This is one of many gorgeous images in a fascinating show of female nudes by Egon Schiele at Galerie St. Etienne in New York – but their gorgeousness may be a problem. (There's a racier example in the Tumblr version of this blog.) The show's official position is that Schiele has been unfairly caricatured as a misogynist letch, and that in fact in his pictures of naked women (mostly prostitutes or their like, portrayed in the years to either side of World War I) the artist "negates the illusion of passivity that traditionally held in check the nude's erotic potency" and "visually affirms female sexual autonomy". His women are said to "own their sexuality; they take pride in their seductive bodies and are empowered by their allure." Which is awfully close to the argument that Playboy and Penthouse have always made about the "girls" in their magazines.
Schiele is such a master of the seductive surface – and I'm talking here about his compositions, not his models – that any social ugliness behind the picture-making moment disappears from sight. Schiele is, if nothing else, an ancestor of the best in long-legged fashion illustration. The elegance of his touch and line "sells" us the women on view, and makes it easy to consume them. I prefer Toulouse Lautrec, whose ugly, awkward whorehouse views make it clear that something's out of whack in their sexual politics.