SCHIELE IN PRISON
Preface to this Edition
Finding Schiele’s Forgotten Prison
“But, tell me, why would a young lady from Texas be interested in my long dead brother?”
This was the question asked me by the artist’s older sister Melanie, when I met her for the first time at a café in her district of Vienna. It was a warm September day in 1963. I was twenty-eight.
And I was able to answer immediately, for as a young scholar from Texas who had experienced an epiphany upon seeing a few drawings by Egon Schiele, I had fallen in love. In love with my questioner’s brother.
The extraordinary drawings were in a small exhibition curated by my teacher, Professor Herschel Chipp, at the University of California in Berkeley, where I was working on an M.A. degree. I had never seen anything like Schiele’s work. What unbridled passion. What trenchant style. What unvarnished truth. I knew my life from that day onward would be devoted to finding out all I could about the Wunderkind artist who was granted only twenty-eight years on this earth. He died in 1918—not in World War I, although he was a soldier—but from the raging influenza pandemic that followed, killing more people than had the war.
Egon Schiele was a shooting star that flashed across an Austrian cultural galaxy, a collection of stars, some of them dark, that included painters Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka, failed penniless artist Adolf Hitler, composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schönberg, gestural dancer Grete Wiesenthal, and architects Josef Hoffman and Adolf Loos. There were also Vienna’s handsome anti-Semitic mayor Karl Lueger, satirist Karl Kraus, librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, authors Arthur Schnitzler and Robert Musil, pacifist Nobel laureate Berta von Suttner—who died just seven days before World War I broke out—speed-of-sound scientist Ernst Mach, psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and muse to many, Alma Mahler.
One of the brightest stars in this galaxy, Schiele, was the first artist in the one-thousand-year reign of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy to be imprisoned because of his art. He was twenty-one and his friends were not surprised. A master of stripping away façades to reveal pulsating psyches underneath, he was also an exhibitionist and a voyeur—of himself and of the opposite sex. His sexually explicit depictions did not shy away from masturbation, the “one great habit” against which even Freud had trouble warning his sons. Such intimate drawings had eager clients in Vienna—the same patrons who collected Klimt’s erotic graphics—but not in the rural hamlet of Neulengbach, where Schiele had recently settled in order to create great things and be away from the intrigues of big city Vienna. The trouble was that the village children whom he invited to pose for him went home and described to their parents the drawings of erotica left lying carelessly about the artist’s studio.
So it was not astonishing that one day in April of 1912 two constables appeared at the door of Schiele’s rented garden house (Fig. 5), confiscated well over a hundred of his drawings, and arrested him. The charges against him were “immorality” and “seduction,” and he spent the next weeks in the village prison before trial and release. At the trial the judge, in symbolic condemnation, set fire to one of his drawings.
During that time of imprisonment, an anguished Schiele was able to express his thoughts in some thirteen watercolors and in what is translated and presented in this book as his prison diary.1 The fact that he—an artist—had been arrested and censored was the turning point in his life and in his art.
When I arrived in Vienna in search of Schiele in the late summer of 1963, the major part of my research took place in the Albertina Museum, one of the world’s largest collections of graphic art and the depository for many of Schiele’s drawings. The famed museum owned eleven of the thirteen watercolors Schiele created during his prison stay. I was allowed not only to study them but, in the tradition of the legendary connoisseur Bernard Berenson, to sketch my own pencil copies of them, causing the avuncular guards to refer to me as “das Schiele Fräulein—the Schiele Miss.” Hand-copying rather than simply photographing what Schiele had drawn imprinted upon my brain what the Neulengbach prison looked like, at least from the inside.
In his first watercolor Schiele had meticulously sketched his cell’s narrow cot, the incongruous electric call bell on the wall, and the heavy wooden door incised with a previous prisoner’s initials: “M H.” (Plate I) He then drew the grim basement corridor outside his cell, with its large crossbeam, standing mop and bucket, and doors to several more cells. (Plate II) The third drawing showed what Schiele titled poignantly “The Door into the Open.” (Plate III) Through the bars across the door’s small transom window he could see tree branches sprouting new green leaves.
