‘The beauty of form and colour that Schiele gave us did not exist before. His artistry as a draughtsman was phenomenal. The assurance of his hand was almost infallible. When he drew, he usually sat on a low stool, the drawing board and sheet on his knees, his right hand (with which he did the drawing) resting on the board. But I also saw him drawing differently, standing in front of the model, his right foot on a low stool. Then he rested the board on his right knee and held it at the top with his left hand, and his drawing hand unsupported placed his pencil on the sheet and drew his lines from the shoulder, as it were. And everything was exactly right. If he happened to get something wrong, which was very rare, he threw the sheet away; he never used an eraser. Schiele only drew from nature. Most of his drawings were done in outline and only became more three-dimensional when they were coloured. The colouring was always done without the model, from memory’ (O. Benesch, Mein Weg mit Egon Schiele, New York, 1965, p. 25).
Between 1913 and 1914, Egon Schiele’s drawings and watercolours grew increasingly painterly and accomplished; often, as in this great work from 1914, translating into fully-realised works of art in their own right. Eschewing the sharp, neurotic line and angular elongations of his earliest figure studies, Schiele’s 1914 works adopted a colder, more penetrative and analytical approach to his subjects; one that also reflected the artist’s newly acquired mastery of painting and the often quixotic expression of texture and colour that he had recently developed in the oil medium. Kauernder weiblicher Akt mit blonden Haaren und aufgestütztem linken Arm is an outstanding, fully-worked gouache from 1914 that ably demonstrates this increasingly painterly approach that Schiele now often chose to bring to his graphic portrayals of the human figure. With its powerful and brilliantly volumetric rendering of a naked and wildly blonde-haired female, bent over into an almost animal-like pose, this is also a work that reflects the ever closer relationship that developed at this time between the compositions of Schiele’s finest graphic work and those of several of the figures in his increasingly grandiose oil paintings.
One of Schiele’s chief preoccupations during 1914 was with the depiction of crouching and, as here, bending or crawling female figures. While the crouching women appear to have informed the prolonged series of oil paintings that Schiele made on the theme of motherhood, works such as Kauernder weiblicher Akt mit blonden Haaren und aufgestütztem linken Arm echo the bent over figure of the artist’s lover and muse, Wally Neuzil, in major paintings such as Mann und Frau (Liebespaar II) (Neue Galerie, New York) and Tod und Mädchen (Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna). The blonde-haired figure in this gouache is probably not Wally – her brilliantly painted rich mane of frizzy blonde hair seems too abundant. But it is perhaps worth noting that Schiele had begun a practice of generalising many of the features of his sitters in his work of this time and of rendering their faces in a more generic way often reminiscent of doll-like masks. As Jane Kallir has pointed out in this respect, ‘In contrast to the waifs of 1910 and 1911, Schiele’s 1914 nudes were lusty, full-grown women. But whereas his earlier models evinced a palpable human presence, in 1914 the artist tended to view the female figure principally in formal terms… Wally, though still part of Schiele’s life, is recognisable in very few 1914 drawings. Other models…are depicted with almost clinical detachment’ (J. Kallir, Egon Schiele Drawings and Watercolours, London, 2003, p. 277).
The viewpoints that Schiele adopted in order to draw his figures, along with the poses that he asked them to take up, also reflect this growing sense that he had begun to study the human animal at this time with a growing sense of emotional detachment and a more dispassionate sense of curiosity and analytical scrutiny. As Reinhard Steiner has observed, the unusualness of Schiele’s vantage points has implications which we can begin to grasp by comparing his work with Klimt’s. Klimt’s nude girls, he writes, ‘suggest a situation in which they are indeed alone, behaving as if unobserved. Relaxed, seen in poses that are eloquent of desire, they seem immersed in auto-erotic daydreams such as are normally the province of male fantasy. This is why we become voyeurs when we look at these nudes… In Schiele’s work, on the other hand, similar nudes leave an impression of poses arranged by the artist and subject to his way of seeing. This eye is not the “ideal organ of desire” (in the words of writer Peter Altenberg), which it is in Klimt; rather, it is a responsible witness of forced poses which strip the model radically bare and leave her or him exposed and defenceless. Generally they are contorted in a manner almost acrobatic: they are exhibited, put on show, offered up. Schiele (metaphorically) ties his model down on an operating table in his optical lab, and examines the specimen with a clinical gaze, dissecting the creature at his mercy with his pencil. Thus it is that most of his nudes do not seem intimate or absorbed in their own worlds, but instead isolated and tensed’ (R. Steiner, Egon Schiele, Cologne, 2004, pp. 35-36).
Rendered brilliantly on the empty page as if animating an otherwise existential void, Kauernder weiblicher Akt mit blonden Haaren und aufgestütztem linken Arm is a magnificent encapsulation of the naked human figure set into an apparent infinity of empty space. Viewed from slightly above so that the viewer is looking down on her, the angular back and crouched figure of this girl are miraculously captured in a strong, wiry, outline that has been augmented in places by flashes of radiant colour. The moulding of the figure’s form is also highlighted in places using a startling technique of stiff, dry brushwork that Schiele began in 1913 and has now perfected. Little flashes of green, red and blue gouache applied with a small, stiff, dry brush set into undiluted paint, probably straight from the tube, dart with nervous energy across the figure’s body in a unique technique that is neither painting nor drawing, but somewhere in between. Schiele has similarly employed a dry brush in his rendering of the hair, only here he has used thick paint into which he has scratched to create a myriad cascade of swirls, mounds and tangle that together express a mood of natural abandon. Schiele completes this figure with a box signature displaying his name and the date. It’s a move common to many of his 1914 nudes that suggests he considered this work less a study than a fully-realised and completed work of art.