Tag Archives: Egon Schiele

Egon Schiele’s Heroin Chic Look – Lipgloss and Cigarettes

17 Mar

The distinctive trashy glamour of Egon Schiele’s nudes is unsettling and alluring at the same time, provocative and eye-catching. His drawings and watercolours of skinny, fragile, starved nymphets who look like they live on lipgloss and cigarettes, made from 1910 to about 1914/15, before the war and before his marriage, encapsulate the heroin chic aesthetic decades before was defined and popularised by models such as Kate Moss. Things that connect these drawings and watercolours are the same mood and aesthetic and the same reaction from the public. Schiele’s portrayal of female form was shocking to the early twentieth century Vienna, and photographs of Kate Moss’s skinny body received the same reaction.

Kate Moss by Corinne Day

In the beginning of this year I watched a new documentary about Egon Schiele called “Egon Schiele: Dangerous Desires (2018)” made to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his death. It which was super cool and I loved it to death, it was hard not to like it: the soundtrack was rock music and the first lines were spoken by Iggy Pop, who clearly appreciates Egon Schiele’s art. One woman says something really interesting in the first two minutes: “If someone were to show you a Schiele watercolour and ask you: ‘when do you think this was done’, I think the answer would be: yesterday.” I partly agree; as a nostalgic person who romanticises the past, I would never believe that something as great could have been painted yesterday, but I agree in that his drawings, great majority of his art, appears not modern but timeless.

I can’t really say “modern” because Schiele wouldn’t agree. In one of his watercolours from prison he wrote: “Kunst kann nicht modern sein; Kunst ist urewig.” or “Art can not be modern, art is primordially eternal.” I don’t think this can be said about all art, but Schiele truly succeeded in creating art that is eternal. When you look at it now, it doesn’t seem out of place, kitschy, or strange, on the contrary, those colours and lines on papers that he held in his hand sometime in 1912 still have so much to say – or scream. And Schiele’s art goes so well with modern music as well, rock music particularly; in his self-portraits of the tormented artist staring right at us from the canvas, you can imagine a streetwise yet vulnerable heroin addict from the song “I’m waiting for the man” by The Velvet Underground, or the raw and trashy sound of The Stooges’s “Raw Power” or the sleek sound of urban alienation from David Bowie’s Berlin-era albums.

Egon Schiele, Nude against coloured background, 1911

I like Schiele’s paintings, and I also enjoy looking at pictures of Kate Moss, particularly those from the 1990s, it’s just an aesthetic thing, I don’t care for her personality or her life choices, although her love life is interesting. I look at a picture only to get a shot of beauty in my veins and possibly a seed to inspire my future reveries. I am certain that Kate Moss would be a perfect model for Schiele. His ideal was a thin, fragile, bony body with that elegantly wasted look; protruding spine and collar bones, under eye circles, ribs peeking under thin layer of skin, strange complexion with patches of unnatural colour…. The heroin chic look that Schiele clearly painted decades before, has become synonymous with Kate Moss whose appearance at the beginning of her career was in stark difference to the perfect and unattainable looks of the supermodels of the previous decade. Calvin Klein spoke in her defense back in the day: “For them, what is real is beautiful—looking plain is beautiful. What is less than perfect is sexy.” Schiele liked strangeness and imperfections and never resorted to idealization.

Kate Moss by Bettina Rheims, 1989

Egon Schiele, Girl with black hair, 1910

Schiele’s models were often girls from the streets, pretty prepubescent street urchins hungry for attention and amusement. He was young and poor and probably couldn’t even afford a proper model, and why would he when these little things were around, looked and behaved unpretentiously and were a good thing to draw. In his book about Egon Schiele, F. Whitford wrote: “Physically immature, thin, wide-eyed, full-mouthed, innocent and lascivious at the same time, these Lolitas from the proletarian districts of Vienna arouse the kind of thoughts best not admitted before a judge and jury.” The same words could be used to described the teenage Kate Moss; thin, wide-eyed, with full lips and gorgeous high cheek bones, on the pictures taken by Corinne Day for The Face magazine in 1990 she looks innocent and vulnerable, a bit shy, hiding herself behind a straw hat. In 1990 this working class nymphet from Croydon, a drab suburb of London, had already left school, and despite being a rich and famous model today, back then the prospects were bleak and she was in a similar position as the street urchins who posed for Schiele. Her beauty wasn’t yet recognised, but she did attract the attention of some designers very early on such as John Galliano who chose her for his spring/summer collection 1990 and saw her as his “Lolita”; the half-child and half-woman appeal made her stand out.

