Review: Woodman and Schiele, on the anniversaries of their deaths

Francesca Woodman, Eel Series, Venice, Italy 1978. Tate / National Galleries of Scotland © Courtesy of Charles Woodman/Estate of Francesca Woodman

Woodman and Schiele, on the anniversaries of their deaths.
Carol Emmas on Life in Motion at Tate Liverpool

As Tate Liverpool continues its 30th anniversary celebrations, with Life in Motion, there have been mixed reviews in the national press about the pairing of the artist Egon Schiele and photographer Francesca Woodman. But, what else do you do when Vienna wants to celebrate Schiele’s work on the centenary of his death? You think outside the box and come up with a canny pairing on what would have also have been Woodman’s 60th birthday, had she lived.

While it was a struggle to reconcile previous bedfellows; Emin and Blake, Woodman and Schiele, possess similarities more obviously complementary in this interesting male/female dynamic. Each artist explores the body through their introspection of the self and other. With Schiele, his ‘other’ generally has to do with women and sex. With Woodman, her most effective work comes from the Woodman behind the camera and the apparition of her other self in front. Both Woodman and Schiele died young and both liked using themselves as their own protagonist (whether through convenience or otherwise). But there the similarities end.

With a bold, accomplished and confident draughtsman’s hand; Schiele’s works are quick, confident and self-assured in their delivery. Without the ease of magazine or internet porn – the next best thing in Vienna in the early 1900s must have been the paint-it-yourself version. Studying under Gustav Klimpt, Schiele moves Klimpt’s more idealistic visions into a lustful kitchen-sink erotic and vibrant reality of the human form; Reclining Woman With Green Shoes, (1917), Squatting Girl (1917). He spent time in prison for creating these ‘degenerate’ images.

Yet, he wasn’t all about porn. The elongation, disproportion and accentuation of his self-portraits such as Standing Male Figure (1914) and Self-Portrait in Crouching Position’ (1913) are so simple, yet so visually striking – they are no less than perfect in their execution. With his dramatic and contemporary use of colour and space, Schiele’s work hasn’t dated. As Woodman’s black and white work appears more retrospectively Victorian-gothic in style, it means both artists meet and marry quite neatly through time.

The Woodman images portray the body in a more precarious and ephemeral way. In much of her work, Woodman tries her best to blend into her surroundings, into the earth, into the walls, into the ether. Her subject matter is reminiscent of the Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Victorian classic ‘feminist’ novel, The Yellow Wallpaper, about the narrator’s descent into madness via the walls of her room.

Woodman’s death at 22 (after throwing herself from a roof in 1981) means she will be forever type-cast in the cult-like status of Sylvia Plath. The forever mystery of ‘why’ and that other Victorian literary worship of the fragile woman cut off in their peak of youth will generate many a thesis. It also means in true Victorian gothic tragedy, her Angel Series could be construed as a doomed portent; whether she’d wished it, knew it, or not.

In Don Paterson’s poem, ‘Francesca Woodman’, he wrote: “Ghost face. Not because I turned my head, but because what looked at me was dead. We don’t exist – We only dream we’re here – This means we never die – We disappear”. Her black and white subject matter reinforces a sense of melancholy. Yet we forget that behind the scenes there must have been vibrant colour while she was constructing her work. So, the question here is whether the images are telling a truth, or do they lie?

As time progressed Woodman’s style developed into something highly imaginative with a complex psychological narrative. In Untitled 1975-80 she lies naked and curled up under an impossibly balanced door. The way she hangs naturally from a doorframe in a long exposure also seems impossible. The pegs on her breast and nipples, highly painful, as is the tourniquet tightness of binding her legs in sellotape. By the time she was 22, Woodman had an accomplished body of more than 800 photographs.

Whereas, Schiele’s testosterone-fuelled confidence ran through to his death-bed (he died in the flu-pandemic of 1918). “The war is over and I must go – my paintings shall be seen in museums around the world.” Woodman, suffering from depression felt her work was “not good enough”.

There is so much more to this artistic juxtaposition than meets the eye.

Egon Schiele, Self Portrait in Crouching Position 1913. Photo: Moderna Museet / Stockholm

Life in Motion: Egon Schiele / Francesca Woodman is at Tate Liverpool until 23 Setpember 2018

Words, Carol Emmas