Tag Archives: First World War

Vilko Gecan – The Cynic

12 Sep

“Inside every cynical person is a disappointed idealist.”

(George Carlin)

Vilko Gecan, The Cynic (Cinik), 1921

Painting “The Cynic” is a self-portrait with an interesting and thought-provoking title. Gecan was twenty-seven years old when he painted it and yet the title doesn’t match the ardour of youth, the optimism and a sense of endless possibilities that we might usually tie with that phase of life. The man in the painting looks tired, old and worn-out. His hair, little of what is left, is combed in a strange way, adding to his dishelved appearance. The look on his face is close to a grimace; we can read the turmoil on his face. His lips are sealed tight; he is not the type who would spill his heart out to a stranger in a bar, he is closed-off from the space around him and yet, despite the wall of silence and moodiness he had built, we can sense that this man with an elegant bow-tie is a fragile, sickly and deeply lonely individual. His twisted fingers bring to mind the way Viennese Expressionists such as Egon Schiele and Richard Gerstl would paint the hand. The pose in which he is sitting at the table is contorted and strange as well, certainly looks uncomfortable and agitated. Carefully crafted sense of depth in the painting is reminiscent of many Expressionist paintings and films. You can see from the sketch bellow how Gecan built the sense of depth. The figure of the Cynic takes up most of the canvas and the space around him feels crammed and too small. A feeling of uncertainty and dread hang in the air.

The heavy and muted earthy tones are pulling us down into the abyss along with the Cynic who is cynically reading his newspapers and sitting in his armchair. The manner in which the space around him is painted certainly speaks of Gecan’s knowledge of Cezanne’s art and Cubism, but the overall mood and energy speaks of other, more disturbing currents in art at the time; expressionism, which sought to portray the inner world of the sitter. Gecan’s self-portrait and the space in which he is seated speak volumes about the state of his mind. Furthermore, the newspapers he is reading are called “Der Sturm” and were known for promoting Expressionist art. “The Cynic” is Gecan’s best work and one of the best examples of the Expressionism in Croatian art.

Gecan was, unfortunately, drafted in the First World War, captured in July 1915 and spent the rest of the war in captivity in Sicily. After the war, in 1919, he moved to Prague with his fellow-artist and life-long friend Milivoj Uzelac. Two other artists had been living and working there since the war had started; Vladimir Varlaj and Marijan Trepša. The four artists; Gecan, Uzelac, Varlaj and Trepša make the “Group of Four”; a group of artists who worked in Prague at the same time and returned to Croatia soon after the war. Each artist soaked in the artistic influences in his own way and upon returning home they were a wind of change for the Croatian art scene. In 1921 Gecan held his first solo art exhibition in Zagreb, and in 1922 he already, restless and eager for experiences, found himself in Berlin.

Gecan was described by people who knew him as a gentle, slightly aloof, tidy and elegant man so his perception and portrayal of himself as a cynic may imply less a personality trait and more an acquired realisation of the way the world and society is. This was the man who had experienced the horrors of war and the following disillusionment with everything he believed in, it brings to mind the well-known saying of George Carlin: “Inside every cynical person is a disappointed idealist.” And it also makes me think of Georg Grosz’s portrayal of the world and that of other Neue Sachlichkeit painters. Gecan’s slightly deformed figure and face are perhaps a mirror to the degeneracy of the society around him. Nothing is the same for him. Having once tastes the bitter taste of disappointment on his tongue he cannot go back to painting idyllic landscapes and classical beauty.

Vilko Gecan, The Cynic, sketch from the Zenit magazine

A sketch for this painting appeared in the avant-garde Dadaist magazine called “Zenit” which was published in Zagreb (1921-1924) and then in Belgrade (1924-1926). The magazine promoted the newest and most rebellious art from all over Europe as well as a concept of the Balkan’s barbaric-genius painter. They emphasised the power of dreams, spontaneity, and subconciousness, in contrast to the cold and rational academic art.

Egon Schiele’s Muse Wally Neuzil – Woman in Black Stockings

17 Mar

In 1911, Egon Schiele met a woman. She was seventeen, bright eyed, fun, amiable, not a bit shy or innocent. Her name was Valerie ‘Wally’ Neuzil, and she was just what both Schiele and his art needed. In that short period of time, Schiele’s art blossomed, and Wally was his muse, his lover, his friend. Their story is the one of obsession, love, betrayal, erotic exploration, and death – death of an artist, death of a muse, death of a whole empire and death of an era.

Egon Schiele, Woman in Black Stockings, 1913

When you spend hours looking at portraits of people who have been dead for years, or portraits of people who never existed, you start to feel that you know them, but that’s just an illusion. Likewise, when you look at Schiele’s portrait of Wally in black stockings and white lingerie, with bare shoulder, and her head leaned on the side, with that gorgeous yellow hair, you feel that she’s so close to you, that you know her. She’s looking at you with a friendly gaze that invites you to come closer. In the portrait below, Wally’s big doll-like blue eyes seem like windows into her soul, and yet for the art world she is a woman of mystery, secrets and speculations are wrapped around her life and character like a spider’s web so the only thing that’s left is to guess and daydream.