Kate Moss for Calvin Klein

Kate Moss by Corinne Day, 1993

Egon Schiele, Sitting girl with ponytail (Sitzendes Mädchen mit Pferdeschwanz), 1910

Schiele’s drawings were outrageous and provocative in his day and age just as they are now still. Viennese public had perhaps grown accustomed to Klimt’s nudes, but the vision of the female form that Schiele had presented was a tad too much. Likewise, pictures of Kate shot in the early nineties by a young and ambitious autodidact photographer Corinne Day were considered equally outrageous and accused of perplexing ideas that neither Kate nor Corinne had dreamt of; in the pictures she looked skinny and childlike, but her clothes and poses weren’t childlike at all, mingling sexuality with innocence. Kate Moss’s appearance represented the nihilistic spirit of the decade and a culture that believe in nothing. Hippies had hope, acid and belief in a better world, punks had their anger and outrageous clothes, and nineties seemingly had nothing, to quote Manic Street Preachers: “I know I believe in nothing, but it’s my nothing”.

Pictures above by Corinne Day for The Face magazine, July 1990

Over the ocean, grunge bands expressed their dissatisfaction and in Manchester the youth tuned out in the reviving sounds of psychedelia of bands such as The Stone Roses, The Charlatans and The Happy Mondays. Kate’s “elegantly waisted” look was perfect for Corinne Day’s aims in photography, for her love of realism. A new philosophy required a new look, and strong, over the top and glamorous models of the 1980s were passé. Just like Egon Schiele in his nudes and self-portraits, Corinne Day’s photographs penetrate to the bare essence and expose the truth, and what lies within. Schiele freed the women from Klimt’s suffocating gold and poisonous flowers, and focused on the psychology of their faces. In a similar way, Day freed the model from the excessiveness of shoulder pads and too much blush. Calvin Klein said “For me, Kate’s body represented closing the door on the excessiveness of the ’80s”.

Here is an expert from Maureen Callahan’s book “Champagne Supernovas“: “The culture at large didn’t see Kate that way. Up against the skyscraper supermodels of the ’80s, their very perfection a comment on American supremacy, a small-boned, flat-chested model like Kate Moss was heresy. Someone her size hadn’t been seen since Twiggy in the ’60s; suddenly, Kate and Calvin Klein were accused of promoting anorexia, heroin use, child pornography, and the downfall of Western civilization. She was on the sides of buses, kiosks, and pay phones, naked and draped across a velvet sofa in a ramshackle room, “FEED ME” often scrawled across the ad by protesters.

Under Exposure, Kate Moss by Corinne Day for Vogue UK, June 1993

Here is another interesting passage from Callahan’s book “Champagne Supernovas” about Corinne Day’s photo shoot with Kate Moss: “When British Vogue commissioned Corinne for a lingerie shoot with Kate, Corinne insisted on creative control. She shot in Kate’s London apartment and staged it to look like her own flat: modest and cold, with white walls and gray carpet, exposed wiring, a mattress on the floor. Kate had been crying after a fight with her boyfriend, and Corinne exploited the juxtaposition of distress and seduction, putting Kate in tiny cotton tanks and silk underwear, some of it from a sex shop on Brewer Street. In the finished editorial, Kate, silhouetted by a string of multicolored Christmas lights, looked frail and lost.

Egon Schiele, Nude With Blue Stockings Bending Forward, 1912

To end, here are some lyrics from the song which inspired me to write this post in the first place: “Lipgloss” by Pulp:

No wonder you’re looking thin,
When all that you live on is lipgloss and cigarettes.
And scraps at the end of the day when he’s given the rest,
To someone with long black hair.
All those nights up making such a mess of the bed.
Oh you never ever want to go home.

Egon Schiele, Sitting Female Nude with Yellow Blanket, 1910

Egon Schiele, Lovemaking, 1915

 

Kate Moss and Johnny Depp by Annie Leibovitz, 1994

Egon Schiele, Lovers – Self-Portrait With Wally, c. 1914-1915, gouache and pencil on paper

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Manic Street Preachers – Little Baby Nothing

10 Feb

I often share poems on my blog, but why not share the lyrics of a rock song? As far as I’m concerned, their artistic value is the same, and often the lyrics of The Smiths, Manics, Syd Barrett etc. hold more meaning to me and I can relate to them more than I can to ‘classic’ poetry. Little Baby Nothing is THE first song by the Manic Street Preachers that I’ve listened to, and what can I say – it was love at first sight (or first hearing). Today marks the 27th anniversary of their debut album Generation Terrorists. This is not my favourite song by the Manics, nor my favourite video, but objectively looking I think the lyrics are amazing and every line is perfect. Some of their lyrics, specially from The Holy Bible, can be a bit confusing, although they sound great accompanied by the music, but ‘Little Baby Nothing’ can be read on its own, like poetry and it would still be as meaningful. In their interview from 1992, Nicky Wire said that ‘men are the most horrible creatures because they use women’ and that the song is about a woman who had power and intelligence and was used by men. Therefore, having Traci Lords to sing some lines was more symbolic than anything, and they felt she could identify with the lyrics. One of their later songs, Yes, also deals with the exploitation of women, but it also says that every time you say ‘yes’ to something you don’t want to do, it’s also a form of prostituting yourself. And of course, the glorious line ‘Culture, Alienation, Boredom, and Despair‘ which perfectly sums everything that their early songs were about.

