'I want to start anew. It seems to me that until now I have just been preparing the tools' (E. Schiele, '“Letter to Anton Pescka', January 1917, quoted in C.M. Nebehay (ed.), Egon Schiele (1890-1918): Leben, Briefe, Gedichte, Vienna, 1979, no. 1170).
A bold and accomplished gouache from 1917, Liegende Frau mit grünen Hausschuhen (Reclining Woman with Green Slippers) is a work that reflects the mastery of both subject and medium that Schiele had by this time attained in his work, as well as the new direction he was now taking in his art.
Brilliantly coloured, with a wealth of subtle sweeps of a small dry brush, this work is one of a small group of exceptional female nudes painted in 1917, in which the overt eroticism of Schiele's earlier pictures and the sharp trembling energy of his former needle-like line have been toned down in favour of a more objective and complete depiction of the human figure as an expressive force of nature. The use of a thicker black crayon, in place of the nervous and tremulous pencil of his early works has allowed Schiele to bestow a stronger sense of physicality upon the figure. Here, depicting the muscular form of an attractive young woman reclining, apparently asleep, her legs parted with her undergarments raised to reveal her sex, the drawing powerfully explores both the inner life and outer bodily expression of its subject in a extraordinarily open and original way. Viewed from above, so that the pose of Schiele's model is both forceful and direct in its frontality and in the way in which its sexual core asserts itself, this highly demonstrative yet passive figure contrasts strongly with the emptiness of the page.
Originating in the art of the Japanese woodblock prints that Schiele collected, this is a feature common to much of Schiele's work, but is even more heavily emphasised in these masterful 1917 gouaches, where the dry-brushed colour and full moulding of the figure increases this contrast. Indeed, Liegende Frau mit grünen Hausschuhen belongs to a unique group of masterful drawings from this period, in which this pictorial contrast between the void of the page and the earthy, sculptural and, for Schiele, surprisingly material forms of the nude figure appears to be of paramount concern.
As in several of Schiele's drawings, the figure here has been drawn from an almost bird's eye position looking down onto the body exposed beneath him. As he often did, Schiele would have achieved this dominant viewpoint by sitting on a ladder that he kept in his studio for just this purpose. Liegende Frau mit grünen Hausschuhen is one of a number of gouaches from this period that, through no accident, work as both horizontal and vertical compositions. As with several of his gouache paintings of nudes and semi-nudes from 1917, Schiele has here placed his cartouche signature on this sheet in such a way as to suggest that the work be read vertically. The pose of the figure reads equally well lying in a horizontal position and may even have been drawn this way. Schiele often affixed his signature to these works sometime after they were made and often in accordance with orientation that was the most dramatic, rather than with the viewpoint from which the figure was originally drawn. This somewhat unorthodox decision by the artist to deny the order of nature and the pull of gravity on his figures probably reflects that it was not simple naturalism that he sought in these nudes. It was the use of the female form as a vehicle by which to express a wider and more profound understanding of nature as a vital and existential phenomenon, as a forceful, animate and procreative presence. Certainly, the dramatic rhythm of outline, painterly form and empty unpainted void is more dramatic when these 'rotated' works are read in the way the artist intended.
In this respect, it is also interesting to note that in its landscape orientation, the pose and character of Liegende Frau mit grünen Hausschuhen closely resembles that of one of Schiele's most ambitious oil paintings of 1917, Liegende Frau (Reclining Woman) in which a very similar-looking model, is depicted reclining on the floor of the studio surrounded by a crumpled white sheet. This same figure again seems to appear in Schiele's other major figure painting of 1917, Umarmung (Liebespaar II) (Embrace (The Lovers II)) where she is joined in an embrace with a man - quite possibly Schiele himself.
The female model Schiele used for Liegende Frau mit grünen Hausschuhen is unfortunately unknown. It was probably a professional model, whom Schiele is known to have used as the source for several gouaches at this time as well as the two major paintings of 1917. By the summer, Schiele's financial situation had radically transformed and he was able for the first time to set up a harem of models in his studio in the manner of that of his mentor Gustav Klimt. Preceding this, in the first part of the year Schiele seems to have repeatedly used a lone professional model or, more often than not, his wife Edith and his sister-in-law Adele Harms. Edith and Adele appear frequently in his work of 1917, and, it is possible, though very unlikely, that Adele was the model for this work. Having gained a reputation in the predominantly less progressive and more prudish circles of Vienna as a 'pornographer', it was often Schiele's practice to disguise and obscure the identity of sitters who were close personal friends or family. In the case of his wife and sister-in-law, this practice became more pronounced and he was well known to intermingle the features of the two sisters largely for the sake of his wife's modesty. Edith Schiele was at once both jealous of her husband's models and naturally shy. While she therefore preferred to sit for her husband herself, she had no desire to be recognised as a sitter of his pictures, especially when it was often given to her to deliver his works to their respective buyers and patrons. Adele Harms, Edith's sister, was the darker-haired of the two sisters and of the two more closely resembles the model of the great 1917 gouaches.
As with the oil Liegende Frau, or indeed, his paintings of lone trees and plants set against a vast empty background, what appears to interest Schiele in Liegende Frau mit grünen Hausschuhen most of all is the simple and stark contrast between the full physical, living, breathing, animate form of the body and the emptiness surrounding her. The subtle, cool tones of the figure's skin, her gently flushed cheeks and the strong articulation of the bones and muscles all combine with the clear gravitationally planted outline of the woman's form to convey a powerful sense of a unique, lone and vital human presence. Schiele's sublime command over his materials now requires no help from the excessive gesture, distortion, forced emphasis or white-painted highlights that formerly distinguished the fervour and Expressionism of his earlier work. Here, in this more classical work, set against an empty paper background, Schiele's soft crayon outline and assured and confident modelling magically bring to life an intimate and also existential portrait of a female figure, who seems born both to and from the page within which she is confined.