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Susan’s Bookshelves: The Flames

Until my late husband and I went to Vienna to visit galleries, attend concerts and walk the Beethoven trail a few years ago I had never heard of Egon Schiele (1890-1918). He is, of course, huge in Vienna and everywhere we went we saw his work and learned more about him and we were, like many before us, stopped dead in our tracks by the visceral, raw sexuality and truth of his paintings and drawings. It was quite a learning curve.

So who were the women who inspired and modelled for him and enabled the creation of those extraordinary images? And “modelling” in this case almost always means highly explicit nudity. We’re a very long way from the modest robes of, say, the pre-Raphaelites.   Enter Sophie Haydock’s 2022 novel The Flames which explores the interwoven stories of Schiele’s mistress/muse, Vally, his sister Gertrude, and Adele and Edith Harms. The latter was Frau Schiele until the couple died of Spanish Flu within days of each other in 1918.

Haydock’s version of the Harms sisters is that Adele was passionately in love with Schiele and devastated by his marrying her sister. Anguish turned her spiteful and in the framing device we see her as an elderly woman at a 1960s Schiele exhibition trying to place her remorse. Haydock gives us an Edith who loves Egon dearly but is a reluctant model. He was, after all, often accused of pornography even as he got better known and more highly regarded.  Adele, on the other hand, is only too glad to do anything Egon wants – within the novel, at least.

Walburga Neuzil, whose name Haydock abbreviates to Vally, had also modelled for Klimt, whose protégé Schiele was. As a couple they lived together for several years and she saw him through arrest for indecency and brief imprisonment. Haydock imagines that she has humble origins and that Schiele sees the marriage with Edith Harms as advantageous. Vally certainly isn’t prepared to let him have his cake and eat it and enlists as a nurse in the war where she doesn’t, sadly, last long.

And as for Gertrude, history suggests that there may have been incest – or incestuous inclinations – between her and her older brother. It is well documented that their father once found them in a locked room and that he destroyed some of Egon’s art. We also know that they ran away and spent a night in a hotel room. Whatever the truth of all this Haydock shows a close relationship which resulted in some graphic art. She eventually married a friend of her brother’s and bore a child.

Of course, as you read this novel you want to see the paintings and drawings, an astonishing number of which have survived. Schiele was only 28 when he died – younger even than Mozart and Schubert. What on earth might he have achieved, had he lived into middle and old age? Haydock includes small illustrations here and there in the novel and you can get a glimpse of many of them simply by Googling. But the novel will probably prompt you to book a trip to the Leopold Museum in Vienna. Cardinal and Nun (Caress), painted in 1912 is one of the most arresting paintings I’ve ever seen, despite the artist’s having toned it down for commercial reasons. Vally was the female model. The male figure is a self portrait.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Stradivarius by Tony Faber

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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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