Here’s what Traci Lords said about Richey and the song: “He reminded me of a young David Bowie: very avant-garde, and there was something quite feminine about him. He was very soft-spoken, and struck me as being vulnerable, almost birdlike. He definitely came across as someone who was living in a glass-house, in some sort of fragile state. I thought he was lovely. He never spoke to me about why he wanted me to sing on ‘Little Baby Nothing’ – it wasn’t until later that I read his reasons for it. It’s funny because I saw Richey as someone who was very vulnerable, and that’s how he saw me“. (NME, 14 February 2015)

I’m glad they chose Traci Lords, not only because she totally fits with the lyrics, but also because I’ve liked her ever since I watched ‘Cry-Baby’ (1990), I thought she was the coolest character in the film! And judging her character and morality based on her ex-porn-star career would be hypocritical and immature. Even the Manics said in the same interview that she was the most intelligent American they’ve ever met in their lives!

Egon Schiele, Woman in Black Stockings, 1913

“No one likes looking at you
Your lack of ego offends male mentality
They need your innocence
To steal vacant love and to destroy
Your beauty and virginity used like toys

My mind is dead, everybody love’s me
Wants a slice of me
Hopelessly passive and compatible
Need to belong, oh the roads are scarey
So hold me in your arms
I wanna be your only possession

Used, used, used by men
Used, used, used by men

All they leave behind is money
Paper made out of broken twisted trees
Your pretty face offends
Because it’s something real that I can’t touch
Eyes, skin, bone, contour, language as a flower

No god reached me, faded films and loving books
Black and white TV
All the world does not exist for me
And if I’m starving, you can feed me lollipops
Your diet will crush me
My life just an old man’s memory

Little baby nothing
Loveless slavery, lips kissing empty
Dress your life in loathing
Breaking your mind with Barbie Doll futility

Little baby nothing
Sexually free, made-up to breakup
Assassinated beauty
Moths broken up, quenched at last
The vermin allowed a thought to pass them by

You are pure, you are snow
We are the useless sluts that they mould
Rock ‘n’ roll is our epiphany
Culture, alienation, boredom and despair

You are pure, you are snow
We are the useless sluts that they mould
Rock ‘n’ roll is our epiphany
Culture, alienation, boredom and despair

Egon Schiele, Blonde Girl in Underwear (Blondes Mädchen im Unterhemd), 1913

Now, who’s to say something can’t be aesthetically pleasing and have a strong social message at the same time?

Did I also mention that the video is cool? Well, check it out and decide for yourself.

Egon Schiele – Death and the Maiden

31 Oct

Egon Schiele died on the 31st October 1918. Three days prior to that he witnessed the death of his pregnant wife Edith. If it wasn’t for the Spanish influenza, she could have had their child and his prodigious mind could have produced many more drawings and paintings.

Egon Schiele, Death and the Maiden, 1915

Painting “Death and the Maiden” is a very personal work and it connects and unites two themes that were a lifelong fascination to Egon Schiele; death and eroticism. It shows two figures in an embrace, apparently seen from above, not unusual at all for Schiele to use such a strange perspective. They cling to each other in despair; painfully aware of the finality and hopelessness of their love. They are lying on rumpled white sheets, their last abode before the hours of love vanish forever, which simultaneously add a touch of macabre sensuality and remind us of the burial shroud. The background is an unidentifiable space, a desolate landscape painted in colours of mud and rust.

Death is a man not so dissimilar to Schiele’s other male figures or self-portraits, without the help of the title we couldn’t even guess that is represents death. The red-haired woman hugs him tightly with her long arms and lays her head on his chest. She is not the least bit afraid of his black shroud of infinity. She holds onto him as if he were love itself, and still, her hands are not resting on his back gently, they are separate and her crooked fingers are touching themselves. We can sense their inevitable separation through their gestures and face expressions, and, at the same time, their embrace feels frozen in time, the figures feel stiff and motionless, as if the rigor mortis had already taken place and bound them in an everlasting embrace. The maiden will not die, she will be clinging to death for all eternity.

