If you arrived at your formation of taste in the late aughts to the early teens—right around the time that hipster became a social category and twee was a kind of music and it was conceivable that an attractive stranger might ask whether you wanted to come back to their place and listen to their records—then you might know this shoe, if you don’t already have a pair lying around. Surely you have seen it on the feet of models or mannequins in Anthropologie, Modcloth, or any other retro-leaning, trendy store. Black or brown leather, with a tidy, stacked heel, fastened up with buttons or more often tightly laced in a neat bow, these boots—booties, in cutesy copywriter parlance—hug the shape of the foot, making for a pretty, petite, old-fashioned silhouette. Sometimes known as an Oxford heel, they’re self-consciously vintage yet contemporarily ordinary—not out of place in 2010, 2014, 2018, though they might strike some as a little … twee, these days. They’re Wes Anderson boots. Indie-pop boots. You-used-to-buy-graphic-tees boots.
Imagine my surprise, then, while visiting the Met Breuer’s latest drawing show—“Obsession,” an exhibition of nudes by Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Pablo Picasso, closing October 7—to see these very shoes preserved in time, in their first incarnation, an instant of fashion history trapped in amber. Though the show ostensibly features three artists, all household names, it’s Schiele who steals the show, taking up most of the exhibition’s wall space as he links Klimt—albeit tenuously, and really only chronologically—to Picasso, who’s shunted to the exhibition’s last room. The show, intended to showcase the collection of the aesthete Scofield Thayer, tracks a loose narrative of figurative drawing and, within its selection, the entirety of Schiele’s blazing, short career.
In the period we are most concerned with for the purposes of this essay, the period of the shoes, Schiele is experiencing a commercial windfall: his nudes are selling well, and he is drawing them with speed, creating an enormous body of work. The drawings are recognizably Schiele. They’re Schiele in overdrive, at the end of his life. His sinuous, confident lines at times feel like blind contour: he uses line to represent what is seen, rather than the discrete solidity of forms as they are. The models pose crudely, in varying states of undress: their legs part to reveal vulvae embellished with cutesy curlicues; their thighs bulge over stockings held up by garter belts. They’re magnetically erotic drawings and scorchingly lewd. A curatorial note informs us that though many of the models were likely drawn while reclining, in some of these instances Schiele has rotated the pages, infusing formerly languid nudes with a zero-gravity, floating vitality.
In all these drawings, without exception, the models are wearing their stockings and shoes, which have been rendered with a care and consistency that itself warrants the title “Obsession.” Without exception, all are delicate booties, with a tidy short heel, fastened up with buttons or tied in a bow.
It’s hardly surprising that a vintage shoe might become fashionable again. History repeats itself. There is a pair of Oxford heels, black leather with velvet laces, sitting in my closet as I type this. Klimt’s nudes, rendered with delicate lines that must be oracularly summoned out of the page, have an allegorical quality—the women float on their backs like Ophelia. Picasso’s nudes exist in an equally mythical, Hellenic space. But Schiele’s nudes are squarely of the now. They’re like Hustler. At times practically anatomical. A funny thing about being naked—you feel less exposed when you’re totally undressed, which might be why we coined the term nude to describe the timeless purity of the unadorned human body. Like how it took being told they were unclothed for Adam and Eve to feel shame. Schiele’s hoisted hemlines and upskirts and straps fallen across bare shoulders work to titillate the viewer, presenting the body as something to be revealed.
And isn’t there something—smutty—about imagining a model nude only from the knees up? Like how in certain genres of pornographic movie the actresses keep their pleasers on. Utilitarian, as if the wearer is prepared to get up and stride away at any moment. It’s sexy. We know a shoe to be a fetish object: think red bottoms, Doc Martens, the hypebeast’s highly coveted sneaker drops. One can’t spell fetish without feet, and the shoe is adjacent, ornament. The shoes’ presence in these drawings, more so than that of the lingerie or scattered clothes, is what makes them vibrate at a startlingly current frequency. The drawings are hot! And it’s this, in their striking contemporaneity, that forces us to face their erotics, locating the work in a kind of social world apart from the timelessness of those innocent babes in Eden.
