Shades of Schiele
Samantha went to the Kärtner Café every afternoon of the next week. It hadn’t rained for days. On Friday, she sat in her usual place, opened her notebook and stared at passers by. When the waitress brought her coffee, she had only written the date. Her words had dried up as if her eyes had sapped their energy searching for Fritz.
It was getting dark as she left the cafe for her hotel room. As usual, she shunned the red trams on the Ringstrasse to walk by the Gartenbau Kino. It was the only one playing English films – with German subtitles. She glanced at the posters for „Easy Rider“, thought for a minute of going in, but kept on walking. She didn’t want to sit alone in the dark seats. ‚Maybe I’ll bump into him,‘ she thought. She rounded the Parliament with its Greek columns and statues pointing down at her with their gilt and gold-leaf fingers, and strode past the Natural History Museum in Renaissance style on to the Gothic Rathaus. Samantha realised that in fifteen minutes she had passed through three ages of architecture. When she got to the Town Hall, she crossed narrow streets until she arrived at the door of Pension Czernik.
The wooden hall floor smelled of wax scoured with ammonia. She entered the Beethoven room. It was musty and she opened the double single-paned windows between which she kept some fruit and mineral water. It was cold as an icebox on the ledge between the outer and inner windows. She kicked off her shoes and flopped onto the eiderdowned bed.
‚On Monday I’m looking for a job,‘ she said to Beethoven’s bust on the dresser. ‚I’ve wasted a whole week underground in the city of music and waltz. What a bloody waste.‘ She crashed her foot through the air trying to stamp it horizontally.
‚You’re right,‘ she said to Beethoven. ‚I am hungry.‘ She washed her hands, rinsed her face and patted it dry, then grimaced at herself in the mirror above the white enamel wash basin in the corner of the room.
‚They could have put a loo and a shower in,‘ she said as she turned on the two squares of tiles backing the basin.
Before pulling the door shut, Samantha winked a good-bye to Beethoven. She took the staircase, ignoring the wrought-iron lift and slipped through the smaller door inlaid in the massive house portal.
Half a block down the road, yellow lamps glowed through the glassblown windows of the Hirtenwirt. The Gasthaus door held a menu in German and English. ‚Wiener Schnitzel, that’s what I’ll have.‘ Samantha pushed aside the heavy winter curtain still hanging over the door to keep off the evening drafts. She saw an empty table for two at the far end of the room and made her way to the seat which would put her back against the wall. The wood panelling with its ledges of country patterned plates just above her head felt comforting.
‚Sie wünschen, Fräulein?‘ the waiter said. ‚Wiener Schnitzel und Wein, bitte.‘
‚Yes, white.‘ She didn’t touch the sliced black bread in the basket on the table. Every slice added a Schilling to her bill. And the bread would spoil her appetite. Apart from breakfast, she realised that she had only had coffee the whole day. ‚I’ll have to stop that coffee …‘
The waiter brought her breaded veal and Samantha squeezed lemon over it, flicking the decorative anchovy roll aside with her knife.
‚Try it with a mixed salad, Samantha.‘
She jerked her head up and her eyes met Fritz’s. ‚I’m sorry if I startled you. I looked for you this afternoon.‘
‚Hallo Fritz.‘ Samantha concentrated on cutting the meat.
He eased his long body into the rustic wooden chair opposite her. His hair stood even more on end as if electrified. His eyes widened as if to draw her gaze to his.
‚I’ve been caught up in a number of things – with the agency. I think I told you I dealt in art photos, aesthetics, that sort of thing …‘
‚No, you didn’t.‘ Samantha looked up. ‚How did you know I was here?‘
Fritz stared at her, holding her gaze. ‚You don’t like riding trams, do you?‘
A tiny shiver ran through Samantha’s mind. ‚I followed you,‘ Fritz said, a quiet smile cruising his lips.
She felt she could not escape. She felt she did not want to.
