Egon Schiele's portrait of Wally Neuzil, 1912.

Love and death in Vienna

Spanish flu killed Schiele and Klimt. Their art sensed the brevity of life and the doom of their society

Artillery Row

The 1918/19 Spanish Flu pandemic that swept around the world just over a century ago as the first world war ended, claimed more than 50 million lives – 20 million of them in the warring European nations alone – far more than the war itself.

Just as with today’s Coronavirus pandemic, most of those who fell victim to the lethal virus were anonymous “ordinary” people, but some – such as Sir Mark Sykes, the young British diplomat responsible for drawing the map of the modern Middle East – were famous. Spanish Flu was arbitrary and indiscriminating in those it struck down on both sides. Among the celebrities who perished from it during the death throes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in its hour of dissolution were the two artists who between them had pushed the boundaries of the acceptable in art into the darker regions of the soul: Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele.

Love and death had always been closely entwined in the final twilight years of that unwieldy fraying patchwork of Central European peoples that made up the Habsburg Empire. The suicide pact of the heir to the Imperial throne, Crown Prince Rudolf, and his 17-year-old mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera, in his hunting lodge at Mayerling in 1889, was emblematic of the perverse union of Eros and Thanatos that saturated Viennese culture, exemplified by writers like Arthur Schnitzler and Robert Musil, and above all by the profoundly disturbing voyages into the sub-conscious made by Sigmund Freud, father of psycho-analysis.

What Freud, Schnitzler and Musil discovered and delineated in words – the twin drives of the erotic and death instincts – was expressed in paint by Klimt and Schiele. Born in 1862 – the same year as Schnitzler – Klimt first won renown, (and a medal from Emperor Franz-Josef) for painting murals in the grandiose buildings going up around the hub of the Empire: the Ringstrasse circling central Vienna.

But Klimt’s obsession with the erotic, especially his portrayals of nude women in seductive poses, was already apparent in his early public art, and Klimt, like Schnitzler, was branded a pornographer by the very authorities that had commissioned his work. Despite their disdain, Klimt soon became Austria’s most sought-after painter of high society portraits, executed in his own unique style of symbolism.

Famously, Klimt incorporated shimmering gold leaf into his paintings, notably in his celebrated portrait of his favourite model Adele Bloch-Bauer, the beautiful wife of a wealthy Jewish banker and sugar merchant, Ferdinand Bauer; and almost certainly one of Klimt’s many mistresses. Although discreet in his love life, Klimt – like Freud’s artist grandson the late Lucian Freud – practiced what he painted, impregnated many of his models, and fathered at least fourteen children out of wedlock. Like the English erotic artist Eric Gill, his preferred working  costume was an easily discardable loose fitting robe worn without underwear.

By a hideous irony, encapsulating the marriage between love and death in the most literal way, the Bauers’ country mansion, Panenske-Brezany outside Prague, would, during the second world war when both Klimt and Adele were long dead, and Ferdinand Bauer had fled for his life into exile, become the home of Holocaust architect Reinhard Heydrich, Adolf Hitler’s “blonde god of death” and the most murderous of the Nazi leaders. From the same house, in May 1942, Heydrich drove to his death in Prague at the hands of British-trained Czech partisans.

Hitler himself, of course, was also living in the Austrian capital during the years when the artists were working. But the future Fuhrer’s Vienna was a very different metropolis from that of Klimt, Schiele and their friends. While repeatedly applying in vain to enter Vienna’s Fine Arts Academy, Hitler lived in a succession of men only down and out hostels, eking out his miserable existence painting and hawking postcards of the city’s grander buildings, and reading anti-Semitic tracts. He fled the city for Munich in 1913 to dodge the hated Habsburgs’ military service draft.

Hitler abhorred the sort of art that Klimt was creating. The pictures that this provincial failure painted were  stiff draughtsmen’s studies of classical buildings, curiously devoid of  actual people. Sexually repressed himself, he regarded erotic art as decadent and the product of a sick society in terminal decline. But, by another savage irony, when he came to power, the sort of avant garde art he loathed, though banned and ridiculed by the Nazis, was confiscated from it’s often Jewish owners and preserved rather than destroyed.

Klimt’s portrait of Adele, for example, was seized by the Nazis after Ferdinand fled in 1938 (Adele herself had died in 1925). After the second world war it was displayed in a leading Vienna gallery. Only following a protracted legal battle with the Austrian authorities did the Bloch-Bauer family win the portrait back. It was sold at auction in 2006 and fetched $135 million – then a world record for a modern painting. It is now on display in a New York gallery.

