Monday, 19 January 2015

Two Exhibitions: Turner and Schiele

A rather hurried 24 hours in London to look at two very different but highly recommended art exhibitions nearing their end. Firstly, with Timothy Spall's portrayal of the artist in Mike Leigh's Mr Turner still fresh in my mind, a visit to the Tate to see the Late Turner exhibition.

William Parrott,"Turner on Varnishing Day" c. 1840

There were six rooms to negotiate amongst the inevitable crowds, a stunning reminder of just how much Turner produced in his later years, and rather too much to absorb in a single viewing.

I spent quite a lot of time looking at two paintings displayed side by side, Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino and Ancient Rome; Aggripina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus. These paintings were both exhibited in 1839, but have rarely been seen together since, one now residing in California and the other at the Tate.

AcientRome, Aggripina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus. 1839

Turner's painstaking, detailed attempt to recreate the architecture of Imperial Rome was not fully appreciated by contemporaries, but I found it an absorbing piece of work. No reproduction that I have seen really does it justice.

Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino 1839

Once the property of British Prime Minister Lord Rosebery, Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino was acquired in 2010 for a mere £29.7 million by the J. Paul Getty Museum, and is in remarkable condition. For me these two paintings alone made the exhibition worthwhile.

For the second exhibition we were transported from utilitarian Imperial Britain whose inevitable decline and decay was perhaps Turner's subtext, to late Imperial Vienna, to the intellectually vibrant and sexually charged world of Freud, Klimt and Mahler, whose decline had long been anticipated and was now imminent.

The Schiele exhibition at the Courtauld was smaller than the Turner exhibition, but was also very crowded, and here as at the Tate the viewers seemed predominantly female, something I have not noticed before.

Unlike Turner, Schiele's life was very short, at 28 a victim, like fellow Viennese painter Gustav Klimt and millions of others, of the influenza that struck the world at the end of the First World War, so one cannot really even hazard a guess what a "late Schiele" exhibition would have looked like.

Crouching Woman with Green Kerchief 1914

Some of Schiele's portrayals of the female figure are challenging even today, and must have been even more so at a time when few women even bared an ankle. At one point in his short life Schiele was imprisoned and the police seized a hundred or so drawings held to be pornographic. He was found guilty of displaying erotic drawings in a place accessible to children, and spent a total of 24 days in prison.

Two Girls Embracing (Friends) 1915

The exhibition also displayed a number of striking self-portraits which are a little less well known than his images of women. For me the most memorable picture, perhaps because I have no recollection of having seen it before, was the Male Lower Torso, produced in 2010, the same year as a number of rather tortured self portraits.

Male Lower Torso 1910
Schiele's pregnant wife died on 28th October 1818, as three days later did Schiele himself, on the same day the Austro Hungarian Empire, so long in the dying, was finally dissolved.


  1. Thanks for the review of The Schiele exhibition at the Courtauld.

    Schiele was difficult to look at. I know all Expressionists used jarring colours and jagged, distorted lines. But Schiele's art seemed cruder than average. Perhaps he was simply reflecting the disgust and violence in society around him. Or perhaps he had some personal psychopathology we can only guess at.

    In any case, you got it absolutely right. At a time when women were totally covered up, the explicitness of Schiele's works must have been quite disturbing.

  2. Hi Hels

    It is interesting to hear your reaction. My wife declined to accompany me to the Schiele exhibition, which is why I was surprised to see so many women there.

    I re-read Frank Whitford's book on Schiele on the train down. He contrasted Schiele's nudes with those of Klimt, but pointed out that after his marriage, which despite its unpromising genesis seems to have made him happy, Schiele's painting began to change: far softer, more human. Sad I feel that his life was cut short before he had fully matured as an artist.