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March 28, 2003

Schiele, Fashion...Feminism?


A few weeks ago I got a picture from Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue via email from a friend. I was reminded of an Egon Schiele drawing I’ve had stashed on my hard drive for a while. I pulled it up and was struck by the similarities between two images which were created almost a century apart.

E. Schiele, Female Nude, 1910; E. Badulescu, Photo of Anna Beatriz Barros, 2002

Since that time, I’ve spent a few hours reading about Schiele and wondering about the following questions:

Schiele’s brief career as an artist (and his equally brief life) seem to have revolved around issues of sexuality. One discussion, which you can read here, touches on the following subjects: incest, narcissism, homosexuality, masturbation, androgyny, pedophilia and veneral disease.

The biographies of Schiele explain this artistic focus on sexuality as a reaction to late Victorian sexual immorality and dishonesty. However, this type of sexual “immorality”—by which writers seem to be alluding to the double standard of married men having extramarital sex with prostitutes or lower-class women—hardly seems to have been a phenomena unique to the early 20th century. (The 18th century comes to mind as another era in which the double standard was triumphant and yet sexual anguish was not particularly visible). What would seem to set Schiele's era far apart from its many predecessor eras, for me anyway, was the presence of feminism as a social trend. Was there a connection between the sudden interest in “anguished” adolescent sexuality in the early 1900s and feminism? Was Schiele struggling to grow up in a world in which masculinity had suddenly been called into question?

What is the connection between Schiele’s focus on adolescent (and pre-adolescent) bodies and fashion’s (currently) similar focus? The slender adolescent body is both sexualized (body hair, breasts) and androgenous (models of both sexes are generally selected with similar builds—long limbs, small hips). Does image making around adolescent sexuality suggest an essentially auto-erotic view of sex?

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As much as I regret it, I can’t provide anything like definitive answers to these questions. Have you got any answers? How about our readers?



posted by Friedrich at March 28, 2003


Schiele and fashion... androgyny ... anxiety and disease...Masturbation... Boxy, narrow hips ... It's all there, isn't it? I wish I knew more about Schiele, his bio and his time, though. I've seen a couple shows of his work, and retain a couple of moments of surprise -- he was very talented and naughty, like the surly, gifted kid in the back row. "Love Comes in Spurts," remember that song? Richard Hell and the Voidoids? (And am I remembering right that he was also very gifted at landscapes?) I'm very fond of Schiele, who I guess reminds me of the dabbling I did in the punk world ages ago. How do you react to his work?

You're also reminding me of something else, which is how much the SI bathing suit issue has lost its focus. It's really a bummer, and has been for a few years, gorgeous gals in teensy bathing suits and all ...

I've seen pieces explaining this by saying that, well, with Maxim and the Web, who needs it, it's just old hat, etc etc. But I think there's more to it than that. I think it's because it's no longer put together by the great Jule Campbell, who masterminded the issue for a couple of decades. She really made it what it was -- athletic, approachable, sexy. She made the careers of a ton of models, and she kept the issue balanced -- sexy without being lewd, attractive without being chic, approachable without being coy. The girls were long and lean but they were active and in shape too, real precursors of the current extraverted, uninhibited young women. Honestly, I don't know why Campbell isn't more celebrated than she is. I always found it bizarre that some feminists would dump on Campbell's issues. Her girls never had eating disorders, and they never seemed neurotic -- they were big, healthy girls, uninhibited and friendly. And the issue itself, with her guidance, became a fascinating pop-cult icon, as big and as all-American as NASCAR.

But Campbell retired a few years ago, and (if I remember right) SI brought in some young woman editor from a women's magazine. And the issue went straight to hell. It became chic, kicky, a little grotesque. Models showing off for other women and gay guys -- that instantly became the vibe. Having kicky fun at the expense of straight guys. The girls started to look like the models in women's magazines (rather cruelly seen and portrayed, as though that were really fun), only feisty and defiant, like they were Vogue or Mademoiselle models and they just caught you stealing a look at them -- not at all what the Campbell-era experience was like.