Gustav Klimt was exceptionally generous to younger artists such as Oskar Kokoschka whom he taught. But it was another of his students who stood out with a shining talent that would eventually eclipse the older man’s own, becoming his leading protege and disciple, yet taking art to places where even his master feared to tread.

Egon Schiele ( strangely his surname means ‘squint’) was born in Tulln near Vienna in 1890. Schiele’s father, Adolf, was the local railway stationmaster, and young Egon’s earliest artistic efforts were drawings of the trains that chuffed past their house. Adolf died insane of syphilis when Egon was fifteen. There is no doubt that his father’s long sickness and the cause of it indelibly linked love, illness and death in the boy’s mind – his eldest sister Elvire died of the same disease – and set the course of his life and art.

Egon formed an incestuous attachment to his younger sister, Gerti, and, aged sixteen, took the 12 year old to Trieste where they spent the night together in the same hotel where their parents had passed their honeymoon. Gerti became the first of Schiele’s many nude pubescent models. His artistic ability was recognised by the uncle who became his guardian, and won him a place at Vienna’s Art Academy – the same august institution at whose doors Hitler had battered in vain. How very different history might have proved had Schiele been refused and Hitler admitted.

But the staid Academy proved far too conservative for Schiele, and he and other young artists broke away in 1909 to form the radical New Art Group. Klimt had met Schiele in 1908 and instantly recognised the young man’s genius. Generously, he provided his protege with studio space, contacts, models, money, and even exchanged pictures with him.

The atmosphere in Vienna in the first decade of the twentieth century was a ferment of fear. Few thought that the creaking imperial order could last much longer, and yet reared back from the implications of the chaos that would follow. This zeitgeist: a trembling on the edge of the abyss, is brilliantly captured in Musil’s long (and significantly unfinished) novel The Man Without Qualities; in the neuroses of Freud’s bourgeois patients; and in the extremes of Schiele’s tortured pictures.

Schiele’s early work was obsessively narcissistic. Often using a mirror, he drew and painted dozens of self portraits of himself in awkward attitudes: arms outstretched crucifix style, fingers splayed, legs bent at the knees. And both he and Klimt were the first significant artists to dare to depict the most common erotic experience of all: masturbation. It is not a healthy art, but Vienna was not a healthy place: it was mortally sick.

Suicide was a constant leitmotif. One of Schiele’s friends and forerunners in Expressionist art, Richard Gerstl, aged 25, distressed after the end of an affair with Mathilde Schoenberg, wife of the modernist composer Arnold Schoenberg, locked himself in his studio in November 1908. He set fire to his paintings and papers, and simultaneously stabbed and hanged himself in front of a mirror. Best known for his self-portraits, Gerstl’s final work can be seen as an ultimate act of self-love allied with self-destruction.

Another youthful victim of Vienna’s mass neuroses, the brilliant young philosopher Otto Weininger, chose self destruction after the disappointing original reception of his book Sex and Character. The book, a masterpiece of misogyny, argued that women lacked a “soul” and were doomed to be mere passive receptors of male creativity and energy. In October 1903, the 23-year old Weininger took a room in Vienna’s Schwarzspanierstrasse, in the same house where Beethoven had died, and shot himself.

Posthumously, Weininger’s work proved astonishingly influential, praised by Austrians as diverse as Ludwig Wittgenstein and Hitler. Weininger, a Jewish convert to Protestantism, had lumped his former faith with his denunciation of females for lacking a soul. Such ideas fitted the Nazi masculine ideology as well as their antisemitism, although they saw his suicide as confirmation of the sterility of a self-hating Jew.

Schiele seems to have sensed the collective sickness of the city. “I want to leave Vienna very soon” he wrote to a friend. “How awful it is here … I must see something new and investigate it”. In 1910 he fled the city’s spiritual plague with his live-in girlfriend, Wally Neuzil, a red haired model he had inherited from Klimt. They first settled in Krumau, his mother’s home town (now Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic). Here, Schiele painted superbly original townscapes of the jumbled medieval houses in vivid colours, demonstrating that his talent could transcend portraiture.

But Schiele continued to paint and draw nudes, including Gerti and Wally. Provincial locals were shocked by this, and the fact that the 20-year old artist was openly living in sin with the 17-year old Wally. When Schiele was spotted painting a nude in his garden in 1911 he was peremptorily ordered to leave town. Ironically, Cesky Krumlov today boasts a gallery dedicated to his work.

