‘Schiele drew quickly, the pencil glided, as though propelled by the hand of a ghost, as in a game, over the white surface of the paper... An eraser was not used – if the model changed position, the new lines would be placed next to the old ones with the same unerring certainty. One sheet was constantly replaced by another, as the production hurried onward.’ – Otto Benesch
(quoted in J. Kallir, Egon Schiele: Life and Work, New York, 2003, p. 88, no. 12).
Created in 1913, the double-sided drawing Weiblicher Akt/Bildnis des Pianisten Roderick Mackey encapsulates two of Egon Schiele’s favoured motifs – the female nude on one side and portraiture on the other. Weiblicher Akt is dominated by a fluid, graphic portrait of a young woman lying in a state of semi-undress, with Schiele granting the figure an imposing monumentality by allowing her form to fill almost the entire sheet of paper. This effect is further enhanced by the tightly cropped framing employed by the artist, which causes her toes, the fingers of her right hand, and a portion of her face to disappear off the edge of the sheet. An outstanding example of the complete mastery of line that marked Schiele’s work during this period, the woman’s contours are delineated with a swift, easy graphic assuredness that is more subtle, fluid and calm than the neurotic, earthy and expressive line that had distinguished the compositions of his early maturity in 1910 and 1911.
As with the majority of his figure studies from this time, the almost sculptural physicality of the model’s body is contrasted against the white void of the blank page surrounding her, the details of the setting subsumed by the artist’s need to capture the vital living nature of the human form before him. Similarly, the exquisite portrait of the pianist Roderick Mackey which occupies the reverse of the sheet uses the empty space of the blank page to great effect, allowing the figure to appear as if he is slowly emerging from the white expanse. Capturing a likeness of his sitter through only the most essential details, Schiele focuses our attention on Mackey’s powerful gaze, rendering his eyes with an extraordinary sharpness and precision, while the jagged outline of his jacket brilliantly articulates the curve of his arm, the breadth of his chest, and a sense of his carriage with a single line.
As Schiele's great friend and supporter Otto Benesch recalled after watching Schiele at work on such a sketch: ‘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’ (O. Benesch, Mein Weg mit Egon Schiele, New York, 1965, p. 25).
The viewpoints that Schiele adopted in order to draw his figures, along with the poses that he asked them to take up, also suggest that he had begun to study the human form with a certain emotional detachment and analytical scrutiny. As Reinhard Steiner has observed, the unusualness of Schiele’s vantage points have implications which we can begin to grasp by comparing his work with that of Gustav Klimt. Klimt’s female nudes, 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’ (R. Steiner, Egon Schiele, Cologne, 2004, pp. 35-36).
This double-sided composition was originally believed to be two separate works, and was recorded as such in the catalogue raisonné published by Jane Kallir in 1998. Following recent research, Kallir has been able to connect the records on these compositions and confirm them to be two sides of the same sheet.