This expressionist painted the world's most radical nudes -- 100 years ago

Updated 1610 GMT (0010 HKT) October 27, 2014
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Crouching Woman with Green Kerchief, 1914

Forty-three years before the first issue of Playboy hit newsstands, a 20-year-old art school dropout (and protégé of Art Nouveau painter Gustav Klimt) released some of the most shocking nudes of the century. Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude, an exhibition at London's Courtauld Gallery, looks at the Austrian Expressionist's technically exquisite and sexually explicit depictions of the human form.

By Allyssia Alleyne, for CNN
Courtesy The Leopold Museum, Vienna
Standing Nude with Stockings, 1914

Though widely lauded by art historians today, Schiele's nudes initially drew intense criticism from traditionalists and the public. A coy, blushing nude could be a masterpiece, but his challenging figures were considered more pornographic than artistic.

"Sometimes these poses are very frank in their sexuality and explicitness, and would have been totally beyond the pale for the academic context, or even affronting contemporary standards of morality," explains Barnaby Wright, Daniel Katz Curator of 20th Century Art at The Courtauld Gallery.
Courtesy Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremburg
Erwin Dominik Osen, Nude with Crossed Arms, 1910

His poses often seem more like contortions. Unnatural and difficult to hold, they were an obvious departure from the natural, modest ones adopted by nudes until that point.

"For him, the experience is not a shock tactic, but genuinely trying to find a new visual language to explore the body."
Courtesy The Leopold Museum, Vienna
Male Lower Torso, 1910

Schiele extended this desire to create a new visual language to his use of color.

"When he does use those brighter and highly keyed colors, he wants us to engage with the body in a different way. He wanted to make the familiar strange, as it were, and ask us to look again at the human figure."

He applied this philosophy outside of the erotic too. In 1910, he was permitted to make nude studies of newborns and their mothers at a Vienna hospital to explore the themes of maternity and pregnancy. (Four of these pieces will be on display as part of the exhibition.)
Courtesy The Leopold Museum, Vienna
Standing Nude with Stockings, 1914

Schiele's desire to show the human body in a different light was heavily influenced by Vienna's artistic and intellectual scene at the beginning of the 20th century. Artists, scientists and poets -- from Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka to Sigmund Freud -- would congregate in cafés to discuss ideas and identity at a time when the city was rapidly expanding and changing.

"There was a real cross-fertilization of ideas," Wright says. "In their different ways, they were all seeking to understand something behind the bourgeois official facade ... What they were searching for was a truer account of the human experience, human desire, and human emotions."
Courtesy The Leopold Museum, Vienna
Kneeling Nude with Raised Hands (Self-Portrait), 1910

The city's intellectual circles took to him immediately. Though his work wasn't earning him a fortune, Schiele was able to remain afloat thanks to the support of a handful of loyal collectors.

"He quickly established himself because of the brilliance of his draftsmanship and his daring approach."
Courtesy The Leopold Museum, Vienna
Squatting Female Nude, 1910

Schiele had developed his life-drawing skills at the Vienna Academy of Fine Art before he dropped out three years in. These skills, combined with his unique vision, made for compelling work.

"What's extraordinary about Schiele's work is just how he's able to combine that kind of subject matter with the handling of the pencil and the brush," Wright says. "You have on the one hand works that you could get lost in just for their aesthetic beauty, but you're constantly oscillating between that and the realization of these things and frank depictions of sexuality."
Courtesy The Leopold Museum, Vienna
Nude Self-Portrait in Gray with Open Mouth, 1910

However, with time, Schiele would go on to win the support of key members of the art establishment.

"Most of his nudes are not explicit and shocking, and large groups of those nudes were exhibit publicly," Wright says. "From 1915 onwards, they really helped secure his reputation more generally."
Courtesy The Leopold Museum, Vienna
Two Girls Embracing (Friends), 1915

That same year, the Museum of Fine Art in Budapest bought Two Girls Embracing (Friends), which is still part of its collection today.
"That's a real mark of broader appeal that a major museum would invest in one of his drawings of that type."
Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest
Seated Female Nude with Raised Arm (Gertrude Schiele), 1910

In 1918, Schiele would succumb to the Spanish flu pandemic that would kill as many as 50 million that year, at the age of 28.

Though his contributions to the art world were never truly recognized until the seventies, Wright believes Schiele's influence can still be seen today, especially in provocative female artists like Tracey Emin, Marlene Dumas, and Jenny Saville, who is part of a joint exhibition with Schiele at Kunsthaus Zürich.

"The power of their work is this sort of reappropriation of the naked body, male and female, when for centuries women artists had very little voice and certainly wouldn't have been able to produce such work," Wright says. "When female artists use the nude in that way, it's quite comparable to Schiele wanting to challenge the kind of very staid, conservative and rather hypocritical culture of Vienna around 1900."
Courtesy Wien Museum, Vienna