‚And Now that I’ve found you … would you be free on Sunday? I’d like to take you to an exhibition.‘
Silently she sipped her wine and steadied her gaze, crossing her legs under the table. ‚Of your photos? I mean, the ones of the … agency?‘
‚No. Schiele. Egon Schiele.‘
‚No, Samantha. An Austrian painter. He died in 1918.‘
‚I’ve never heard of him. So he’s not modern?‘ ‚He is, in a way. Shocking even – then and now.‘ Fritz smiled. ‚So, will you come?‘
Samantha cocked her head to one side and let her gaze slip over Fritz’s face. ‚Shocking? In which way?‘
‚You’ll see. I’ll pick you up at 11, we can have a bite to eat and then go to the Belvedere.‘
‚The Belvedere?‘ The palace converted to an art gallery? Samantha thought. ‚Yes, I’ll come. But you don’t know where I live,‘ she teased.
‚So are you going to tell me?‘
Samantha hesitated. ‚Pension Czernik, ‚ she then said. ‚Josefstädter Strasse. You can ask for me in the reception. I’m in the Beethoven room.‘
Fritz rose and gave her a look that could have held a wink, but his eyelid did not move. ‚Sunday it is then. Enjoy the mixed salad.‘
‚But I …‘ Samantha stared agape as Fritz left the restaurant, turning once more to wave before he passed through the heavy curtain. What had she got herself in to this time? she thought. Sunday. Fritz. Egon Schiele. Well, she still had Saturday to do some research.
He had followed her. More than once. She had sensed him near. She had even willed it. Why did she feel drawn to him? She, too, had been born in Vienna. Suddenly her mother’s words flashed across her mind. ‚Never trust your own countryman abroad.‘ Was Fritz a countryman? Was this abroad? Could she trust more than the patchwork of her life’s origins allowed? Where was that instinct from the bush, the one that had always got her out of trouble?
Samantha finished her Schnitzel and called the waiter for the bill. ‚Bezahlen bitte, Herr Ober.‘ Why do research? she thought. I’ll just wait and see what happens. Why did I leave home anyway? ‚Home‘ was becoming a word she was finding harder and harder to define.
Lunch had been a simple affair in the same underground cafe they had met. Samantha and Fritz alighted from the red tram at the Südbahnhof and crossed the broad Wiedner Gürtel to the top entrance of the Belvedere Palace.
The pebbles caught in Samantha’s sling backs. She kept bending to flick them out. The broad grey avenue leading up to the stairs of the palace was flanked by lime trees, punctuated by wooden benches and columns standing like exclamation marks. She waded through the small stones, some smooth some sharp. Fritz adjusted his gait to hers, smiling quietly at her discomfort.
The posters for the exhibition had been plastered on the columns the length of the avenue to the entrance. Always the same sketch – self-portrait of the artist with his mouth open.
‚That one was done with black crayon in 1910,‘ Fritz said.
‚His hair’s almost like yours,‘ Samantha said. But I’m glad you have more clothes on, she thought as she felt a tinge of heat at the base of her throat. The drawing stopped just below a hand over the artist’s stomach. But it was obvious he had modelled in the nude.
They went up the broad marble staircase to the first floor. Fritz paid two entry tickets and with a sweep of his arm ushered Samantha to the left.
‚The exhibition starts here – his early works.‘ The shiny wooden floors caught the click and clatter of shoes, Not many people. three-metre high ceilings. Pictures spread out. The early works were portraits – men in their stiff white stand up collars, women with hats and lace choking their throats. Then followed interiors, landscapes. Just like any old painting, Samantha thought.
‚Schiele studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna,‘ Fritz said. ‚It was hard to get in. Someone now famous tried a few months before him, but didn’t make it. Guess who?‘
‚I don’t know. Who?‘
A waft of a smile touched Fritz’s lips as he steered Samantha into the next room. The style had changed. There were still portraits and interiors and outdoor scenes – mostly of houses. But the style had become more angular and the women’s clothes were highlighted by rings of gold and red.