The Albertina’s Schiele Archive also contained a rich trove of letters and photographs, and it was there that I made the photographic acquaintance of the artist’s two sisters, Melanie and Gerti. They were both still alive, and in spite of my being uniformly told that there was absolutely no use in contacting them, as they were both “crazy—verrückt,” I nevertheless wrote to them, asking for the privilege of an interview.
In the archive, I also came across a letter dated 1949 from a German art historian to the Albertina director Otto Benesch. The letter imperiously demanded to know “exactly where in Neulengbach Schiele was imprisoned.” The letter remained unanswered, Dr. Benesch, now retired, impishly informed me when I asked him about it in 1963.
“Exactly where in Neulengbach was Schiele imprisoned?” It was then I realized that since Schiele’s death not a single art historian writing about the artist had visited the village prison where the artist had been incarcerated and where he created such poignant self-portraits. (Plates VII-X) This struck me as either lazy or startlingly remiss since Neulengbach was only thirty miles southwest of Vienna.
That no one had sought out Schiele’s prison cell was all I needed to know. Armed with a glowing letter of introduction from Dr. Walter Koschatzky, the helpful new director of the Albertina, I rented a Volkswagen, and on the morning of August 27, 1963, as my diary for that day records, I was off to Neulengbach. I went via two other Schiele sites: Tulln, where he was born, and Klosterneuberg, where he went to school. Arriving in the small country town of Neulengbach, I saw right away that there was only one building large enough to have a basement with cells in 1912. It was the three-story District Court House—the Bezirksgerichtsgebäude. (Fig. 1)
I parked nearby and photographed the building from the front and from the right side. Yes, there was the “door into the open.” The back of the building (Fig. 14) was steep. I could see a row of six small barred windows. They had to be the cell windows. I photographed them as well. Then back to the front of the courthouse and, with racing pulse, I walked inside.
Alas, it turned out that presenting an embossed letter of introduction from a Vienna bigwig was the worst thing I could have done. The uniformed official who sat opposite the entry door read the letter out loud, slowly, and said with increasing mock pompousness: “hm, Albertina, hm, Wien, hmpf, Direktor!” He handed the letter back to me with disdain, declaring that under no means would I be allowed to enter the basement because “important government papers” (“wichtige Regierungspapiere”) were stored there. I pleaded with the unsmiling man, told him that I had come all the way from Texas in America just to see the prison cell where an important Austrian artist had been jailed fifty-one years ago. The bureaucrat was not to be budged.
Sadly, I walked away. But not too far away. Just out of sight. While I pondered what to do, the noon bell rang. All at once people surged out of the building, the officious bureaucrat among them. Some cleaning women also emerged and I joined them, sauntering backward as they walked forward. In another moment I was inside the courthouse. A staircase led down into darkness. I ran down the stairs and into a dank cellar where, immediately recognizable, was the narrow basement hall Schiele had drawn so meticulously. (Fig. 26, see Plate II) There was the same dismal band of gray paint running along the bottom of the limy whitewashed walls; there were six cell doors of thick wood; there was the same type of long-handled mop propped up on end to dry; and there, wedged above my head, was the wooden support beam Schiele had drawn—only now, fifty-one years later, it was sagging precariously in the middle.
But which of the six cells had been Schiele’s? At the near end of the corridor, I checked the first cell door, still labeled “Nr. 1,” and examined it from the inside. Nothing. Then I opened the door to cell “Nr. 2” and knew instantly that this was Schiele’s cell door. I remembered that in the watercolor dated 19 April 1912 (see Plate 1) Schiele had recorded the initials “M H” carved on the upper horizontal band of wood spanning the inside of the door.
Those initials “M H” are what I saw.
Somehow I was able to hold my Rolleiflex 2.8F camera steady enough to take a time exposure detail of the door in the dim light. (Fig. 24) Then I turned around to see where the “important government papers” were. There were none. Only neatly stacked logs! I photographed them as well. (Fig. 15) Then, just before I turned around to leave the hallowed cell that had been sullied by firewood, something beyond my volition happened. An object by the door caught my eye. My right hand reached out and yanked off the cell wall the electric call bell and cord Schiele had drawn above his cot. Would I burn in hell?
