"Arrogance" is the title and often the subject of Joanna Scott's new novel loosely based on the life of artist Egon Schiele--the Johnny Rotten of his generation.
The Austrian Expressionist was the very model of arrogance when critics attacked his naked self-portraits and erotic drawings during the first decades of the 20th Century. Slashing at the academy and bourgeois hypocrisy, Schiele believed that his art was part of a new language emblematic of the modern era. Today, he would be the target of Jesse Helms, and the religious right. He couldn't get a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Schiele lived only 28 years, much of it embattled, from a sad and abused childhood to his sudden death from Spanish influenza in 1918. Yet, during his brief life, he created images that remain so provocative and memorable that he is considered an indelible figure in the history of Expressionism.
With a suffering, rebellious and flamboyant protagonist, a gripping biography might be expected. There isn't one in print. But this is an impressionistic and fictional sketch of Schiele's life, a selection of vignettes woven together with turn-of-the-century ambience. Scott eschews chronology for a cinematic cross-cutting of incidents, so that Schiele's childhood is braided with accounts of his adult behavior. The picture is complete but fractured and colored, as though reflected through a stained-glass window.
For example, the first chapter of the book zig-zags back in time as follows: Schiele, at 22, huddles in his jail cell in the village of Neulengbach, on April 15, 1912, unaware that he has been arrested for painting young girls in suggestive poses. Rewind to 1904, when 14-year-old Egon and his younger sister Gerti watch their father die at home.
A still younger Egon shows Gerti a series of self-portraits. She laughs at them, attracting the unwanted attention of their father, Adolph, who seizes the drawings and burns them in the kitchen stove. Flash forward to the adult Schiele in his jail cell dwelling on the memories of an earlier vacation in Trieste with Gerti, thought to be his favorite model.
In the manner of Dos Passos, the book's serpentine narrative is interrupted with Schiele's diary entries, Viennese gossip, news reports and the philosophical or psychological jargon of the day. The result is a collage whereby one gleans the sense of Schiele's grim life.
You quickly realize that his notorious arrogance is a weapon to be used in self-defense. His alcoholic father, the stationmaster of Tulln outside of Vienna, punishes and berates his son sadistically. Schiele's long-suffering mother Marie pleads in vain that her son will apply his considerable talents to engineering. You begin wondering why little Egon's more aberrant interests did not take a more deviant, proto-Fascist turn.
Instead, he enters the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. Within a couple of years, he is invited to work with the more innovative Wiener Werkstatte , and rebels against the conservative teachings of the academy. In 1909, he helps organize the Neukunstgruppe in Vienna. His work is shown at the Kunstschau --where Van Gogh also exhibits--and is denounced as perverted caricature by some, though he receives praise and commissions from the influential critic Arthur Roessler. Vienna's preeminent artist of the late 19th Century, Gustav Klimt, champions Schiele, and as a gesture of friendship, passes along his lover and model, Vallie Neuzil.
Vallie and Egon move to Krumau, where Schiele's mother was born, and then to Neulengbach. Schiele uses adolescent village girls as models for his provocative drawings and paintings. It is the erotic nature of this work that leads to his arrest and detention for 27 days.
In 1912, the couple move back to Vienna. Schiele meets Edith Harms, the proper daughter of a prosperous family. He abandons his devoted, bohemian mistress Vallie and marries Edith in 1913. Four days later, he is drafted and serves as a military artist.
In 1918, Edith, pregnant, dies of Spanish influenza; a few days later, Schiele succumbs to the same disease. His work is shown in the 1918 exhibition of the Vienna Secession and, ironically, it is the first to bring him international acclaim.
These facts of Schiele's life are never so concisely nor so conventionally chronicled in Scott's novel. Instead, Schiele's life is revealed elliptically. The supporting characters--collectors, friends and family--and the Austrian setting assume an importance equal to that of Schiele himself. This prevents a reader from becoming engrossed in the story; sympathy for Schiele is derailed repeatedly by asides and observations. But this is clearly the author's intention, and those detours become enjoyable in themselves.