The Butterfly’s Wing (Part 6)

December 3, 2012 § 2 Comments

Gustav Klimt's studio

Gustav Klimt’s studio

(For part 5, go here.)

The days that followed produced so many moments that would have had Jessica gaping or laughing in disbelief that she had no choice but to treat them as utterly ordinary.

The morning after she arrived in 1914, she found herself crossing the threshold of Klimt’s studio. She was mildly disappointed to find no trace of the legendary harem of nude models lolling about while the artist sketched, and wondered if he had dismissed them for the morning on the pretext that the sight would be improper for a young lady of good breeding – indeed, apart from his one unfortunate remark about her marriage prospects the first evening, his manner toward her had been unfailingly courtly, although leavened with hearty good humour. The only sign of the models was a pile of sketches on a table in a corner which he had tried to distract her from by showing her the canvases currently on his easels – a landscape of the Attersee that resembled a mosaic of jewels and a pair of portraits of a mother and daughter, the figure of the mother half-laid in against a riot of colour, the daughter standing with feet planted wide apart on a curiously matte pink ground. The squat, solid figure of the mother and the sylph-like girl whose unwavering gaze and square jaw bespoke a mixture of shyness and stubbornness sparked a connection in her mind.

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Mada Primavesi (1912)

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Mäda Primavesi (1912)

‘Mäda and Eugenia Primavesi?’ she asked before she could stop herself.

‘Quite right!’ Klimt replied, startled. ‘How did you recognise them?’ She mentally slapped herself, mumbling something about them being friends of one of her uncles.

One morning, strolling along the Ringstrasse near the University, she saw coming toward her a sturdy middle-aged man with a salt-and-pepper beard deep in conversation with two younger men, punctuating his remarks with emphatic jabs of his cigar. Although he bore little resemblance to the frail, shriveled, bespectacled grandfather of popular imagination, she immediately knew who he was. Since she could hardly detain him and gush like a star-struck teenager, she settled for nodding politely in his direction as he passed, which he was too enrapt in the finer points of his own argument to even notice. Now I know what my epitaph will be, she thought wryly. Jessica Rosen: She was ignored by Freud.

Another morning, feeling frivolous, she paid a visit to Schwestern Flöge and spent a good two hours trying on dresses. To her surprise and delight, Emilie Flöge herself waited on her, and Jessica found her attention torn between the strangely austere flamboyance of the dresses, with their flowing lines and layers of black and white pattern, and the perfect oval of the couturiere’s face, so familiar from paintings and photographs, and the resignation that shadowed her kind eyes.

Emilie Floge (photograph by Madame d'Ora, 1909)

Emilie Flöge (photograph by Madame d’Ora, 1909)

‘That dress looks very well on you, madam,’ she observed as Jessica admired her reflection – she had on a loose, airy lawn with a stylized butterfly print that looked as if it might have been the work of Dagobert Peche. Jessica’s pleasure quickly turned to consternation when Flöge continued, ‘Shall I have it delivered to your hotel?’

For one instant the temptation to say yes nearly claimed her, but then the obvious objections – the cost, the fact that she would never be able to wear it in her own time, much less explain its presence – forced common sense to prevail. ‘I – I’ll have to ask my fiancé first,’ she stammered, blushing furiously.

‘Yes, of course,’ Flöge nodded, her tolerant smile unwavering. In the moment before she turned away, Jessica glimpsed the filigree of silver in the soft puffs of hair framing her face, the tiny webs of crows’ feet springing from the corners of her eyes. As she changed back into her own clothes, her choice of excuse tormented her, a thoughtless reminder to Flöge of two decades of disappointed waiting and being held at arm’s length by Klimt, always ready to bed one of his models but never regarding her as anything other than a chaste goddess in Wiener Werkstätte robes.

Oskar Kokoschka, The Bride of the Wind (1914)

Oskar Kokoschka, The Bride of the Wind (1914)

Another afternoon, feeling particularly foolhardy, she accosted Georg Trakl in the café and broke into his solitude with a boldness that came from she knew not where, ‘I’ve been told you’re the only person on speaking terms with Kokoschka. How about taking me to his studio?’ She nearly turned and fled when Trakl swiveled his brutal mask of a face in her direction, his eyes swimming in a drugged haze, but he seemed to be in a good enough mood to mumble, ‘Okay, okay, let’s go.’ A painfully awkward ten-minute walk later they were standing in Kokoschka’s studio looking at The Bride of the Wind propped on an easel, a few patches of paint still wet. Kokoschka stood leaning against a table to the left of the easel, his head drawn in between his hunched shoulders, eyes downcast. He acknowledged their entrance with the briefest of nods. After Jessica had gazed her fill at the two floating figures at the centre of what looked like a whirlwind of rags and shards of ice, she murmured her barely audible thanks and edged out the door. Kokoschka had not spoken a single word.