Which means locating Schiele, too, in our social world, instead of in the reaches of not-so-distant art history. In the era of #MeToo, some of our institutions have been forced to address, however awkwardly, artists’ bad behavior (though of course the shows still must go on). In Schiele’s case, it’s hanging around underage women, which the Met Breuer has acknowledged in the exhibition’s wall text, in a panel titled “Schiele’s Sensationalized Scandal.” The text addresses, in brief, Schiele’s life with model-cum-lover Wally Neuzil and the troubled youths they seemed to attract—“Schiele had a special rapport with children and adolescents: at just over twenty, he still felt like one of them and allowed them free access to his house and studio.” The text also addresses his arrest in 1912 upon being accused of abducting a minor who, the Met diplomatically writes, eventually returned home unharmed. Schiele spent three weeks in prison after the police raided his studio and confiscated a selection of his work, and the trial was so sensationalized that a judge burned an erotic drawing of Schiele’s at the hearing. The incident, which left Schiele scarred, didn’t affect his output—many of our favorite shoe drawings are from the years after—but, as the Met says, it “haunts the artist’s posthumous reputation.”
This incident in Schiele’s life is precisely the kind of blight that all too often marks the lives of our male geniuses: an incident now of uncertain provenance, long in the past, that reveals him to be, we think with unease, not a good man. This reveal is always met with trepidation—easy to reject the man, especially a dead one; harder to reject the work he made or ignore the questions that its existence raises. On a neighboring wall, the Met Breuer addresses the controversy more directly, in a text panel titled, in an interesting choice, “Schiele and Sexuality.” “The explicit imagery and underage sitters in some of the artworks in this collection raise questions in our current era,” the panel says. “The artist’s relationships with women are difficult to judge, not only because no living witnesses survive but also because present-day standards are quite different from those that prevailed in early twentieth-century Austria.” Indeed, we don’t know what Schiele’s relationship with those sitters was; all we know is that today, in any form, it would be morally unacceptable.
What are we to make of art that thrills, titillates, and undoubtedly comes from some kind of exploitation? How do we relate to work that comes from the kind of imbalance of power that we have spent all of this year—and decades prior—working to correct? I love the Schiele drawings: their heat, their speed, their unabashed ferocity. I love the economy of line, the wild gesture, the anatomical frankness. But I also feel a sharp discomfort when I consider the women who posed for him, a little voice in the back of my head helpfully reminding me that many of his models were probably in their teens. Questions of agency and consent arise, though it cannot be said that a teenager in nineteenth-century Austria would have had any conception of “enthusiastic consent.” More ambiguous then. Clearly wrong now. It seems awry to apply the politics of our current era to a previous age—back then, that sort of thing just happened! And yet refusing to demand, even retroactively, a basic respect for one another is what allows men like Brett Kavanaugh—a man who is neither historical nor a genius—a defense.
What are we to do with Egon Schiele? He’s already canonized. Go to the show—it’s truly worth seeing, if you have any inclination toward holding a pencil or pen. Learn the lessons from the art; separate it from the artist, like uncoupling egg white and yolk; it’s nothing we aren’t used to doing. A better question is: What is our duty to the young artists, and especially young women and gender-nonconforming artists, of the now? We make art that reflects our times. In the way that the shoes have been preserved in time, forever in Schiele’s drawings, so do we daily make the things that mean something to us. Forget the canon. What kind of cultural world do we want to make and live in?
When we’re viewing Schiele’s drawings, when we participate in any kind of art or art making, we are the product of the society that has made us. I am so tired and so jaded. I came of age at a time when I was told that all this does, indeed, just happen. Seems it will always happen. When Trump gets elected. When Brock Turner is hardly punished. When Brett Kavanaugh will almost certainly be confirmed. Where things are as they are because that is how they have always been. But it need not be so, if we can imagine that. We still have a chance to create a better world for those who are not yet so formed. We just have to draw it.
“Obsession” is on view at the Met Breuer in New York City until October 7, 2018.
Larissa Pham is a writer in Brooklyn.