It is impossible not to draw parallels between the figures in the painting and Schiele’s personal life at the time. The figure of Death resembles Schiele, and we do all know he showed no hesitation when it came to painting and even taking a photo of himself, and the red-haired woman is then clearly Wally. To get a better perspective at the symbolism behind this painting, we need to understand the things that happened in Schiele’s life that year. In June 1915 he married Edith Harms; a shy and innocent girl next door. But first he needed to brake things off with Wally Neuzil, a lover and a muse who not only supported him during the infamous Neulengbach Affair but was also, ironically, an accomplice in introducing him to Edith.

Upon meeting Wally for what was to be the last time, Egon handed her a letter in which he proposed they spend a holiday together every summer, without Edith. It’s something that Wally couldn’t agree with. Perhaps she wasn’t a suitable woman to be his wife, but she wasn’t without standards or heart either. There, in the dreamy smoke of Egon’s cigarette, sitting at a little table in the Café Eichberger where he often came to play billiards, the two doomed lovers bid their farewells. Egon gazed at her with his dark eyes and said not a word. He was disappointed but did not appear particularly heart-broken, at least no at first sight, but surely the separation must have pained him in the moments of solitude and contemplation, the moments which gave birth to paintings such as this one.

Egon Schiele, Embrace, 1915

If we assume then that the painting indeed shows Egon and Wally, the question arises: why did he chose to portray himself as a personification of Death? He chose to end things with Wally, so why mourn for the ending? And shouldn’t Death be a possessive and remorseless figure who smothers the poor delicate Maiden in his cold deadly embrace? Schiele’s embrace in the painting seems caring and his gaze full of sadness.

On a visual level, the motif of two lovers set against a decorative background brings to mind both Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” (1907) and Oskar Kokoschka’s “The Bride of the Wind (or The Tempest)” from 1914. Although similar in composition, the mood of Schiele’s painting differs vastly to those of his fellow Viennese eccentrics. Klimt’s painting shows a couple in a kiss and oozes sensuality and beauty, the background being very vibrant and ornamental. It’s a painting made before the war, its horrors and changes. Kokoschka’s painting is, in a way, more similar to Schiele’s but they two are very different in the overall effect. Both show doomed lovers in a sad embrace, and a strange, slightly distorted background, but Kokoschka’s painting is a whirlwind of energy, brushstrokes are nervous and energetic, the space is vibrant, not breathing but screaming. Schiele’s painting exhibits stillness, stiffness, a change caught in the moment, a breeze stopped, and the space around them seems heavy, muddy and static. “Kokoschka’s is a ‘baroque’ painting, while Schiele’s relates more to the Gothic tradition. “The Tempest” is life-affirming, the Schiele is resigned to the inevitable, immobile and drained of life.” (Whitford; Egon Schiele)

Egon Schiele, Lovemaking, 1915

In this painting Schiele used the old theme of Death and the Maiden and enriched it by adding an introspective, private psychological dimension. Schiele’s rendition of the theme isn’t a meditation on transience and vanity as it was in the works of Renaissance masters such as Hans Baldung Grien; a gifted and imaginative German painter and a pupil of Albrecht Dürer. Grien revisited the theme of Death and the Maiden a few times during a single decade, at the beginning of the sixteenth century. These paintings always feature a beautiful and something vain young woman (she is looking at herself in the mirror) with smooth pale skin and long golden hair, and a grotesque figure of Death looming behind her like a shadow, reminding her with a sand clock that soon enough she too will come into his arms.

Hans Baldung Grien, from left to right: Death and the Maiden, 1510; Death and the Maiden, 1517; Death and the Maiden, 1518-20

I’ve included two more examples of this theme in this post; another version by Grien where Death is shown chowing the Maiden’s dress and the knight is literally saving his damsel not from the dragon or from danger, but from Death and mortality itself. Quite cool! And an interesting detail from Van Groningen’s “The Triumph of Death” where Death is shown as a skeleton in a cloud armed with a spear, chasing a frightened and screaming young Maiden dressed in flimsy robes who is running around hopelessly trying to escape. In these paintings, the Maiden is merely a symbol of the fragility of youth and beauty, but later artists, the Romantics and the fin-de-siecle generation, and Schiele too, had different vision of Death; they glamorised it and romanticised it. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Edward Fane’s Rosebud” the beautiful young Maiden Rose is faced with mortality for the first time and how poetically Hawthorne had described it:

She shuddered at the fantasy, that, in grasping the child’s cold fingers, her virgin hand had exchanged a first greeting with mortality, and could never lose the earthly taint. How many a greeting since! But as yet, she was a fair young girl, with the dewdrops of fresh feeling in her bosom; and instead of Rose, which seemed too mature a name for her half-opened beauty, her lover called her Rosebud.

