There are no sharks in Liverpool’s Albert Dock, as far as I know. The deep, still water overlooked by Tate Liverpool, which opened in a sensitively converted warehouse here in 1988, is devoid of dorsal fins. Yet perhaps there are pelagic predators lurking after all, for this gallery has chosen to mark its 30th anniversary by jumping the shark – or whatever image you prefer for a staggering lapse into the absurd.
Life in Motion, an exhibition that for no good reason asks us to compare the two extremely different artistic visions of the Austrian draughtsman Egon Schiele and the 1970s US photographer Francesca Woodman, is an exhibition so shallow and patronising that it suggests Tate Liverpool has lost all respect for its audience.
It is 100 years since Schiele died in the influenza pandemic that ravaged a war-battered Europe. He was only 28, yet he left behind a body of work that puts him among the greatest artists of the 20th century. He is without question in the same league as his contemporaries Picasso and Modigliani. Yet while they have recently had major solo exhibitions at Tate Modern, he doesn’t even get half a floor of Tate Liverpool to himself. Instead, there is only a quick tour of his career highlights, intercut in an infuriating and baffling way with Woodman’s black and white photographs.
Even if this seemed like a good idea on paper, a quick visual test should have told the curators they were making a mistake. Most of Woodman’s pictures are small prints – more or less family album size. Putting these elusive monochrome images beside Schiele’s big, bold, fiercely coloured, often scandalous gouaches and watercolours is catastrophically damaging to her work and tragicomically distracts from his.
They do have one thing in common: their early deaths. Woodman killed herself in 1981, when she was 22, leaving behind a vivid artistic life. She started taking poetic, dreamy photographs in her early teens and was already an original artist when she attended the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence in the late 1970s. I have a strong emotional attachment to her art. I once lived in Providence, and it was thrilling to find out about this gothic visionary who had taken eerie images in its old clapboard houses. In one of her Providence pictures she blurs her body so she appears to be a ghost in a derelict house. In another, she stares spookily from the shadows, dressed in old-fashioned clothes, like a Victorian revenant.
The history that’s relevant to Woodman is clearly that of photography. It would be fascinating to see her haunted art alongside the great 19th-century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, or even with Victorian spirit photographers. But she and Schiele have nothing to say to one another.
I can reconstruct intellectually how you might fantasise an affinity. Both of these short-lived artists created worlds of their own. For both, sexuality was the key to dreams (Woodman photographed herself nude in many of her images). And yet Tate Liverpool seems scared to show too many of Schiele’s mind-blowingly sensual images of women. A wall text even haughtily informs us he was interested in other things besides the female body. But he’s not an artist you can really censor. In a way, Schiele was the visual equivalent of the great American novelist Philip Roth, may he rest in peace: an imagination incapable of self-censorship. By shifting the focus from Schiele’s women to his self-images, this exhibition gives his cock its head. He emerges as the Portnoy of the Austro-Hungarian empire, obsessed with priapic delight.
He stares balefully out of Self-Portrait in Black Cloak, Masturbating, which he created in gouache, watercolour and graphite in 1911. There’s no sign of shame in his frank features as he gazes in the mirror. On the contrary, he is confrontational, a Freudian provocateur who lived in a time and place that was discovering modern theories of sexuality. Schiele’s contemporaries in Austria on the eve of the first world war included, as well as Freud, the sexual fabulist Arthur Schnitzler and the novelist Robert Musil, whose The Confessions of Young Törless describes adolescent sexuality with the same frankness as Schiele.
But history barely intrudes on this exhibition. Schiele lived in the strange, decadent, rarefied and fascinating multicultural world of the Habsburg empire, and his daring can only be understood as part of its sensual swan song. To chuck out all of that is to reduce his art to a brainless freak-show. And yet it still blazes. In his 1912 work Reclining Couple, the woman – probably his model Wally Neuzil – is fully clothed and has her back to us. All we can clearly see of Schiele is the erect penis that she manipulates with long thin fingers. In another self-portrait, he wears a green, transparent silky vest through which we contemplate his body: Schiele liked underwear on himself, as well as on women, but his line is never smooth or corny. His nudes are drawn with bony truth, framed in brutally cropped ways that reveal pain and suffering alongside the life impulse of Eros.
I’ve never seen an exhibition I more wanted to like, and that was so frustrating. Both artists deserve Tate retrospectives – just not together. Their art is so different that you cannot view both at once. To get pleasure from the show, you will have to choose. I can’t pretend I chose Woodman. And I am angry at Tate Liverpool for making me think less of her.