In art history textbooks, Schiele is often and carelessly labeled an Expressionist, a description intended to distinguish his eroticism from the decorative eroticism of his mentor, Gustav Klimt. Klimt, of course, depicted lovers clasped to each other in intense erotic embrace. There is nevertheless something operatic about Klimt's lovers, as if they were figures in a myth. Like Tristan and Isolde they are caught up in the sweep of passion as the music swells around them. Sex is somehow meant to be transfigurative, a way of transcending the sweaty realities of the flesh depicted. Schiele's figures, by contrast, are raw, hairy and bony, their young bodies marked by erotic zones like maps of where to touch each other. Sex is what they live for, the essence of their lives. It is an end in itself, not a means for transfiguration. They can't keep their hands to themselves when they are together, and they can't keep their hands off themselves when they are alone. Masturbation is their default state.
In their leanness, Schiele's figures might be said to resemble those of Picasso's Blue Period. But Picasso's figures are gaunt because they are poor and needy, whereas Schiele's have no thought for eating, as their only hunger is for sex. They are like illustrations of a thesis of Sigmund Freud, Schiele's fellow Viennese, that human reality is essentially sexual. What I mean to say is that there is no art-historical explanation of Schiele's vision. Expressionism was certainly in the air in Mitteleuropa in those years. But his drawings look like nothing one would see by artists who belong to movements like Die Brücke ("The Bridge") or Der Blaue Reiter ("The Blue Rider"). The German Expressionists used heavy black outlines and were inspired by a vision of primitivism. My own view, hardly inspired, is that Schiele expressed what Freud describes in his central thesis about human nature and conduct--that from infancy on, sex relentlessly holds us in its grip. In Schiele's work we see what we know is repressed in the men and women painted by Edvard Munch, the artist I think Schiele is closest to in terms of achievement.
The reference to Freud is not an appeal to a Viennese zeitgeist by which Schiele's work might be unpacked, although I think it says something about Vienna before World War I that eroticism was the main artistic achievement of the Austrian capital's most original artist at the time. Rather, I mean to suggest that Schiele is likely to have known about Freud's views, whose Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex was published in 1905. Consider Schiele's extraordinary Mother and Child, another drawing from 1910. The theme of mother and child has a considerable history in Western art, from Venus and Eros to the Madonna and the Christ Child, but there is nothing to compare with Schiele's study. The mother is shown from behind, looking over her shoulder, gazing back with a flirtatious glance. Her body is curved in a particularly sexy way, giving a thrust to her hips and a saucy swing to her generous buttocks. She is nude except for her black stockings, and we can see the tip of one breast from the side. The child is sitting next to her, on the arm of the chair the mother leans into. One of his hands is pressed against her waist, which he appears to be kissing with the intense fervor with which he would be sucking at the breast, if that were anatomically possible. The other hand conveys the child's total absorption in the mother's flesh. It is very much as if they are lovers--hardly a posture that would have occurred to anyone had the idea of infantile sexuality not been in the air. Schiele had drawn pregnant females at a clinic with a certain obstetrical precision. But Mother and Child has a moral daring, and it expresses a psychological truth. Interestingly, the pair is surrounded by a kind of white aura, scrubbed onto the yellow of the paper, and the flesh itself is given life by the way the paint is swirled on, as in finger painting. The space where the buttocks join the thighs is punctuated by a dark cross as black as the mother's eye or hair.
Kneeling Semi-Nude, done in 1917, shows how little Schiele's style and vision had evolved over seven years. The naked upper body of the kneeling woman emerges from a voluminous frilled undergarment. She is intensely involved in palpating her left breast, holding it in her right hand while she probes above the nipple with the other hand. The round red nipple is fully exposed, and the woman is peering at it with such intensity that the celebrated male gaze of contemporary feminist theory appears by contrast to be a passing glance. Like all of Schiele's women, she is slender and beautiful, and her face is framed marvelously by tangled black curls. Lips, cheek and nipple are the only touches of red in the otherwise neutrally painted body.