Death was a life-long fascination for Schiele; at a very young age he witnessed his father’s madness and suffering death, possibly from syphilis, he was obsessed with the idea of doppelgänger who was seen as a foreboding of death, in his poem “Pineforest” he even wrote “How good! – Everything is living dead”. All his art is tinged with death, and with Schiele it wasn’t a fad of the times but a deep, personal morbid obsession. In the height of summer, he already senses autumn leaves, in the living flesh he already sees decay. Also, he was born in 1890, and along with other artists of his generation he witnessed the final decay of a vast empire that had lasted for centuries; “Decay, death and disaster seemed to haunt their every waking hour and to provide the substance of their nightmares.” (Whitford, Egon Schiele)

Hans Baldung Grien, The Maiden, the Knight and Death, date unknown

Jan Swart van Groningen, Der Triumph des Todes (detail), 1525-50

Life and Death contrafted or, An Essay on Woman, 1770

Richard Bergh, The Girl and Death, 1888

Henry Levi (1840-1904), La jeune fille et la mort, 1900

Marianne Stokes, The Young Girl and Death, 1900

Happy Halloween, with Schiele and Death!

Egon Schiele’s Birth Anniversary and Federico Garcia Lorca’s Sonnets of Dark Love

12 Jun

One of my favourite painters ever, Egon Schiele, was born on this day in 1890, so naturally, my thoughts are nearly all with him today. I have been an ardent lover and admirer of his art for years now, but another work of art, with a darkness and eroticism that matches that of Schiele’s art, has occupied me these days: Federico Garcia Lorca’s “Sonnets of Dark Love”, translated by Paul Archer here. As I was reading Lorca’s beautiful sonnets, one by one, slowly, half-soaking in the strange verses and half-daydreaming, I had Schiele’s paintings in mind, or rather, the mood that pervades his paintings; darkness, anxiety, death, eroticism and alienation, murkiness of the colours and strangeness of the pale and fragile heroin chic figures, often entwined, together yet distant. I’ve chosen the verses which I loved the most and assembled them together with Schiele’s paintings and drawings.

Egon Schiele, Cardinal and Nun (Caress), 1912

“(…) And then, together entwined,
with love-broken mouths and frayed souls
time will find us utterly destroyed.”

(Sonnet of the Garland of Roses)

Egon Schiele, Two Women, 1915

“Don’t let me lose the wondrous sight
of your sculpted eyes, or the way you have
of placing on my cheek at night
the solitary rose of your breath.”

(Sonnet of the sweet complaint)

Egon Schiele, Girl in Black, 1911

“This weeping of blood that adorns
an unplucked lyre, the lusty torch,
this weight of the sea that pounds,
this scorpion that dwells in my breast

are all a garland of love, a sickbed
where I lie awake dreaming you are here
among the ruins of my downcast heart.”

(Love’s Wounds)

Egon Schiele, Sunflower, 1909

“My gut-wrenching love, my death-in-life,
in vain I wait for you to write me a letter,
like a withered flower I think rather than to live
without being me, to lose you would be better.”

(The poet begs his beloved to write to him)

Egon Schiele, Liebende (Lovers), 1909

“I want to weep with my pain and tell
you – so you’ll love me and cry for me also
in a nightfall of nightingales
with a knifeblade, with kisses and with you.”

(The poet tells the truth)

Egon Schiele, Four Trees, 1918

“Your voice watered my heart’s dunes
in that sweet wooden telephone booth.
It was spring at my feet to the south
and north of my forehead flowered ferns.”

(The poet talks on the telephone with his beloved)

Egon Schiele, Wally in Red Blouse with Raised Knees, 1913

“Did you see in the transparent air
that dahlia of sorrow and pleasure
my warm heart had sent you?”

(The poet asks his beloved about the ‘Enchanted City’ of Cuenca)

Egon Schiele, Mother and Daughter, 1913

“Thus my heart all night and day through
incarcerated in its cell of dark love
cries its melancholy at not seeing you.”

(Sonnet in the style of Góngora in which the poet sends his beloved a dove)

Arthur Rimbaud – The First Evening

23 Apr

Spring upon spring, I find myself deeply in love with Rimbaud’s poetry over and over again! This poem in particular I’ve loved for years and have fond memories of reading it while sitting by my windowsill, at dusk, and inhaling the dazzling perfume of the lilac trees in bloom, raising my head from the book at times only to hear the secret whispers exchanged by the blooming apple trees dressed in splendid whiteness.

