Getting to the heart of a troubled artist: Staging Schiele by Shobana Jeyasingh

SJD Shorts online
August 3, 2020

David Mead

In 2018, the Royal Academy marked the centenary of artist Egon Schiele’s death with a joint exhibition that also featured the work of Gustav Klimt, who died the same year. Anyone who saw it cannot fail to have been struck by Schiele’s unflinching self-portraits in particular.

They are also there to be seen in Shobana Jeyasingh’s Staging Schiele, a portrait of the artist and the three central women in his life: his mother; Valerie (Wally) Neuzil, a young model who lived with him, who it was rumoured went beyond being a muse, and who appears in many of his most striking paintings; and Edith, his wife.

Staging Schiele is described as a response to the artist’s works, although it is impossible to divorce those from the man behind them.

The dancers are magnificent, Dane Hurst as Schiele in particular. There’s a lot of clothes being taken on and off – Schiele’s paintings frequently depicted nudes, something he got into trouble for – and, indeed, almost the first thing Hurst does is take his clothes off. His long opening solo mixes Adonis-like poses with anxious, twisted, contorted movement. He pauses admires himself in a mirror but them shuffles away as if frightened by what he sees. As we see inside his soul, it is hypnotic, yet also disturbing and unsettling.

Catarina Carvalho, Estela Merlos and Sunbee Han join him as mother, muse and wife. Eyes are open wide but stare into the distance. They adopt provocative positions that emphasise their sexuality. It’s raw and real as they give as good they get in a power struggle.

It all takes place in front of designer Ben Cullen Williams’ vertical strip lighting set that suggests a building but also comes with its own harshness. Cottweiler’s costumes of nude-coloured underwear, red bras, near-see-through shorts and baggy brown overcoat for Hurst add to the mood. Period black and white photos work a treat with the film as we see Schiele’s face appear from the past.

For the accompaniment, Orlando Gough gives us a score as fractured and troubled as Jeyasingh’s choreography. It full of distorted voices reading poems in German, including Schiele’s own.

Aged 28 and a victim of the Spanish flu pandemic, Schiele died on October 31, 1918, just three days after Edith, pregnant with their first child, succumbed to the same fate. That’s a neat link into the closing work of the SJD Short’s season, Jeyasingh’s Contagion, which captures dramatically the exhaustion and suffering of that pandemic.

Staging Schiele by Shobana Jeyasingh is available on YouTube until August 10.
Contagion will be available on the same YouTube channel from August 17.