Photography: Frank Sirnek

Life In Motion: Egon Schiele & Francesca Woodman

Tate Liverpool

Life In Motion is the latest ambitious exhibition at Tate Liverpool, showcasing two of the most influential figurative artists who lived at opposite ends of the 20th Century. Self portraits, specifically nude, are fundamental to both artists’ body of work. Each examine the expressivity of human posture and shape; Egon Schiele with his sharp, decisive lines and Francesca Woodman’s soft blurs of motion. This major confluence of the two collections allows us to contrast two very innovative storytellers, both connected by their ability to capture the transient nature of the living.

An early exponent of expressionism, the art of Austrian-born Schiele is characterised by the unflinching, glowering sexuality of his subjects, an angular contortion of graphite limbs suggesting motion and unrest. A protégé of seminal symbolist painter Gustav Klimt, Schiele considered the hands to be one of the most expressive extensions of the body, perhaps a cunning cover story for someone who can’t actually draw them very well – we’ll call them ‘expressive’. In Self Portrait In Crouching Position, Schiele crawls onto one knee, his hands twisted into claws, his naked body momentarily coiled, energy and intensity seeping through jutting bones. During many parts of Schiele’s life, money was hard to come by. Prostitutes, street children and his own reflection became the cheapest option for a subject to draw and, because of this, Schiele’s work becomes a timeline of strong human allegories capturing love, life and death all in one.

Life In Motion: Egon Schiele & Francesca Woodman Image 2

Throughout her fleeting yet productive career, American photographer Francesca Woodman continuously explored the spatial and spiritual boundaries of the human body, and like Schiele it was often her own. The rooms of the exhibition alternate between Schiele and Woodman, a continual flux of identities, grotesque and pure. The small square format of Woodman’s photographs prove the viewer with a continuous pseudo-presence, allowing you to observe her movements through a crack in the wall of the many sparse rooms she stages herself. In her Angel series, Woodman wears only a skirt and shoes leaving her chest bare. Her body blurs in a spectral motion as she jumps up, a pair of white sheets strung in the distance like a pair of arching wings. There’s something both morbid and humorous about her brand of phantasmagoria, the blurs of long-exposure photography a continuous choreography.

Woodman’s shifting series of illusions are often surreal, exploring the interplay of flesh and object. She disappears and appears from interior elements; a fireplace, torn wallpaper, glass cases. Much of her work is about avoiding the gaze of the viewer. She glows beneath unhinged doors, crawls into cupboards, coils face down around a bowl of eels.

Many of Woodman’s images have been construed as erotic, but her photographs don’t rest under the aegis of beauty; her conscious articulation of feminism, movement and ability make them beautiful. Although, in a slightly macabre way, I wonder if we think they’re beautiful because we know she is heading towards her own destruction? Similarly, for Schiele, the unapologetic portrayal of raw human spirituality for which he was once criticised now holds a powerful relevance in contemporary art. The radicality of both short-lived artists is perpetual, a testament to their revelatory and poignant pairing in this show.

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