worry. She is scared and untrusting. But there is something in that shoulder hunched up and turned from us that suggests defiance and strength. A colleague said, “She is hungry”. I suspect so, but her expression to me isn’t hunger but inconsolable realization of life as it disappointingly is. She wears red ochre stockings anyway!
Returning to Initial Questions and The Story.
I come away feeling that I am not much further in answering my initial questions. But I also don't' think Schiele wanted viewers to answer these kinds of questions in any literal way. Rather his works are deeply emotional and meant to be felt, not thought about. These three pieces have ended up representing for me a certain essence of Schiele's work. Expressions of inconsolable life as it is. Completely unbearable. Bare for all to see. Raw.
Upon leaving the gallery, there were a couple of pieces from the flower exhibit that are spread out around the museum this time of year. The one right across from the exit struck me in a way I don’t think I would have noticed had I not been looking closely at Schiele for quite some time. It was a single flower (orchid) with only a few very tall leaves. One leaf had exquisite curvature…..a perfect calligraphic line. The flower itself was just beginning to fade at its edges or maybe just sagging a bit what with so many people passing it constantly. The flower was a Schiele waiting to happen….the perfect line holding a passing, crushable beauty.