Egon Schiele, Blondes Mädchen im Unterhemd, 1913, gouache and pencil on paper

Her clothes were almost off;
Outside, a curious tree
Beat a branch at the window
To see what it could see.

Perched on my enormous easy chair,
Half nude, she clasped her hands.
Her feet trembled on the floor,
As soft as they could be.

I watched as a ray of pale light,
Trapped in the tree outside,
Danced from her mouth
To her breast, like a fly on a flower.

I kissed her delicate ankles.
She had a soft, brusque laugh
That broke into shining crystals –
A pretty little laugh.

Her feet ducked under her chemise;
“Will you please stop it!…”
But I laughed at her cries –
I knew she really liked it.

Her eye trembled beneath my lips;
They closed at my touch.
Her head went back; she cried:
“Oh, really! That’s too much!

“My dear, I’m warning you…”
I stopped her protest with a kiss
And she laughed, low –
A laugh that wanted more than this…

Her clothes were almost off;
Outside, a curious tree
Beat a branch at the window
To see what it could see.

I found this translation on this website where you also have the original in French, but there is also a different translation by Oliver Bernard from “Arthur Rimbaud, Collected Poems” (1962) which you can read here.

*All pictures of blossoms by Denny Bitte.

Egon Schiele – Edith In a Striped Dress

13 Mar

This is a post from last spring, but many of my new readers probably haven’t read it yet so I decided to share it again because these paintings are dear to my heart.

________________________________________________________________________________

Egon Schiele’s portrait of his wife Edith in a colourful striped dress is something quite unusual and new in his art, and her face, full of naivety, sweetness and innocence seems so out of place amongst his usual female portraits, nudes and half-nudes, with a decaying heroin chic appeal. Where did this change of style come from?

Egon Schiele, Portrait of Edith Schiele, the artist’s wife, 1915

When I first saw this portrait, I loved the stripes on the dress for they seemed so alive, so intricate and colourful, and yet the quality of the colour is murky and earthy, as usual in Schiele’s palette. I was also amused by her face expression, but my interest quickly turned to Schiele’s alluring nudes. What can this portrait show us, apart from the fact that Edith loved wearing striped dresses? Well, it’s a psychological study which shows us Edith’s true personality. Let’s say that her true colours shine through. Look at her – she looks awkward and artless, she is clumsy and doesn’t know what to do with her hands, her eyes are wide open and eyebrows slightly raised, her lips are stretched in a weird, shy smile, as if she’s in the spotlight but wants to get away, she’s pretty but not exceptional, timid but not gloomy. Prior to marrying Schiele, Edith led quite a sheltered life, with her sister Adele and her conservative parents.

In Spring of 1914, Schiele noticed that there were two pretty young girls living just across his flat. Naturally interested, he started thinking of ways to meet them which was hard because the girls lived under the watchful eyes of their mother. They started waving each other through the window, and sometimes Schiele would paint a self-portrait and show it to them through the window. Surely by now, both Edith and Adele had dreamt of meeting that cheeky, arrogant but charming artist across the street. Schiele started sending them little notes, the content of which must have made Edith and Adele blush and giggle, but they never replied to any of them for a year. They met with Wally’s help, and all four went to the theatre or cinema together. Needless to say that the cynical Schiele was interested in both girls, in fact, for some time he couldn’t decide whether he wanted to marry Edith or Adele. Crazy situation, but luckily for him, it turned out that Adele wasn’t really interested so he settled on Edith and they got married, despite the strong disapproval of her parents, on 17 June 1915, which was the anniversary of the marriage of Schiele’s parents.

Scenes from ‘Egon Schiele: Excess and Punishment’ (1981)

I can understand why Edith liked Schiele, women always go for the bad guys; he was an artist, straightforward about what he wanted, he had a bad reputation and was once imprisoned for pornographic art, and, admit it or not, there’s something romantic about criminals. What remains a mystery to me is why Schiele liked her? What could this timid, shy, proper and frightened girl had to offer him? Most importantly, what was it so appealing about Edith that the witty, funny street-wise, experienced Wally didn’t have?

We sense here the conflicting emotions that Edith must have caused in Schiele: a quiet pleasure in her innocence, a satisfaction with her selfless loyalty mixed with frustration at her lack of of sexual energy. Schiele makes her seem passive and whilst he found vulnerability attractive he must also have longed for those quite different qualities which Wally possessed in abundance: the kind of temperament and aggressive eroticism which made Schiele himself feel vulnerable.“*

Edith was portrayed well in the film Egon Schiele: Excess and Punishment (1981). If I remember well, in one scene she’s sitting in Schiele’s lap and he shows her some of his erotic drawings, and she throws a quick shy glance, giggling and blushing, and you can see that she’s at unease with the nude models in his studio, stretching in different poses. She wanted to pose for him so he wouldn’t look at other women, but she just couldn’t satisfy his artistic demands. Again, that’s something that Wally did more than well.

