The Butterfly’s Wing (Part 1)

June 27, 2012 § 2 Comments

‘Ein Stück Esterhazytorte und ein Melange, bitte.’

‘Sehr gut.’

Jessica Rosen closed her eyes upon the waitress’s retreating back and released the breath she hadn’t quite been aware she was holding. She let her head tip forward into one hand, her still-flushed cheek hot against the curve of her palm. It was still hot when the waitress laid a small silver tray in front of her and slipped away before she could gather her wits quickly enough to murmur ‘Vielen dank’. After a week in Vienna, German still felt as awkward on her tongue as a child’s too-large first pair of shoes.

She busied herself with rearranging cake, coffee and their accoutrements on the small marble tabletop. Demel had become her refuge of choice after sessions in the Albertina’s study room, and on this particular day refuge seemed more a propos than usual. For the hundredth time that week, she found herself wondering what had ever possessed her, back in New York, to choose Egon Schiele’s self-portraits as her dissertation topic, and why doing three weeks’ research in Vienna had seemed like such a wonderful idea at the time.

Spending hours over the drawings at the Met, the Neue Galerie and a couple of commercial galleries had in no way prepared her for the morass of bureaucracy, confusion and humiliation that was the Albertina print study room. First there had been the hurdle of obtaining permission to view the drawings at all, which had required a letter from her advisor two months in advance of her visit. (When she mentioned this to a fellow student, she met with a roll of the eyes and ‘Yeah? Just be glad you don’t work on Dürer.’) Then being informed by a couple of students ahead of her that it smoothed the way a great deal if one brought gifts for the study room supervisor, who apparently had very expensive taste in tea. (‘What is this, Russia?’ she muttered to herself as she stood in line to pay for several tins at Kusmi Tea.) The worst surprise awaited her when she arrived. The tea-connoisseur study room supervisor seemed to be an invention. The study room was staffed instead by two gruff, bearded Myrmidons who proudly informed her that they didn’t speak English. And also that she was not to be left alone with any of the drawings.

Jessica had always considered examining a drawing to be the most intimate experience anyone could ever have with a work of art. Having someone leaning imperiously over her shoulder while doing so was bad enough in itself. Having one of those boorish attendants breathing down her neck while she looked at Schiele drawings, infinitely worse. It wasn’t the first time she’d seen his drawings, of course, but some of the ones in the Albertina, seen in the flesh, were an amalgam of cruelty and tenderness that almost crushed the breath from her lungs and left her eyes smarting with unshed tears. If ever there were drawings she wanted to be left alone with, these were they.

So it was hardly surprising that this morning’s session had been the last straw. Knowing as she now did the workings of the study room and its surly guardians, Jessica had put off as long as possible viewing one of Schiele’s rawest self-portraits – the artist naked under an open black coat and masturbating, his look of hollow-eyed despair at stark odds with his gesture. She steeled herself as the elder and more uncongenial of the two lifted the drawing from its box and placed it on the easel in front of her, then, drawing a deep breath, she turned her head and, in the combination of mime and shaky German with which she’d managed to establish some sort of détente over the last several days, ground out, ‘Bitte … ich möchte …’ she paused to fish in her memory for the right verb and then it tumbled out in a rush, ‘allein sein mit dieser Zeichnung.’

‘Das ist verboten,’ her tormentor replied with what she could have sworn was audible smugness, folding his arms. Great, she thought, either he now thinks I’m a deviant who can’t be left alone with a drawing, or he gets some sick satisfaction out of watching me squirm.

‘Bitte…’ she tried again, with a vague, expansive gesticulation, feeling the blood begin to rise in her cheeks. She was met with a brief shake of the head and a raised eyebrow. She turned back to the drawing with an angry toss of her head, but her cheeks gave the lie to the show of defiance.

Jessica hated how easily she blushed. It had nothing to do with prudery, just an unfortunate meeting of shyness and genetics. Under long copper-red hair her skin had a translucent pallor in which the slightest blush bloomed like drops of blood spreading in a bowl of milk, the effect heightened by the almost painful delicacy of her features and the dark grey of her eyes. A succession of mean-spirited boys (and a few girls) in her elementary school had delighted in taunting her into crimson-cheeked tears. The print room ogre, she thought, was just an older version of her classmates.

An interminable quarter of an hour later, she nodded to the man to bring out the next drawing. He was definitely smirking when he removed the first self-portrait. ‘Danke,’ Jessica muttered, mentally adding, sadist.

The light clink of the spoon in her cup as she stirred a lump of sugar into her coffee was finally starting to take the edge off her nerves. So was each delicately crumbling sliver of torte (she was discovering that she had a hitherto unknown capacity for coffee and cake, and that in Vienna, sugar and caffeine had a soothing effect quite the opposite of what they had at home). The worst past, she admitted to herself that the disastrous session in the print room hadn’t been so much the cause of her bad mood as a symptom.

She was disillusioned with Vienna. Yes, that was it. She’d spent years reading about it – in its glory years – and looking at its art – also from its glory years. Vienna in 2010 was far removed from the glitter, the danger, the intellectual ferment she found in Schiele’s drawings, Klimt’s paintings, Freud and Wittgenstein and Zweig. Of course she’d known that it had never really recovered from the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and two world wars, at least in a cultural sense, but it was one thing to understand the fall on an intellectual level and quite another to land there and realise that in some sense, time in Vienna had stopped in July 1914. It was a backwater. A prosperous, self-satisfied, proudly provincial backwater.

What bothered her most, though, was the way the city traded on its past – a poisonous mixture of cynical greed, disrespect and selective amnesia. Walking along Kärntnerstrasse on her first day, she came across a chocolate shop whose window flaunted boxes of truffles decorated with The Kiss and – the horror, the horror – Schiele’s Seated Woman with Bent Knee. Café Central had a kitsch statue of Peter Altenberg sitting at a table in its midst and she was willing to bet that none of the tourists conversing over overpriced cakes were engaged in the intellectual sparring matches of times past. Café Museum, which she’d dreamed of visiting not just for its Adolf Loos interior but because it had been Klimt’s and Schiele’s preferred haunt, was closed for repairs for the foreseeable future, just a few forlorn overturned bentwood chairs visible through the window. A team of contemporary artists had converted the Secession into a giant mini-golf course, which she wouldn’t have minded if they’d left the Beethoven Frieze alone – but they hadn’t. It had been impossible to see the frieze properly for the course and impossible to contemplate it in peace for the tinny Muzak. (She’d left an irate comment in the visitors’ book and felt a certain grim satisfaction in seeing that hers was far from being the only one.) And every time she passed a street, monument or square named after Karl Lueger – there were far too many – she felt a cold wind blow through her heart. She wasn’t at all religious, would have jokingly described herself as a Jewish atheist, but the constant reminder that she was in a city that apparently saw no problem with continuing to lionise Hitler’s idol hardly endeared her to the place.

Just then, in the midst of her unhappy reverie, an unexpected sound cut through the hum of conversation and the scrape of silver on china – a low tenor that seemed to be coming from the neighbouring table.

(To be continued…)


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