“That’s quite rude,” says Tracey Emin as we look through the drawings of Egon Schiele. “She’s laying on her elbows with her mouth on her arm, almost like she’s got to bite her arm to keep her mouth shut, and she’s got her arse in the air and her legs are open. She’s got her dress falling down over her breast, her hair’s tousled … Having sex to the point of oblivion, so there’s no return. That’s what that looks like. And that’s what makes it really good.”
This is a tale of two artists. One is an Austrian expressionist in Sigmund Freud’s Vienna at the start of the 20th century, who managed to shock even its refined erotic sensibilities with the stark sensuality of his images. The other is a teenager in 1970s Margate, whose first encounter with said artist, Schiele, was one of the most inspiring events of her life.
“It was so clear what he was trying to say,” recalls Emin as we sit in her studio in Spitalfields, east London, surrounded by her visceral paintings. “This is about sexual frustration, this is about anger, this is about being fucked up, this is about being confused. So, in a way, it was probably quite adolescent, you know? It’s a bit like Sylvia Plath, or anything that a moody 14-year-old would grab hold of. I was looking for something to identify with, because I knew that I was different from other people.”
The previous year, as she records in her memoir Strangeland, she had stopped going to school, instead drifting between cafes and bars, drinking cider and lying on the beach. In this wayward adolescence in a run‑down English seaside town, Schiele gave her direction, purpose and a sense of who she might become. “He was my idea of an artist,” she says.
It was through her love of David Bowie that Emin found Schiele. On the cover of his 1977 album Heroes, the singer is photographed with one hand against his chest, the other raised vertically. Emin’s boyfriend explained that Bowie had borrowed his pose from the artist. “I bought a book about expressionism. There was one tiny Schiele painting and suddenly my whole world opened, because, before that, I was only aware of Picasso, Lichtenstein and Warhol,” she says. “I related to it, because it was about showing emotion. You could see the anguish he was going through: ‘I am in pain. I am drawing this, but I am drawing this in a different way, because I see it differently from other people. I see it through the eyes of pain.’”
Who, then, was this artist who could inspire a young person across a century? A new book by Taschen offers a sumptuous tour of his desperate life. Born in 1890, Schiele was part of an Austrian generation for whom the subjective was all. The outside world was false, absurd, mad. They only trusted their own fantasies and fears. In the composer and artist Arnold Schoenberg’s 1910 painting The Red Gaze, a face becomes a ghostly mask, the eyes of which blaze with pain. In Oskar Kokoschka’s 1914 work The Bride of the Wind, a man and woman are locked together by love at the heart of a storm.
Schiele shared these artists’ sense of isolation and disclocation. “All his angst made sense, because he didn’t live very long,” says Emin. “He died when he was 28. Most artists get their MA when they’re 28 now. Egon Schiele – he was dead, his wife was dead, most of his friends were dead. If they didn’t get syphilis, they died of TB, they died of the flu, they died in the first world war. The Austro‑Hungarian Empire … all of that, it’s pretty scary times. The fact that he stayed focused on his personal perspective is pretty incredible: the strength in being able to do that at such a young age.”
As if he could foresee his own death, which came during the influenza pandemic of 1918, Schiele portrayed himself as a suffering Saint Sebastian, pierced by arrows, or huddled with his wife in a cave. Yet there was one notable difference between Schiele and his fellow expressionists such as Schoenberg. In the 1900s, he was encouraged by the grand Viennese dream painter Gustav Klimt, whose delight in desire he shared. “For a long time, he was considered an ‘erotic artist’,” says Emin. “You could find Schiele at flea markets, because it was just considered to be porno junk.”
Emin has been conducting a creative dialogue with the Austrian artist since her teenage discovery. “I was so influenced by him it was ridiculous. I was doing my own little versions of Egon Schiele, really – and I learned a lot.” Some might assume she put this infatuation behind her when she became famous as a “conceptual” artist in the 1990s, but you can’t get much more expressionist than My Bed, with its sheets dirtied by love and life, its empty bottles and pungent aura of bohemian days and nights. When it was first shown in 1998, it had a noose hanging above it.
Emin always drew, and her drawings are intensely raw – from her 1995 image of despair, Sad Shower in New York, to the new works that surround us today, including a brilliantly dark series featuring an alter ego called The Black Cat Woman. Her affinity for Schiele has not gone unnoticed. In 2015, a joint exhibition of the artists’ work was held at the Leopold Museum in Vienna. The blue lines of her drawing Crying (2014), shown in that exhibition, crumple into a blotted figure of sorrow that speaks of pain just as clearly as Schiele’s self‑portraits and nudes. Above all, both artists portray the human body in a way that is simultaneously sexual and agonised.
Emin and I look at some of Schiele’s nudes that, until recently, were dismissed as porn. Observed in a Dream (1911) is a watercolour of a woman with bright pink nipples, black pubic hair and a red vagina. “She’s pulling her labia apart and saying: ‘Look at my clitoris.’ There’s nothing sexist about that. She’s pretty formidable and she’s got an attitude and she’s saying: ‘Yeah, come on then.’ She’s completely in control: she’s saying: ‘Do you want it or don’t you want it? It’s mine.’ There’s a voyeurism, but she’s the person in control.”
Far from objectification, Emin sees empowerment in the way Schiele shows his models. In fact, she thinks that Schiele had a female sexuality. It’s all to do with the long fingers that inspired Bowie’s Heroes cover. “He’s always painting his dick as if it’s been chopped off, then he’s doing this female thing with his fingers – this sort of masturbatory female thing …”
There’s certainly a lot of masturbation in Schiele’s art. He masturbates, his models masturbate. According to Emin, there may be more happening than meets the eye in an apparently respectable 1916 portrait of a bearded elderly gentleman called Johann Harms, too. “He’s sitting there and just happens to have his hand in this position. It’s Freud’s Vienna and at that time they were just opening up these discussions about sexuality,” she says.
Sex is everywhere, but so is pain. Schiele and his models appear locked in a private, passionate world, while outside the studio an empire is collapsing and a world is at war. “None of this is: ‘Come to my party,’” says Emin. “None of it’s very happy. The sex ones are about the psychological maelstrom of what he’s going through and witnessing.”