When I read Langston Hughes’s poem “Young Prostitute” I was reminded of a poem by Austrian Expressionist painter Egon Schiele. The two don’t have too much in common, but they began me thinking about artists’ relations with their subjects, fixating on the body in particular. Egon Schiele, like Walt Whitman, met some resistance to his work in his time. As a painter, he regularly painted young nude girls. Many of these paintings and drawings were regarded as pornographic, not as art. The book Egon Schiele: Poems and Letters 1910-1912 exhibits not only some of Schiele’s paintings from the Leopold Museum Collection but many of his poems as well.
Here is the one poem I was reminded of:
THE PORTRAIT OF THE SILENT PALE GIRL.
AN EFFUSION OF MY LOVE, – YES.
I LOVED EVERYTHING. THE GIRL CAME, —
I FOUND HERE FACE;
HER WORKER’S HANDS,
I LOVED EVERYTHING ABOUT
I HAD TO DEPICT HER.,
BECAUSE OF HER STARE AND HER
CLOSENESS TO ME. —
NOW SHE IS GONE,
NOW I ENCOUNTER HER BODY.
In a sense, much of Schiele’s experience with the girl happens after she leaves him, when he allows himself to now “encounter her body”. It becomes more of a private, less shared experience. The girl’s “worker’s hands” and her “stare and her closeness”, as well as the awe and love Schiele immediately finds for her natural working body remind me of Whitman’s own closeness to his readers and love of the human body. Both Schiele and Whitman seem to have a similar interest and ability to love bodies merely for the fact that they are bodies, and that they are amazing in their functions. It is controversial of course that Schiele took this too far with his young models. Nonetheless, they both shared a fascination with the human body, which wasn’t easily received by the public at first.