It’s easy to understand what Tate Liverpool’s curators were thinking when they paired the Austrian artist Egon Schiele (1890-1918) with the puckish American photographer Francesca Woodman (1958-1981). Both demonstrated precocious flair and worked through young adulthood with feverish energy and boundless invention. Both were preoccupied with the naked human form and readily used their own bodies as subject matter (“It’s a matter of convenience,” said Woodman, “I’m always available”) – often in unflattering configurations that subverted conventions of the nude in art. There’s a kinship, too, between Schiele’s fast, febrile line and the frequent blur of human movement captured at slow shutter speed that’s a key element of Woodman’s photography. Hence the exhibition’s title: Life in Motion.
An alternative title might be “Live Fast, Die Young.” Always nudging gently at the edges of the viewer’s perception is the knowledge that Egon Schiele was 28 and beginning to achieve widespread acclaim when the Spanish flu felled him in 1918 (three days after it claimed his wife Edith and their unborn child), while Woodman was only 22 when she threw herself from the window of a loft on New York’s East Side in 1981.
It’s perhaps unavoidable that both have come to represent their own individual anthem for doomed youth. Schiele emblemises a prodigious generation wiped out by the Great War and contagion, while Woodman, whose posthumous fame has burgeoned since the Eighties, has become an icon for Third Wave feminists and the Prozac classes. Her playful, experimental work – like Sylvia Plath’s before her – often viewed too narrowly through the prism of sexual politics.
What Life in Motion manages brilliantly, in its juxtaposition of Woodman and Schiele, is a loosening of their mythological moorings. Any urge to create weepy shrines is undermined by the sheer life force of the work on display. Here are two brilliant individualists consumed by their mediums, inspired by the nude, working urgently to pin down the dragonfly flit of ideas and not yet facing the creative person’s deadly fear that inspiration may have its limits. You’re a thousand miles away from Picasso’s on-off preoccupation with impotence.
There’s earnestness aplenty, but flashes of humour too. I giggled at Woodman’s image of three naked young women, all of them holding a photograph of the photographer’s likeness over their face like the film poster for Being John Malkovich.
To move through the show’s four rooms is to experience a sharp pang of envy for the gusto of youth, its careless squandering of vitality and its ceaseless innovation. You watch Schiele pull away from the elegant, elongated human studies of his mentor Klimt to seek raw physicality in ever more discordant sprawlings of the human body and an increasing tendency to green-grey hues of flesh, as if some canker lurks beneath the skin. His 1913 Self-Portrait in Crouching Position looks like a human spider. There’s a growing preoccupation with arms skewed at right angles, clawed hands and splayed limbs. the jagged darkness of the line offset with rude splashes of red on nipples or lips, or the pale coral tip of a penis: badges of sex that will not be suppressed.
Woodman, meanwhile, who was took her first self-portrait at the age of 13, is seen playing ever more boldly with light, space, props and proportions. There’s a fey quality to her early work (glimpses of dolly shoes and knees socks that scream “manic pixie dream girl”), which gives way to an eerier, more resonant Mad Woman in the Attic vibe. It’s hard not to see her work in the context of other luminous female talents of the Seventies who embraced the Gothic alongside newly emergent magic realism: Angela Carter and Kate Bush spring to mind.
Despite these synchronicities, there’s a sense that the show’s intended “conversation” between artist and photographer is less a dialogue than a juxtaposition of soliloquies. Egon Schiele is the most explosive of painters: dark psychological currents burst from the frame and twist at your gut. He dispenses with backdrops in constant pursuit of the body’s shifting outline, yet you feel the Vienna of Sigmund Freud coursing all around his figures. To look at an image like Self-Portrait in Black Cloak, Masturbating (1911), where self-pleasuring has never looked so miserable or futile, is to walk naked yourself into the age of anxiety.
Schiele is Shakespearean in his determination to reveal the more grotesque side of humanity. Arms end in Caliban-like clubbed hands, elbows and knees jut like knots on gnarled trees. Yet there’s powerful allure in this rejection of formal beauty. Like many of the strongest sexual compulsions, we are attracted and excited by what simultaneously repels us. There may be no fiercer come-on in art than the 1918 crayon sketch of Woman in Boots with Raised Skirt, flashing her vulva while ogling the viewer with a vixen glare.
Woodman’s photographs, by contrast, make their impact by stealth. The monochrome prints are almost all modest in size, compelling the viewer to move ever closer to observe subtle details until you feel, like Alice, you could pass though the looking glass into the frame. Indeed, Woodman experimented with mirrors, but voided the expected reflection from the frame, warding off your hungry gaze.
The influence of the Surrealists is also obvious: a door-frame hangs horizontally in mid air, a single lily seems to leer round the corner; a woman’s contours are echoed by coiled eels in a bowl. I gasped out loud at the image of Woodman’s flesh pinched and puckered by clothes-pegs, like the devil’s own surgical clamps (Untitled, Boulder. Colorado 1972-5).
Life in Motion affords a unique opportunity to contemplate two of the most subversively brilliant observers of human flesh in art history. If Schiele roars you out of your comfort zone, Woodman whispers conspiratorially in your ear. Where Schiele shows bold sexual transaction, Woodman gives you angels. I hesitate in these gender neutral days to talk of yin and yang energy and yet these tensions underpin four rooms of alternating work. Prepare to be discombobulated – and enraptured.
Tate Liverpool until Sept 23. tate.org.uk 0151 702 7400