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.
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.
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.
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.
*Egon Schiele, Frank Whitford