Back at the Albertina, I was able to compare my developed photographs with Schiele’s watercolors and to affirm the deft accuracy of his work. And the approving guards gave me a promotion in Austrian nomenclature: they referred to me now as “die Schiele Dame—the Schiele lady.”
One of the results of this close study of the prison images was that the Albertina agreed to re-mat the four self-portraits which had been horizontally matted to show the artist lying on his cot. But in my sketch notes I had observed that Schiele’s deliberate vertical placements of title, signature, and date next to those images were actually intended by the artist to convey that his self-portraits were meant to be viewed as upright, not horizontal, conveying all the more his emotional as well as physical discomfort. (see Plates VII-X)
Waiting for me in Vienna were letters from the two Schiele sisters. Both, although not on speaking terms with each other, were willing to grant me interviews. Melanie invited me out to her local social spot, “either in the garden or in the café house.”
And so it was that on a warm September day in 1963, now more than half a century ago, I was able to show Melanie Schiele the photographic results of my finding the forgotten prison where her brother had been incarcerated fifty-one years earlier. No one in her family had ever gone to see the courthouse in Neulengbach. Tears came to Melanie’s eyes. The same happened when I showed the prison images to Gerti a few days later. Over the years I was fortunate to interview the sisters many times and even tape record their enthusiastic reminiscences.2 And so it was gratifying to dedicate the first edition of this book to them.
And what of the purloined cell bell? Forty-nine years later, after the Neulengbach courthouse had been turned into a much visited Schiele Museum and a symposium honoring my discovery of the prison cell was held there, only then could I bear to return the hallowed Schiele cell bell to its historic home. Its absence had never been noticed. And, I was assured I was not going to hell.
In 2014, being still alive at eighty and apparently of sound mind, I was invited to guest curate an exhibition on Schiele for the Neue Galerie Museum for German and Austrian Art in New York. The show focused on the artist’s portraits but the museum also allowed me to dedicate a cell-like room to Schiele’s prison experience. My photographs from a half-century earlier, some of Schiele’s riveting diary entries, appropriate background music (Schönberg’s Transfigured Night), and above all, the images Schiele created while incarcerated, successfully conveyed the artist’s agony to museum visitors. The blockbuster exhibition had to be extended another four months.
With this new edition of Schiele in Prison, it is heartening to know that Egon Schiele—radiant meteor in Austria’s cultural galaxy—and his prison experience continue to fascinate generation after generation.
1. No one has ever seen Schiele’s original prison “diary,” and his friend Arthur Roessler, who published many of the artist’s writings posthumously, has been shown to change, elaborate on, and possibly even fabricate some of Schiele’s prose. In fact while most of the early prison diary entries do correspond to Schiele’s writing style, as verified by John Kallir, son of the Schiele expert Otto Kallir, the initial summarizing entry and the final entries match the style of Roessler. In particular, Kallir points out, Roessler seems to have written two long discursive entries describing the events, while piecing together the shorter entries from various original Schiele sources. Opinions on the veracity of the “diary” range therefore from dismissing it as a total forgery to believing that it does exist in some form. I am of the latter opinion. The “diary” is thus presented here in the spirit of access to yet another and revelatory portrait of the artist, whether by Schiele himself or by the artist speaking through a close friend. The original “diary” text was published in 1922 by Roessler under the title Egon Schiele im Gefängnis. In 1973 I published an English translation entitled Schiele in Prison and I included it the catalogue, Egon Schiele Portraits, accompanying the 2014–2015 exhibition on Schiele’s portraits I curated for the Neue Galerie Museum for German and Austrian Art in New York. The museum created a small, cell-like “prison” room for the show in which reproductions of the drawings the artist made while locked up were displayed along with my 1963 photographs of his basement prison cell, corridor, and “door to the open,” along with views of the Neulengbach district courthouse in which Schiele was incarcerated. Imprisonment was the turning point in Schiele’s life and in his art.
2. These recordings and their transcripts are now in the Schiele Archive of the Neue Galerie Museum for German and Austrian Art in New York, and I am grateful to the director, Renée Price, for her initiative in transferring the recordings from tape to CD format.