Maybe they should just go all the way and hand the issue over to Schiele to edit. I wonder if he's available.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 28, 2003 4:53 PM

As soon as you mentioned Egon Schiele in the same breath as Sports Illustrated I became worried. To me, Egon Schiele was always synonimous with mysogony. His women are so ugly they are frightening. When the pictures came up, I found I was right. How can you compare these two images? Would you actually consider sleeping with the hag in the drawing? Ick, ick, ick. And she's been dismembered! It certainly looks as if he had some unresolved issues about women. But then, it looks like most of the German Expressionists did.

Posted by: Alexandra on March 29, 2003 12:30 AM

I find it amusing and just a bit one-sided to say that men having repeated affairs with prostitutes and 'lower class' women caused 'no sexual angst' in the 1800's. You mean no sexual angst for MEN? I imagine there may have been quite a bit of angst for the women in their lives. Which is part of where feminism came from. The cause...not the effect. If women asserting their appropriate rights caused men 'sexual angst' appears to me there was already plenty of angst to go around. It's a pretty neurotic reaction, if I may say so. Why did they need 'lower class' women in the first place? How is there no intrinsic 'angst' in that choice? And, by the way, if these men chose these women---how are the women of any 'lower class' than the men choosing them? It's like saying Monica is a tramp but Bill is just a stud.

Additionally---I think there are plenty of women out there who think the SI swimsuit issue was ALWAYS coy pornography and offensive. I think the original organizer--jule whoever--is hardly the heroine you portray.

Posted by: karen on March 29, 2003 6:24 AM

"I think there are plenty of women out there who think the SI swimsuit issue was ALWAYS coy pornography and offensive."

No doubt. Such women are to be avoided like mysterious asian plagues, but they do, in fact, exist...

Posted by: jimbo on March 29, 2003 9:25 AM

Hey Alexandra -- The Germans can be mighty creepy in the way they view sex generally, don't you find? The Expressionists, but also so much other German art -- sexuality seems to be this grotesque, piggy, repulsive thing to them. I wonder what the connection of that to their attraction to authoritarianism is. Any thoughts? Authoritarian tendencies produce that kind of view of sex? Hmm. Yet by all accounts (including non-German accounts) Weimar Berlin was a truly sexy place ...

Hi Karen, I'll let Friedrich speak for himself, but I suspect you're assuming he agrees with the sources he's citing, when it seems to me that he's disagreeing with it.

As for the SI swimsuit issue, people can react as they see fit, of course. It did always strike me as strange, though, that some feminists were more angered by SI than they were by, say, women's magazines. The SI models (back in the days when Jule Campbell edited) were athletic, unashamed, friendly and healthy, where models in Vogue or Mademoiselle are often grotesque and bizarre. I rather enjoy fashion and fashion models myself, but the weirdo fashions, the s/m scenarios, and the scrawny mannerist look of many of the models in the fashion magazines are no one's idea of healthy, let alone a good role model.

I mean, if you were promoting the idea that girls and young women should be uninhibited, extraverted, and self-directed, taking their rightful place in the public world, which model and image would you choose -- one of the girls in SI, or Kate Moss all bound up in some S/M, cocaine-y shoot in Vogue?

And I don't see how the case can be made that the SI models were simply being put on display like so much meat on the hoof -- a case I can certainly see being made against Playboy or Penthouse. The SI models had a lot of personality, and a number of them became stars -- you cared about them, and felt you were getting to know them in friendly and personable ways. Playboy models? Just one big cow after another, few of whom the world ever took much note of as people.

So I'd argue that the only reason feminists really had to get miffed about the SI swimsuit issue is that it put pretty young models in bathing suits on display for the enjoyment of young men. That strikes me as harmless thing to do. That it annoys some women, well, such is life, guys can be annoying, life can be annoying. That it really, really offends some feminists -- well, some people are hopelessly unrealistic about human nature. Men will look, and women will put themselves on display, and both of these things are going to happen no matter how much anyone quarrels with them. And no matter how much anyone tries to control such behavior. If there's no SI swimsuit issue, well, heck, then men will look at Hustler, or peep through windows and up skirts, or even at fashion magazines -- something I did when I was a kid, not because I loved fashion but simply because I loved looking at girls and women.

If you grant my assumption that this kind of exchange -- women putting it out there, men looking -- is going to happen no matter what, the SI swimsuit issue certainly seems like one of the less-creepy, more-healthy and more-likable ways for it to occur, no? It's -- or was, back in the days when Jule Campbell edited it -- kinda sweet, it's got some personality and some human qualities, there's nothing terribly whorish about it, it's American in a rather earnest and touching way, you don't feel bad for the girls ...