Where did this wish to settle down, this wish for security come from? It seems like he wanted to indulge in a bourgeois life all of a sudden. Also, his decision to marry Edith and not Wally shows the double standards typical for men of his time; Wally was an artist’s model, a position practically equal to that of a prostitute, and as much as he loved her aggressive eroticism, he still wanted his wife to be modest and chaste. In the portrait of Edith in a striped dress from the same year, again her shyness shines through. Look at her eyes, frightened like that of a delicate fawn in the forest glade, and her sloping shoulders, almost crouching under the weight of the artist’s gaze, her hands in her lap; she looks like a child forced to sit still against its wish. Schiele always painted his middle-class wife modestly dressed, with a stiff collar and long sleeves, whereas looking at the pictures of Wally we know only of her petticoats, lingerie and stockings, not of her hats and dresses. Without a doubt, Edith loved Schiele, but she couldn’t understand his art.

Egon Schiele, Portrait of Edith Schiele with striped dress, 1915

Their marriage didn’t last long for they both died in that sad autumn of 1918. First World War had just ended, Spanish flu had taken many lives, amongst its victims were Edith who died six months pregnant on 28th October, and Schiele who died a few days later, on 31st October.

Everything that is sad, and occurs in autumn, gets imbued with an even greater sadness, but Autumn was Schiele’s favourite season, he wrote ‘I know there is much misery in our existence and because I find Autumn much more beautiful than every other season…. It fills the heart with grief and reminds us that we are but pilgrims on this earth…’ He also wrote in his short lyrical autobiography: ‘I often wept through half-closed eyes when Autumn came. When Spring arrived I dreamed of the universal music of life and then exulted in the glorious Summer and laughed when I painted the white Winter.’ The fresh, new, dreamy Spring of his art is forever tied with the image of cheerful Wally in her stockings, forever smiling from the canvas, and so the Autumn of his art is tied with Edith’s timid half smile and her striped dress. Rapture and gloom, life and death, Eros and Thanatos; all intertwined in Schiele’s paintings.

___________________________

*Egon Schiele, Frank Whitford

Romantic Melancholy

17 Nov

Sad; so sad, those smoky-rose, smoky-mauve evenings of late autumn, sad enough to pierce the heart…anguish of the turn of the year, the time of impotent yearning, the inconsolable season. (Angela Carter, Saints and Strangers)

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818

In these lonely autumn evenings, I yearn to escape the enveloping dreariness of November through poetry, pressed flowers and scented candles. Suffocated by thick fogs and the smell of rotting corpses of daydreams and high hopes that never come true, I hear Melancholy quietly knocking on my door and silently, without disturbing the yellow roses in my vase, it wrapped my tired shoulders with a fragrant lace cloth of spring naivety and summer innocence, of silver dandelions and spider webs, white roses and kindness of strangers. I try to smile at this stranger dressed in a purple gown and jangling earrings of silver and amethyst, but my lips of a doll have become rusty. I take the imaginary book of memories in my hand and blow away the dust. A few rose petals fall on the floor, and my crystal tears join them in their fall. Memories of summer’s gold and bloom dance in my head like skeletons, memories of things that were painfully beautiful but might never return. Memories of poppy meadows and river’s cheerful murmurs, of May’s pink roses, white butterflies and forest groves, of golden sunlight and juicy pears, of stars and perpetually dreamy days of July, and long warm enchantingly golden afternoons of August. I have a withered rose instead of a heart, and it pulsates melodiously in a rhythm of yearning and anguish. I am a forgotten abbey in the oakwood; all my hopes have fallen like leaves on the trees and my soul is but a skeleton covered in moss. I take a pen and command: Melancholy, oh speak to me!

Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise Over the Sea, 1822

Melancholy is kind and generous, and since I begged her, she spoke to me in a mellifluous voice of all the places where she resides… First thou shall find me, said Melancholy, in ethereal sounds of Chopin’s Nocturnes, whose trembling ecstasies and passions lie hidden under flimsy veils of sadness. As Oscar Wilde said: “After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own. Music always seems to me to produce that effect. It creates for one a past of which one has been ignorant, and fills one with a sense of sorrows that have been hidden from one’s tears.” When Chopin’s Nocturne turns to mute silence of dreary chambers, I dance my way to beautiful objects and inhabit them; old ballet slippers, worn out lamé dresses of 1920s, a box of old letters and photographs, empty perfume bottles, dusty cradles of children who are now adults, summer dusks with fireflies and strong scent of roses and a pale moon appearing coyly on the horizon, worn out names on tombstones and graves that no one visits any more, flowers slowly withering in a vase, unfinished charcoal drawings, drafts of letters never finished, smell of old books… Every place of beauty is my abode, ye can find me in poetry and songs too; in vocals and wistful violins of the Tindersticks and their song Travelling Light:

“There are places I don’t remember
There are times and days, they mean nothing to me
I’ve been looking through some of them old pictures
They don’t serve to jog my memory

I’m not waking in the morning, staring at the walls these days
I’m not getting out the boxes, spread all over the floor
I’ve been looking through some of them old pictures
Those faces they mean nothing to me no more”

Caspar David Friedrich, Abtei im Eichwald (Abbey in the Oakwood), 1808-1810

I closed my eyes and listened to Melancholy as it spoke to me, with a voice like flowing honey, and she said: I hide in canvases too; German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich adored me as his muse. Do not believe his landscapes, they are not at all what they seem; a tree is not a tree and fog is not simply fog as it is with John Constable. Led by his pantheistic vision of nature, he portrayed emotions and his states of mind. “Abbey in the Oakwood” is a melancholic masterpiece. An abandoned Gothic abbey is a corpse, a ruin, which speaks of happier times when it served its purpose. Tall oaks with crooked bare branches surround it. Sublime, eerie mood pervades the painting; crosses disappearing into the fog, a barely noticeable procession of monks, a freshly dug grave, and the endlessly lead coloured sky. In early 19th century Germany, Romanticism was closely associated with the National awakening, and Goethe considered Gothic architecture to be Germanic in origin. In contrast to the Classical architecture, the plans of Gothic cathedrals were done by “romantic intuition” rather than mathematical calculations. Gothic abbeys and oaks possess the same grandeur, the same melancholy when covered in deep snow or grey fogs.

I am not always obvious at first sight; do not let the screaming ecstatic yellow of Vincent van Gogh and Kirchner deceive you, for I was their friend too. I was the pencil that Egon Schiele used to sketch his nude beauties with worn out smiles and hollow cheeks, I kissed every yellow petal of the sunflowers he was obsessed with.

Egon Schiele, Sunflower, 1909

As I wipe my tears and feel my cheek’s returning rosy hue, I eagerly listen to Melancholy and her story. She says: I was the lover of John Keats, and the illness of young Werther. All artists find a muse in me, and Romanticists loved me deeply, but the idealist and dreamy escapist Keats adored me in particular, and dressed himself in my cloth of flowers, tears and beauty. In his rosy-coloured visions of the Middle Ages, he found beauty that the world of reality had denied him. Keats knew when he sang of me that Beauty is my other face, and he knew my strength well enough so he never tried to defeat me but rather embrace me and heal the sorrow I cause by contemplating things of Beauty:

“But when the melancholy fit shall fall

Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,

That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,

And hides the green hill in an April shroud;

Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,

Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,

Or on the wealth of globed peonies;

Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,

Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,

And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.

*

She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;

And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips

Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,

Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:

Ay, in the very temple of Delight

Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine…”

Percy Bysshe Shelley confided in me too, but found me too bitter at times, and yet he wrote these verses: “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.”

Photo by Laura Makabresku

John Singer Sargent, Polly Barnard (also known as study for Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose), 1885, Medium: pencil

Photo by Laura Makabresku

“There is a life and there is a death, and there are beauty and melancholy between.” (Albert Camus)

Caspar David Friedrich, Two Men Contemplating the Moon, 1825-30

Caspar David Friedrich, A Walk at Dusk (detail), ca.1830-35

In November dreariness, my only consolation lies in long evening walks by the river. The Moon is my lover; I year for his caresses and weep at sunset when we must part. He greets me, smiling through the bare branches of tall trees, and I turn my face to his glow and whisperingly ask to fulfil all my longings, to kiss my cheeks and hug me. I hear the river murmuring of happier times, but the Moon is wise and he offers me a “nepenthe”. ‘What is it?’, I ask the Moon and he replies: ‘It is an ancient Greek word, defined as a medicine for sorrow. It can be a place, person or thing, which can aid in forgetting your pain and suffering.’ I follow the Moon, yearning for a more precise answer, but it disappears behind the clouds and I am left alone … yet again.

Photo by Laura Makabresku

I gaze at the river for a long time, longing to see the Moon’s whimsical silvery reflection in the dark water. I cup the dark water in my hands and the dazzling rays of moon slip through my fingers… just as every happy moment does.