What was Wally’s family life like, her childhood, her education? We don’t know. The circumstances surrounding their first meeting also remain shrouded in mystery. All we know is they met in 1911, when she was seventeen and he was twenty-one, already drawing his erotic Lolita-esque fantasies and provoking the public of Vienna. Wally was first Klimt’s model so it’s possible that Klimt send her to Schiele, and it’s also possible that he saw her in Schönbrunn Park or somewhere on the streets of Vienna, and approached her because her appearance suited his aesthetic visions. So young and her life already revolved around art and her artistic journey was that from Klimt’s canvas to Schiele’s, from Klimt’s bed to Schiele’s.

Egon Schiele, Portrait of Wally, 1912

A first Wally lived in her own flat and Schiele paid her for her modelling services, but as their relationship progressed, she moved in with him. It’s safe to assume Wally was an amiable, good-natured, eager to help and please, but also very pretty, fun, charming, witty, close to Schiele in age and interests. She really was everything Schiele, as an artist and a man, needed; she posed for him, she did household chores, and she acted as his messenger, carrying his erotic drawings to his clients who, even though she wasn’t timid, often managed to reduce her to tears with their sharp cruel remarks. As Vienna was getting more dark and oppressive for Schiele, his thoughts wandered to the forests, meadows, morning mists and sunny afternoons of his imagined countryside paradise where his art would flourish. And so they moved to Krumau, a picturesque little town south of Prague, and later to Neulengbach, near Vienna.

Imagine their days in Krumau and Neulengbach as their little hippie getaway; a place where bright sunflowers grow by the wooden fence, grass is fresh and green, and air is exhilarating after spring rain, houses are small with little windows with flowing white curtains, letting in the sunshine and the gentle breeze, a place where birdsong is the only music, and butterflies are dancers. There, Wally would sit or lie on the bed, wide smiled, with rosy cheeks and a spark in her eyes, dressed in her lingerie and stockings, with maybe a ribbon in her hair, throwing inviting glances to Schiele and now to us viewers. These drawings of Wally seem so alive, so full or ardour, passion, adoration, they’re not as twisted and strange as his nudes tend to be, on the contrary, they seem to tactile, so full of warmth, colour and richness; you can feel the idyllic mood of their days in the countryside, you can feel Wally’s gaze filling you with warmness, you can see her eyes radiating playfulness. In the first painting, her golden hair stands out, but the one below is harmony of rich warm tones of yellow and orange which presents us with a brighter side of Schiele’s life, away from gloom and conviction of Vienna. These drawings had shifted Schiele’s role from that of an observer to that of a participant: ‘These drawings are the expression of a physical passion so unequalled in Schiele’s life. Earlier drawings of similar subjects are, by comparison, those of a voyeur. These speak with delight of participation.’* Picture of Wally wearing a red blouse, lying on her back, with her hand under her chin, looking directly at us, made quickly and then filled with colour, tells us that once, for a moment, everything was perfect.

If you enlarge the picture, you’ll notice her eyebrows painted in one single stroke, and the hints of dark blue around her eyes, which are brown all of sudden. The position of her right hand and her hair colour are just adorable to me. I wish I could tell you that this is where their happy story ends, that they dissolved into that beauty, died and became sunflowers in the garden, but the reality dipped its wicked fingers into their lives. First came the infamous Neulengbach affair; Schiele was accused of seducing a girl below the age of consent and his ‘pornographic’ drawings were condemned, but that’s for another post, and then there was another woman – Edith Harms.

Egon Schiele, Wally in a Red Blouse Lying on her Back, 1913

The end of their artistic and love affair is as bitter as it gets. Wally was the one who introduced Schiele to Edith, and now he is leaving her for that woman. Ouch… As time passed, Schiele and Edith got romantically engaged, and he planned to marry her, but what of Wally, where is her place in the story? Well, Edith wanted a ‘clean start’, as she wrote to Schiele in a letter, and demanded that he broke all connections to Wally.

Schiele and Wally met for the last time in the Café Eichberger. Schiele spoke not a word, but instead handed her a letter in which he proposed this arrangement; he marries Edith but gets to spend every Summer with Wally, alone. Wally was disgusted with the idea and declined. Schiele resigned ‘lit a cigarette and stared dreamily at the smoke. He was obviously disappointed. Wally thanked him for the kind thought… and then departed, without tears, without pathos, without sentimentality.‘*

Wally and Schiele never met again. First World War was in the full swing, and Wally, who never married, became a nurse, went to care for soldiers near Split in Dalmatia, part of today’s Croatia, where she died from scarlet fever just before Christmas 1917.

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*Egon Schiele, Frank Whitford