Egon Schiele: Eros and Passion

Klaus Albrecht Schröder. ISBN 3-7913-3600-2, published in softback by Prestel, London, 2006, 27.5cm x 19cm, 120pp, priced £8.99.

Reviews by Erik Empson

This book is about the infamous Austrian artist, Egon Schiele, a friend and student of Klimt, who wrestled with the precepts of pre-war Bourgeois morality and the desolation of the ensuing war. The book itself begins rather prosaically with biographical notes about the artist who was born in 1890 in the sprawling mulitnational state of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Yet somewhat strangely for a book about an artist that throughout his life was interested in the connection between eros, passion, death and the sacred, and at one stage painted pregnant and diseased women, as well as the dismembered or truncated nude self-portraits of his later years, it makes no mention of the fact that his father died of syphillis, which was passed on to Schiele's mother and caused the death of a number of his siblings at an early age. Maybe this omission is because Schröder attempts to wrest his study away from the obvious psycho-analytical treatments that it has been subject to in the past, and develop an appreciation of the man and his work, very much through the art itself. In so doing the author has written an argument that is as complex and challenging as the graphic, at times disturbing, but always evocative, works themselves.

Schiele himself was captivated by the figure of the sick artist, something that appears in the mangled, dislocated and in some cases putrifying bodies of the artist's self-portraiture. These paintings are a move away from the artist's illustrations of women where the study is of what we might now see as a more conventional erotic sexual subject, but in fact was original and challenging for the Vienna of the time. They involve less the sense of decay and death, obviously greatly influenced by the First World War, that permeates his later work, depicting as it does, shadows of death behind moribund emaciated figures. Indeed Schröder goes a long way towards explaining the uniqueness of these themed paintings. In both cases Schiele is concerned with voicing something of the repressed, hidden and unrepresentable elements of human life. Hence the graphic sexual poses of the nudes and semi-nudes through which, by forcing eye contact between them and the viewer, Schiele manages to convey his own complicity with the subject. The artist fragments his subject, but does so knowingly and with desire. This fragmentation is clearer in the contorted expressive art of his self-portraits, where ugliness is used to cloud the established unity between beauty and moral perfection. The moral bankrupcy of these images reflect the soulless and hollow pretensions of art abstracted from the truths of human suffering, disease and pain, and a society contorted by its own embarressed and repressed desire.

Eros and Passion contains a plethora of images of Schiele's work, spanning the active years of his short life. The written parts are not really more than essay length, which is a pity as although Schröder is not the most accessible writer, he treats the subject matter in a sensible manner, aware perhaps that the shame and hypocrisy in relation to sex that abounded in Schiele's time has not been fully eradicated from our own.

Patterns of Childhood: Samplers from Glasgow Museums, by Rebecca Quinton, ISBN 0-13646-8, published in softback by Herbert Press an imprimt of A&C Black Publishers, London, 2005, 15cm x 21cm, 96pp, priced £9.99.

This book was written to accompany Glasgow Museums' Patterns of Childhood exhibition. It covers a number of the broad range of samplers held in the museum collections, and serves well as an introduction to the subject, as well as a good store of information for reference. Over 50 samplers are presented in the book with explanatory text detailing their historical background and the style of stitching and sewing that their maker¹s used. One of the earliest pieces dating from c1625-1630 is known as a Œspot motif¹s sampler, these show random designs such as geometric shapes, flowers and royal ciphers. Another, also from the 17th century, is a band sampler of a long narrow shape cut from the end width of a role of linen. This type of sampler was used as a reference tool, featuring a number of different types of embroidery that would have been copied for decorative borders on bed and table linen.

As time moved on, the designs became more intricate and diversified. Some feature designs like multiplication tables or maps, others have religious verses, another was stitched by a woman prisoner in exile, and some girls even produced miniature clothing. What is fascinating is that each of these samplers is in some way unique, the majority done by young girls who had few reading skills and in the majority of cases learnt to stitch letters before they could write them. Each sampler teaches us something about the social history of these women in their early years, and often something of the political and social events of the time. One example, a sampler by Margaret Sheddon dated 1812, is of partciular interest. Sheddon¹s father was the butler at the Broxfield house of Robert Owen, the utopian socialist and manager of the New Lanark cotton mills. Believing that a person¹s character was the product of their environment, Owen established a progressive school for young children and opposed their employment before the age of 12. Initiatives like this began the long process of social reform that was to gradually change the lives of young women. This is a small book, but little is known about this subject, and the books packs in a good array of images and concise but comprehensive text.

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