Schiele and Wally moved on to Neulengbach, a small town 20 miles from Vienna. Here, his habit of holding open house for teenage street girls whom he drew and painted naked, again drew social disapproval, and finally legal action. When a 14 year old girl ran away from home and found shelter under Schiele’s roof her aggrieved father charged him with kidnap, statutory rape of a minor, and public indecency

The outraged judge burned one of his “immoral” drawings in front of Schiele.

Awaiting trial, Schiele spent three weeks in a cell of the local jail. Typically, he continued to draw: portraying himself as a contorted Christ figure martyred for his art, the only spots of light in a dark world being the oranges that Wally loyally lobbed through his cell window. Schiele, his head shaved as a convict, wrote on one picture, “hindering the artist is a crime: it is murdering life in the bud”.

When Schiele came to court, he was cleared of kidnap and rape but convicted of indecency. The outraged judge burned one of his “immoral” drawings in front of him. But, like Klimt, despite or because of the allegations of pornography, Schiele’s obvious talent attracted wealthy patrons and buyers and his work was displayed in increasingly successful exhibitions.

A chastened Schiele returned to Vienna and gave up painting under-age models. At about the same time, in 1914, the assassination of the Austrian heir apparent Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo triggered the first world war. The catastrophe that had been awaited for so long in Europe’s collective unconscious had finally arrived.

The international crisis coincided with a crisis in Schiele’s personal life. Jealous that his sister/model Gerti had married his friend and fellow artist Anton Peschka, Schiele abruptly decided to marry himself. He had eccentrically wooed two sisters, Edith and Adele Harms, who lived opposite him, by flapping his pictures from his studio window to attract their attention.

His attentions were evenly divided between the sisters, and both posed for him. But the Harms girls were middle class and a cut above Wally socially. Curtly, he told a patron: “I’m planning to marry – most advantageously – not Wally”. He targetted Edith, although he seems to have hoped that he could continue to have relationships with both Adele and Wally. Wally indignantly declined such an open arrangement and instantly left him, never to see him again. She trained as a nurse and died of scarlet fever in Dalmatia during the war.

Though regretting the break, Schiele hastily married Edith in June 1915, having received his military call up papers, as married soldiers were allowed to be accompanied by their wives during training. Schiele continued to work and exhibit, including pictures of Russian PoWs he was guarding. Marriage and military life suited him and led to a definite change in both his style and his themes.

They loved the flesh, it’s taste and tones, but always smelt the charnel odour breathed through death’s jaws.

Gone were the spiky, anguished earlier works, to be replaced by softer, more conventionally realistic pictures of his (clothed) wife. His masterly use of colour, however, continued – particularly red, and a verdigris green that seemed to prefigure the decay of corpses.

At the beginning of 1918, the Spanish Flu pandemic arrived in Austria just as the crumbling Empire began to break into it’s component parts. Among the earliest victims was Gustav Klimt. The disease brought on pneumonia and then a stroke, which killed Klimt on 6 February. Schiele rushed to his old master’s deathbed and drew a final portrait.

That same Spring, Edith Schiele fell pregnant. An ecstatic Schiele celebrated the event by painting “The Family”, showing him naked with wife and baby: a prophetic portrait destined never to be fulfilled. The Flu pandemic continued to rage. In contrast to Covid-19, most of the victims were young people, and in late October death came calling at the Schiele family’s door.

Edith, in the sixth month of her pregnancy, caught the virus, and rapidly grew worse. Distracted, Egon nursed her and drew pictures of the dying woman as if he could hold back death in the only way he knew: through art. It was not enough: on 28 October she succumbed to the disease.

Returning from her funeral the next day, Schiele himself began to shiver uncontrollably: it was the first symptom of the same deadly and horrifyingly swift disease. He took to his bed, but died on 31 October. Photographed on his deathbed, unlike the tormented snaps taken of him in life, he appears asleep and at last at peace. He was 28. The war ended just over a week later and the Austro-Hungarian empire collapsed.

Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt left a troubled legacy. Immensely prolific and successful in their country in their lifetimes, their international fame and the prices paid for their work have rocketed exponentially in the century since their deaths. And yet the way they portrayed love and death – particularly in their use of the nude – sits uncomfortably in our increasingly puritanical age.

What seems incontrovertible, however, is the prophetic nature of their art. It is as though they sensed both the brevity of their own lives, and the inevitable doom of the society around them. They loved the flesh, it’s taste and tones, but always smelt the charnel odour breathed through death’s jaws.

Nigel Jones is an author and historian who worked as a journalist for four years in Vienna for the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF).

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