So part of what I deduce about feminists from all this is that some feminists don't like the fact that men like looking at women so much that they'll get all rigid and political about it. From which I further deduce that some feminists have real problems -- with the nature of men, probably with their own natures, and certainly with the nature of life itself. But I should probably keep that to myself...

How do you react to the current (ie., last-couple-of-years) version of the swimsuit issue? It's much more like a layout in a women's magazine these days than it is like the classic SI thing. Too bad, as far as I'm concerned. But maybe you find it more amusing and less objectionable?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 29, 2003 12:00 PM

Karen has accurately pointed out a bit of sloppy writing on my part; I meant that the double standard of the 18th century didn't provoke an exploration of non-standard sexuality in art. My question was, why did an artist like Schiele (that is, an artist prepared to deal with "deviant" sexuality in high-art terms) appear in the early 20th century? Why did Schiele think people would buy art based around notions of narcissism, masturbation, etc.--an expectation that was, of course, quite accurate? I suggested that feminism may have provided such a cultural climate, although I can't begin to prove this. Why did I focus on feminism? Mostly because I think feminism was clearly a massive challenge to the idea of sexual normalcy in all its forms. Of course, the fact that most art was produced by men means that art history overwhelmingly shows (albeit in halting, generally apolitical language) the male half of the story--what does it mean to be masculine at a time when women are appropriating--and thus de-masculinizing--many of the traditional indicias of masculinity?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 30, 2003 5:30 PM

Since the level of argument was so tastefully raised, I'd say that men like 'Jimbo' should be avoided like mysterious Asian plagues, but they do, in fact, unfortunately exist...

Posted by: karen on March 30, 2003 7:13 PM

I was so appalled by "jimbo" (by the way, if he's over the age of 8 and has not won Wimbledon, jimbo is a really dumb moniker) that I didn't read Michael's comments before. Regarding Michael's rather more thoughtful comments:

1. I agree with you---women's mags are no more female psyche-friendly than SI or Hustler. In it's way, Hustler is just more straightforward in its mission.

2. The reason I am critical of even the earlier versions of SI is the words of some of the models themselves, specifically Christi Brinkley, the one who was launched by SI bigger than any. She has expressed great discomfort with the photo shoots, and the tininess of her coverings, and in fact refused to do swimsuits anymore at a certain point. As did Cheryl. As did the Ultra-Brite girl--Cybill Shepherd. Their own reaction indicates that there is something less than healthy and positive about that type of "display" as you put it. You say--in a rather large generalization--that men will like to look and women will display themselves, and its just human nature. I agree--men like to look--so do women, as a matter of fact. But only SOME women choose to 'display' themselves publicly in that way, and far fewer if they aren't (a) 18 years old and (b) getting paid big bucks to do it. You say you "cared about" these models. Now that does sound like an adolescent boy! They don't really care about you! Trust me---Elle MacPherson wouldn't really care what you think of what she looks like in a bikini if she wasn't (a)getting rich doing it and (b) knowing she would never have to even have a cup of coffee with most of the men buying SI!! And as the 18-year-old matures, she often chooses not to 'display'.

2. I would direct you to the current Hollywood issue of 'Vanity Fair'. Look at the pictures (fully clothed, not emaciated) of Nicole Kidman, Yvette Mimieux, Julia Roberts, and Julie Christie. I'll take those images of women any day rather as a postive image of women (very pretty women) than any barely-clad immature nymphet object in SI--whatever year the issue was. Because the nymphet may be getting more damaged than she realizes, and is damaging to the general health of women.

Posted by: karen on April 1, 2003 6:58 AM

"by the way, if he's over the age of 8 and has not won Wimbledon, jimbo is a really dumb moniker"

There ya go! A much better insult. Just feeding my own back to me was very disappointing...

And I stand by my earlier appalling remark. My own dear sister happens to be one of these women (always clucking over this or that picture of scantily-clad women, and in general finding any evidence of male sexual appetites to be suspect) She's family, so I have to put up with it, but I find it incredibly tiresome. (BTW, Sis is 35, unmarried, and likely to remain so, so take that for whatever it's worth...)

