At Sotheby’s in 1987 a number of poems by the renowned Austrian painter, Egon Schiele (1890-1918), went under the hammer. Of course these barely known verses could not hope to approach the ever more fantastic prices which the painter’s canvases now regularly fetch. Nonetheless, they remain of intrinsic value as a fascinating element of his legacy and perhaps contribute to a better understanding of his almost pathologically expressive visionary artworks.
The poems, around twenty in number, were written in 1909/10 and in 1915. The small body of work cannot be said to measure up to the stature of Schiele’s contemporaries, such as Georg Heym, Gottfried Benn or Jacob Von Hoddis – German-language poets of the so-called Expressionist generation. Yet the poems are striking examples of a painter’s earnest attempt to versify his painterly eye as well as to impart something of his unconventional biography and passionate views on the sacred mission of the artist.
Some of the poems were first published in various editions of the pacifist pamphlet, Die Aktion, produced in Berlin during the First World War. A sizeable selection of the poems, some with curious emendations by the editor, were published by Schiele’s friend and promoter, Arthur Roessler, as Egon Schiele: Prosa und Gedichte in Vienna in 1921. In April 1979 most of the poems appeared as a collection edited by Christian M. Nebehay: Egon Schiele 1890-1918: Leben, Briefe, Gedichte (Life, Letters, Poems) published by Residenz Verlag, Salzburg. Finally, in 1989, a smaller selection of poems were printed in Chapter 10: ‘Egon Schiele als Dichter’ (‘Egon Schiele as a Poet’) of the book: Egon Schiele Von der Skizze zum Bild, Die Skizzenbücher (Egon Schiele From Sketch to Picture, The Sketchbooks), also edited by Christian M. Nebehay and published by the Verlag Christian Brandstätter, Vienna. It was this text that was used for the present translations into English.
It is immediately self-evident that Schiele’s poems were written by a painter, not only in titles such as ‘sketch for a self portrait’ or ‘self portrait’, but also, perhaps inevitably, in the highly expressive use of colours throughout the poems. These appear to be employed both realistically and suggestively, almost as if the embryonic line were the sleeping canvas waiting for the application of a particular colour to bring it to life. Thus in the poem ‘Visions’, we have ‘The white pallid girls showed me their black legs and red garters and spoke with black fingers …’ Straight away one is aware this is a Schiele painting. Even had we not known the author of this poem, it would conjure up the now almost iconic image of pale, skinny, street-girl models lounging about his studio with their angular, bruised limbs and blood-red lips. The ‘black’ mentioned twice here could, in the first instance, be interpreted as a simple description of the stockings themselves, with the garters blazing against them. Yet, ‘black fingers’ suggests something more poetically authentic and unsettlingly morbid. It brings to mind the greenish-grey shade of putrefaction Schiele customarily imparts into the flesh of his subjects.
Colour also luxuriously embroiders the lines of ‘Anarchist Sun’, with the delirious opener: ‘Taste, red one! Smell swaying white winds’. In the evocatively entitled ‘Music while Drowning’ a suitable mortuary-black predominates. One cannot help but think of the grim death of the poet Georg Heym in 1912. A man with a pathological fear of drowning, he fell through the ice whilst skating on the Havel near Berlin. ‘Twisting I fought/and heard the waters within me,/the fine, beautiful black waters…’ Or even the suicide of the poet Paul Celan, who symbolically dropped off the Pont Mirabeau into the Seine some sixty years later. Yet, for all the wrestling with death, the breathing of ‘golden strength’ seems to suggest the achievement of art secured for eternity in spite of such a wretched exit. As has been laboriously attested elsewhere, for Schiele, eros and thanatos pervade everything. His sensory organs are taut and primed for such interpretations; but beyond this corporeal laboratory of the real filtered through the subjective expressive gauze, lies the higher spiritual path he feels has been assigned to him. This self-belief is encapsulated in the extraordinary long poem, ‘Fir Forest’, which reads like a Nietzschean clarion call for that ubiquitous higher race of artist-men to reject the intricate deceptions of the State and uncompromisingly fulfil their calling. The ‘nimble apes’ Nietzsche wilfully harangues in Thus Spake Zarathustra and elsewhere are likewise fervently lambasted by Schiele in his ‘Fir Forest’. The prosaic man is all too recognisable a century later:
‘Anger, greed and ambition to be wealthy are most often expressed in dulling gestures all their lives they wallow in the state and never try to fathom nature, but whistle easily understood operettas and read novels for pleasure …’
In one of his untitled poems Schiele talks of a bird where ‘a thousand greens are reflected in its eyes’. That this was written by an artist of Schiele’s calibre infuses the image with added significance. Who but he could know the shade created by a thousand greens and hold it long enough to record? What matters is not literally that a thousand greens reflect in the bird’s eye, but the possibility that they could. The green of the eye is so overwhelming that in his determination to see truth above all else the precocious poet-artist has glutted himself with a thousand variations within a single colour. While admitting the impossibility of capturing the reality of nature – like a translator faced with a text which appears to defy intra-linguistic interpretation – Schiele takes up the challenge nevertheless. It is a microcosm of the artistic calling: proceeding with creation and conceding defeat at the same moment. The sense of precariousness, the constant wavering of the boundary between lucidity and excruciation, is perhaps why Schiele’s paintings score so deeply into us today and why his poems so naturally shadow them, keeping just enough distance to be works of art in their own right.