Schiele came of age in Vienna at a time of radical transformation, as the city’s identity shifted from staid imperial capital to hotbed of modernism, its inhabitants initiating revolutions in art, architecture, literature, music, and psychology. Unifying their efforts was an impulse to strip away artifice to capture new realities of modern life; for visual artists, this hinged on unmasking the interior states of often angst-ridden, alienated individuals. As epitomized in Girl with Black Hair, Schiele’s style evokes his own psychology—the watercolor’s elegant, trembling contours elicit a sense of agitation—as well as that of his subjects, whom he frequently depicted in poses that are both erotically charged and abject.
Here a half-reclining woman, whose billowing black hair mirrors the shape of the dark skirt bunched up around her hips, displays her genitals. Her partially closed, unfocused eyes suggest an unsettling detachment. Foreshortened and limbless, she is seen from above—an unconventional vantage that Schiele likely achieved by standing on a ladder. The artist executed the majority of his sexually explicit images in ink or watercolor, mediums he exploited to amplify a sense of immediacy and graphic intensity. Intentionally transgressive, Schiele faced censorship and was once brought up on charges for immorality.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Schiele, unable to afford professional models, often depicted very young, working-class girls or prostitutes in unashamedly sexual poses. The awkwardly contorted body language that he favored conveys an uncomfortably suppressed emotion. In drawing, unlike painting, Schiele typically treated his subjects in a sexually explicit way. Drawings such as this were in much demand from Schiele’s Viennese patrons.
Gallery label from German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse, March 27–July 11, 2011.