Victorian Attitudes and Modernist Offences: Egon Schiele and the Female Nude

Is it not a crying shame that pictures are flaunted before the public from the pencil of male and female artists which must lead many visitors to the gallery to turn from them in disgust and cause only timid half glances to be cast at the paintings hanging close by, however excellent they may be, lest it should be supposed the spectator is looking at that which revolts his or her sense of decency?

‘A Woman’s Plea’, The Times, 20 May 1885, quoted in Alison Smith, The Victorian Nude: Sexuality, Morality and Art,  Manchester University Press, 1996, p.1.

So wrote a ‘British Matron’, in a letter in The Times published 20 May 1885, and published at the beginning of Alison Smith’s The Victorian Nude: Sexuality, Morality and Art (1996). Many scholars have been interested in the Victorian response to the naked female form in art: whether it be the later critical response to the nudes of the Regency-era William Etty in England, or Anthony Comstock and the ‘New York Society for the Suppression of Vice’ having an art dealer arrested in 1887 for the sale of photographs reproducing French paintings of female nudes (see Nicola Beisel, ‘Morals versus Art: Censorship, The Politics of Interpretation, and the Victorian Nude’), or the association between ‘nakedness and the colonial imagination’. In 2001 Tate Britain presented an exhibition entitled ‘Exposed: The Victorian Nude’, with an accompanying catalogue by Alison Smith.

… But what would that British Matron have made of the portfolio of prints which was associated with the arrest of Karl Grunwald, an art dealer and friend of the Austrian Expressionist artist Egon Schiele (1890 – 1918), in 1923?

Dr Gemma Blackshaw,  Associate Professor of Art History at Plymouth University and one of our PUNCS founder members, is delivering a talk on the images of nudes created at the end of our period, by Schiele, at the Freud Museum, London (11 November 2014).

Gemma Blackshaw’s research on Schiele’s work in the context of debates on art and pornography – in which she reclaims the artist’s graphic work for pornography rather than the nude of high art – will be published later this month in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude at the Courtauld Gallery London (23 October  – 18 January 2015). Schiele gained public notoriety for ‘immoral’ work, in the small Austrian towns where he settled in poverty in 1911-1912, after making his reputation as a painter in Vienna.

The research contributing to the exhibition has also been covered in the national press: Rachel Campbell-Johnston’s essay, ‘The naked truth: when does art become pornography?’ (The Times, 20 September 2014) notes scandals involving the representation of the female nude that fall within the period of interest to PUNCS: the furore around Edouard Manet’s painting Olympia (1863): ‘startling’ for a writer in the British Pall Mall Gazette in 1872; a ‘coarse and rudimentary subject’ for another writer in the British press the year after his death in 1883, and acknowledged by 1895 as a ‘masterpiece’ in the Art Journal … and the suffragette Mary Richardson’s attack on Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus (‘caring more for Justice than for Art’  as she later told a Judge) in the National Gallery in London in March 1914.



‘The National Gallery Outrage’, The Times, 11 March 1914

C.G. Trumbull, Anthony Comstock, Fighter: Some Impressions of a Lifetime Adventure in Conflict with the Powers of Evil (1913)

C. Lewis Hind, ‘Velasquez in Yorkshire’, Pall Mall Gazette, October 1905

Camille Mauclair, ‘Edouard Manet’, Art Journal, September 1895, p.278.

Arthur Baigneres, ‘Manet and the French Impressionist School’, The National Review, 3: 13, March 1884, p.39

D.M. Bennett, Anthony Comstock: his career of cruelty and crime; a chapter from The champions of the Church (1878)

‘The Society of French Artists’, Pall Mall Gazette, 8 March 1872.Sarah Burnage, Mark Hallet and Laura Turner, William Etty: Art and Controversy (2011)
Nicola Beisel, ‘Morals Versus Art: Censorship, The Politics of Interpretation, and the Victorian Nude’, American Sociological Review 58: 2 (April 1993), pp.145-16
Philippa Levine, ‘Nakedness and the Colonial Imagination’, Victorian Studies 50: 2 (winter 2008), pp.189-219

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