Most of her time, though, was spent across a table at Café Museum from Schiele, trying to talk, listen and scribble notes all at once. The headwaiter learned to keep an eye out for the pale, serious young woman in the military coat with the crown of red plaits and would gesture her toward Schiele’s table with a polite ‘This way, miss.’ She felt a niggling guilt at having done nothing to correct the impression that she could help him make his name in New York, but he seemed pleased enough to have a sympathetic ear – once he had gotten past his skepticism about a woman being capable of admiring his work – that he quickly warmed to her.

After scarcely an hour in Schiele’s company she was reminded of Gainsborough’s complaint about Reynolds – ‘Damn him, how various he is!’ – but where Gainsborough had been referring to his rival’s art, Jessica felt the words applied more aptly to Schiele himself. His art seemed all of a piece but trying to understand the man himself was like trying to grasp quicksilver. The wounded pride and angry vulnerability she had witnessed on first meeting him were only two of many facets. Sometimes, as when she reminded him that he had just this year been offered shows in Brussels and Rome and he shot her down with a tirade about how Vienna itself would never give him the recognition he deserved, the bitter sense of entitlement made her want to kick him under the table (even if she inwardly agreed with his grievances). Sometimes he could be self-important, sometimes unthinkingly cruel. Other times he girded himself with a brittle, sarcastic self-assurance that she suspected hid a shyness as strong as her own. Given a topic that fascinated him, he lit up with passion, his eyes flashing and his sensitive, mobile features transfigured. He could be unexpectedly kind and courteous – especially, she was both pleased and vaguely unsettled to note, toward her.

Perhaps the most surprising discovery – given the nature of his art and his reputation for taking himself so seriously – was that he had a keen sense of humour. Jessica, early on, managed to say something that amused him and although she would be hard pressed to remember just what she had said to provoke it, she knew she would never forget his reaction.

Schiele had painted and drawn himself frozen in all manner of grimaces, but Schiele laughing was an even more alarming sight. The laugh itself was convulsive, somewhere between a cackle and a gasp, but the transformation it wrought on his face was extraordinary. His lips drew back to reveal both rows of teeth (which were all present and correct and startlingly white and sharp), the skin at his temples strained almost to breaking point, his eyes constricted to razor-thin slits. Jessica resolved not to knowingly say anything witty to him as soon as she remembered to breathe again.

‘You know,’ he mused toward the end of their first daytime conversation, ‘you’re nothing like a Viennese. Talking to you is just like talking to a man.’

Jessica was torn between smiling and rolling her eyes at the backhanded compliment. ‘Thank you for that – I think,’ she replied drily.

Being treated like a man had its advantages – she could fearlessly approach topics that would otherwise have been off-limits – and its unexpected downsides. She found herself shoehorned into the role of confidant more than she might have liked. Once, in the midst of discussing his models, specifically Wally, who had been his girlfriend for the last few years, Schiele tossed out nonchalantly, ‘She’s good fun but I’m beginning to think it’s time I started seriously considering making an advantageous marriage. You understand, to a good middle-class girl. There are two sisters who live across the street from me I’ve got my eye on. Either one of them would fill the bill. What do you think?’

Jessica’s first impulse was to say Sometimes I think you’re a real heel, Egon, but she found her thoughts turning to the work that Wally and Edith, Schiele’s eventual wife, would inspire – Wally, raw, confrontational and angst-ridden, Edith, tender, more measured, more mature – and settled for responding wryly, ‘I’m sure you’ll figure it out.’

Egon Schiele, For art and my loved ones I will endure to the end! (Self-portrait as prisoner) (1912)

Egon Schiele, For art and my loved ones I will gladly endure to the end! (Self-portrait as prisoner) (1912)

Some of the best moments she spent with him were those when he drew forth his portfolio from under the table and spread out drawings. She had asked specifically for self-portraits but was surprised and touched to see that he had included a few of Wally, wondering if the shy pride that suffused Schiele’s face when he spread them out had more to do with his girlfriend’s beauty or his own talent. If she had rebelled at having someone stand over her while she examined the drawings at the Albertina, having Schiele himself at her elbow was quite a different experience. Although he was eloquent in conversation, he seemed to prefer to let his work speak for itself, and had an uncanny way of seeming to fade into the background once he had laid a drawing in front of her. The first half of his short career unfolded before her eyes – the brutally distorted, grimacing nudes he had drawn four years previously, many of them haloed in streaks of white gouache, the more recent self-portraits in the guises of preachers, ascetics and martyred saints. On the fourth day he gave her a token of how much he had come to trust her by laying before her, without a word, the two self-portraits he had drawn during his spell in jail two years before. Jessica stared at them wordlessly until she lost all track of time, and then finally gave way to an impulse she had never been able to honour at the Albertina: she laid her head on her hands and wept silently. When she raised her head, she found Schiele staring at her with an expression composed equally of awe, cautious respect and perplexity, his eyes silently asking Where did you come from?

Despite his generosity in showing her sheaf after sheaf of drawings at the café, she couldn’t help feeling a pang of disappointment at his not inviting her to his studio. She was keeping a careful count of the days she had left before she was due to meet Schmetterling again.

Time was getting short.


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