With their audacious use of female underwear, boots and dark stockings, Schiele's drawings express erotic fantasies that would not have been out of place in underground postcards of the era. They are transcriptions of how Schiele and his patrons imagined sex, and they belong to the edge between pornography and art that Mapplethorpe would also explore. The images of men and women masturbating, or making love--and especially the pictures of lesbian couples--suggest to me that there was a demand for such representations, just as there was a demand for fleshy, dissolute boys in Caravaggio's Rome. That too tells us something about Schiele's Vienna, and about those who collected his work and showed it to others--and something perhaps about Freud's patients, if one insists upon a Viennese zeitgeist. What Schiele's provocations imply in terms of his own life, on the other hand, remains a mystery.
Schiele made more self-portraits than Rembrandt, and a great many pictures and portraits in the exhibition at the Neue Galerie are not overtly sexual. But the erotic work inflects everything else, as if everyone depicted ne pensent qu'à ça--"thinks only about that"--as the French like to say. The Neue Galerie show is, in essence, an intimate one, almost a family album, with photographs, juvenilia and toys from the artist's cabinets, and there is enough of the work that made Schiele a great artist to make us feel as if we have gotten to know him and the world to which he and his subjects belonged. Still, the title of the show, "Egon Schiele: The Ronald S. Lauder and Serge Sabarsky Collections," makes clear that it is a double celebration. Lauder and Sabarsky founded the museum as a venue for German and Austrian art of the early twentieth century, and both were devoted to Schiele at a time when his work was widely scorned. Because it is partly about two collections, and in a way about Schiele's American reception, the show has limits that one devoted solely to the artist, borrowing from various collections here and abroad, would not have had.
There is, for example, only one of the drawings made by Schiele when he was in jail, awaiting trial and uncertain of his fate. It shows him with a beard and shaven head, leaning back on his prison pallet, wrapped in a reddish greatcoat to keep himself warm. It has the title, probably added later, I love Antitheses (1912). He is suffused with self-pity, and we know from his writing that he was profoundly demoralized by his prison experience. Schiele's prison images have the quality of Japanese drawings--single skinny unwavering lines define the cell doors and the prison corridor, with brooms, mops and washtubs piled in a corner and spindly branches visible through a window. This is, after all, not Sing Sing but rather a poky provincial jailhouse in Austria. If I were curating a Schiele blockbuster, I would show all the prison drawings I could lay my hands on. And I would display Schiele's extraordinary painting of his bedroom in Neulengbach, the town where he was arrested, a place almost as monastic as Vincent's bedroom in Arles. Instead of these arresting images of confinement, the Neue Galerie exhibition gives us Schiele's landscapes, which to my mind seem too opaque, lacking the transparency of his best work, his scenes of the body in its fleshly joys and torments.
It was, after all, the reinvention of men and women as sexual beings that accounts for Schiele's greatness. As Sabarsky said, "At last, Schiele is becoming contemporary," by which he meant that in terms of the representation of sexuality, the times have caught up with and almost overtaken him. Mapplethorpe is in the museums, even if our government keeps its distance from him, and frontal nudity has become commonplace on gallery walls. Yet there is no body of work anywhere that shows the sexuality of human flesh as truthfully as Schiele's, with the vulnerability and burden of our appetites and imaginations drawn so clearly and with such passion. Freud writes in Civilization and Its Discontents that "the genitals themselves, the sight of which is always exciting, are hardly ever regarded as beautiful." It is the excitement of the erogenous zones in otherwise beautiful people that makes Schiele's work so true.