‘Now she has gone. Now I encounter her body’,
Egon Schiele ‘The Portrait of the Pale, Still Girl’ 1910
Schiele’s lament for a physical absence and the remaining artistic encounter resonates in both his own body of work – his capturing of momentary expressions, the fleeting rapture which seizes the individual – and that of his exhibited counterpart Francesca Woodman, a photographer separated from him by time and medium. In her photography, Woodman uses the blurring effect of long-exposure to conjure shadow-like apparitions into the frame, so the figure is simultaneously appearing and disappearing, caught between two states: transmutation and absence, remaining in the frame itself. Both artists capture the momentary nature of expression, while simultaneously alluding to the inescapable nature of movement – that it is transitory, and the artist’s immortalising seeks to capture that which is impermanent.
The exhibition illustrates the Tate’s unparalleled knowledge of artistic marriage – the similarities which can be drawn across artistic movements and mediums, resulting in a triumph of comparison between two seminal creative figures. A prevailing similarity between the two is their depiction of isolated figures; Schiele’s pencil details the characteristics of individual flesh which startles against their surrounding void of empty background, while Woodman’s camera illustrates the individual’s isolation from human society in their ability to merge with their natural surroundings, their edges fading into the lines in tree bark but ultimately remaining isolated as the human form in amongst nature.
Schiele often saw his sitters as isolated beings in the throes of torture, haunted by some nameless mental anguish. Their troubled expressions washing over their form of bruised skin and skeletal limbs illustrates both Schiele’s mental state and his perception of the human condition. For Woodman, her figures are likewise tormented; yet theirs is a far more recognisable, physically translated suffering – in ‘Horizontale, Providence’, cello-tape loops maddeningly upwards until binding both her legs. In ‘Untitled, Boulder, Colorado’, washing pegs tightly clamp her breasts and stomach. They appear as physical translations of a stronger, socially-ingrained anguish of female self-perception and body image. Her figures are striking in their isolation – they demand your attention while simultaneously resenting it, cowering away from it. Their underlying fragility resonates through their unclarified movements; questioning our awareness of whether they are running away or beckoning us nearer.
Why do we have such an obsession with Schiele? He resides as one of the most controversial but nevertheless important artists of the Expressionist period. He confronts us with the sexualised form, the extremes of the flesh, the constant potentiality of erotica. Yet, he disturbs us with his honesty; we are all his figures, his paintings are born from an understanding of the truth held by the human body. His obsession with the life-summoning veins and underlying skeletons of the hands take centre-stage in multiple paintings, exaggerated yet remaining firmly rooted in the potentiality of the human flesh.
Schiele’s obsession with the earthly experience of sexual pleasure, starvation and adolescence stand in juxtaposition to Woodman’s understanding of the human potentiality to cross over into the realm of the empyrean. Her ‘Angel Series’, the product of a year spent abroad in Rome from 1977 to 1978 and the presence of the angel figure in surrounding churches and museums, seem to take the human form further than both her previous work and Schiele’s focus on erotic experience. Her captured forms appear ‘shadow-like as if in the process of disappearing’ – she takes the human body, forms every thread of mortality, then begins to fray them away. Negatively bleaching them out. The result – wistful apparitions you beg to stay in the frame, but you remain still, an onlooker to their ceremony of disappearance.
Standing, looking into her photographs, the viewer is taken into a feminised realm of sharp-edged shadows, manipulative mirrors, natural canvases and male absence. Its film-noir, the darkness exploiting the light, Woodman teasing the tension between two states to express her own meanings. Her figures cast their shadows but bathe in light, never belonging to one or the other. She photographs women in ruins; walls crumbling, leaves drying out, paper peeling. Her figures, with their propensity for life and unrelenting desire to escape our world, are present both in the decomposition of the ruins and their enduring beauty.
Movement, while present in the physical compositions of Schiele and the blurring exposures of Woodman, is not merely physical. Movement is emotional; the struggle between states, be it pain and pleasure, hatred and love, natural and human. They capture the struggle of disappearance from one state and the emergence into another. They confront us with the extremes of the human experience; theirs is an artistic unity born from an understanding of being human, living and escaping through transient moments as a human being.
‘Life in Motion: Egon Schiele/ Francesca Woodman’ is on display at the Tate, Liverpool, until the 23rd September 2018./