Posted by: jimbo on April 1, 2003 8:17 AM

Jimbo---you comments speak for themselves! Given that you love the SI swimsuit issue, I think 'nuff said!

Posted by: karen on April 1, 2003 8:34 AM

Hey Karen --

Thanks for your thoughts about the SI swimsuit issue. Just to clear one small thing up, I certainly didn't mean to suggest that I thought Elle Macpherson and I had a relationship. Heavens, I've worked in the arts/media world for over 20 years, and my cynicism about this kind of thing has grown pretty bulletproof. My point was simply that the models in the SI swimsuit had recognizable personalities. Many became stars, and many became known by name. Like it or not, this isn't something that happens very often to models in the women's magazines, or to models in the skin magazines. It doesn't happen very often to models in the other softcore magazines either. I certainly don't mind if you disagree, but I see this as a kind of achievement. I also see as an achievement the fact that the SI swimsuit issue became a kind of all-American icon and phenom. Something about it touched a nerve and won many people over. Whether or not this is good or bad doesn't interest me much, but I do find it remarkable and worth thinking about. Why this particular product and not one of the dozens of other pretty-girls-wearing-not-much magazines out there? I really don't mind if you don't find the question interesting, and I'm grateful for the chance to think out loud about it.

As for whether the SI swimsuit issue is female-psyche friendly -- I think women deal beautifully and valiantly every day with much that's a lot more challenging than the SI swimsuit issues, so I'm not going to worry about it much. Most of the women I've known haven't been, for all their sensitivity, that fragile or insecure, praise the lord.

And as for whether Christie and Cheryl look back with regrets? Well, I look back on many things I did at 18 with regret, too. None of them made me rich and famous, and nobody cares enough to interview me about my feelings about those days either. Call me media-cynical, but I'm prone to look at such statements and think, Sheesh, it's amazing anyone pays attention to what models say, at any point in their careers.

By the way, has anyone run across the fact that Rosanna Arquette has made a documentary about how tough life gets for actresses once they're past the age of 40? I have two responses. One is, of course that's absolutely accurate, and it's too damn bad. Really. Honest to god. The other is: Rosanna Arquette? Who can barely act to save her life? Who became rich and famous because of the cute oddball face and incredible knockers? She's complaining that Hollywood is youth-and-sex-centric?

I'm dying to see the movie.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 1, 2003 9:20 PM

To Michael: OK...fair enough! I will acknowledge that there are worse ways a woman could earn a buck (in terms of her self esteem) than to smile and and wear a swimsuit!

Posted by: Karen on April 2, 2003 6:45 PM

Michael--P.S.--But there are a lot better ways, too!

Posted by: Karen on April 2, 2003 8:00 PM


You've made some brilliant connections with this post.

There's some overt borrowing going on here regarding design and aesthetic temperament (the side by side examples go a long way to providing the evidence to your case), but of even more interest is the larger question you pose regarding the social implications. Schiele was jailed, regarded with contempt, and consistently controversial for what is now passing as pretty packaging. What's odd is how we've come around to a Schiele-esque world.

As I understand it, Schiele, even when working from life, would overlay his idealized emaciated forms over a full-figured women. Draping his sinewy treatment over a rounder form. Mentally carving away to see into the model before him. This idealized x-ray is not unlike classical sculptors ... they searched for a divine anatomical rendering which predates 24 hour fitness. The commonality of those greek god-like bodies we see today makes it hard to truly appreciate the extent of their vision. There was no David at the time of David. We lose sight of this since we've been fed a steady diet of old Arnie for well over a decade.

Schiele was also working a bit under his mentor Klimt (master draftsman) and was on the academic hunt in conjunction with expression. The organic geometry he finds is not only indicative of a possible sexual gravitation to concentration camp beauty, but substantiating the contoured female form with deliberate plane breaks and a solid scholarly approach to anatomical mechanisms.

If David is to Arnie maybe Schiele is to Klein ... anorexia wasn't in fasion when Schiele set about expressing his distorted view of femininity, and yet we now face the materialization of the Schiele archetype regularly. A draftsman's canon made flesh and blood.


Posted by: -pinky- on April 4, 2003 3:19 PM

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