‚Egon’s teacher at the academy said the devil had sent him,‘ Fritz said.
‚Doesn’t look too devilish to me,‘ Samantha smiled. She wondered why Fritz used Schiele’s first name. No one called Picasso Pablo.
‚Wait. Here you see Gustav Klimt’s influence – you know that famous picture, don’t you? The Kiss?‘
Samantha had seen prints of the opulent gold and colourful spirals enfolding the lovers in a cloak. It was flaunted on calendars and postcards in the tourist shops. She nodded. ‚Did Klimt say that to him about the devil?‘
‚No, Klimt wasn’t his teacher. In fact he told Schiele that he was the better one.‘
‚Klimt does have more gold – I don’t understand,‘ Samantha said.
As they moved into the next room, the style had changed yet again. ‚Egon and his model, Wally, had moved to Krumau in Bohemia when he did these,‘ Fritz said.
A water-colour and crayon picture of a little girl sleeping on her stomach was the first thing Samantha saw. The blues, greens, reds and whites of her checked blouse and striped skirt contrasted with the black coverlet on the bed and with the flesh of her naked buttocks and legs. Another showed two teenage girls locked in each other’s arms, the black of their garb offsetting the white of their faces and the flesh above their stocking tops.
‚They banished him from Krumau … for ‚public immorality‘.‘
‚No wonder,‘ Samantha said. ‚What’s next?‘ ‚Ah, these ones are special. You know, many people didn’t understand poor Egon. He shocked them, of course, but he lived for his art. These are all of Wally, his … lover.‘
Samantha felt a sudden prickling inside her. Warmth crept to her face. The pictures had become fine angular line drawings on a gouache background. Embracing women, almost nudes but for red or black stockings, or a hitched up bodice. Most half clothed. An orange mouth to match taut orange nipples worn above blatant pubic hair. Two crayon drawings of reclining nudes with fingers darting into nether parts. One nude wore boots.
Samantha turned to Fritz, her cheeks hot. ‚Is that all?‘ She tried to keep her voice steady as if it was something she did every day, look at Egon Schiele’s works.
‚I hope you’re not shocked, Samantha,‘ Fritz said, his thumb gently rubbing her nape.
‚No,‘ Samantha said and shook his hand off as subtly as she could. Fritz dropped his arm. ‚How about some
fresh air? A coffee on the terrace perhaps?‘
‚That would be nice.‘ Samantha felt the warmth in her cheeks fading as they traced their paces back to the entrance. She had seen nudes before, had been to galleries, but Schiele troubled her. Or did he touch something in her?
They sat at a small round wrought iron table on the small terrace overlooking the Schwarzenberg Platz, the spires of St Stephen’s in the distance. The Viennese coffee steamed through the lashings of cream and the sprinkle of chocolate dust.
‚He was grossly misunderstood, you know,‘ Fritz said. ‚One of the greatest artists of our time.‘
‚He’s awfully … erotic,‘ Samantha said. ‚And tortured.‘
‚You’ve understood, Samantha. He was tortured … by his art. He left Wally soon after the incident in Krumau, married and lived happily ever after until ..‘
‚He died in 1918, three days after his wife, Edith. Spanish flu. An epidemic. He was twenty-eight.‘
‚How old are you, Fritz?‘ Samantha heard herself saying, Fritz’s features washing in with those of Schiele she had seen on the photos at the entrance.
‚Twenty-eight.‘ Fritz’s laugh was shot with surprise.
That night, Samantha had a dream. In the morning she could only remember snippets: a man with Jake’s eyes, with Egon Schiele’s hair, with Fritz’s voice. Following her in a maze not unlike the gardens in which the aristocracy of bygone days played hide and seek. Then she was alone, huddled in a dark forest glade, feverishly gnawing at some raw meat.
It was Monday and the nozzle of her hot morning shower in the communal bathroom washed the last remnants of the dream away.