Objects of Desire
A Friday night, 1953. I am eight years old and being delivered, like a bag of groceries, to my father’s apartment. My mother rings the bell, releases my hand. Be good, she says, pushing me over the door jamb.
Inside the apartment on the couch, an odalisque, the woman with red hair, my father’s second wife, and the paintings clutching the walls, like bugs.
How does my father greet me? Usually with a pat of his hand somewhere between my neck and angel wing. Wie gehts, how are you, he asks. He does not expect a reply.
After dinner, which takes several hours because my father and his wife are so particular about how they lay out the table and prepare the food, my father takes me on a tour of the apartment. He’s bought two new paintings and he wants to show them to me. This is instead of a bedtime story or listening to music on the radio. In the living room above the couch where I will be sleeping is a small watercolor, poppy flowers against a black background. This is by Emil Nolde, a German Expressionist, my father explains, and it is very precious because it was painted during the war, hidden so Hitler could not find it, “an unpainted picture,” and only recently discovered.
My father has been telling me stories about his paintings since I have been very small. Now I am older and I require fuller stories, deeper explanations. How can a picture be unpainted, I ask.
Nolde painted in secret, my father explains, patiently. The paintings were visible only to him and to his wife in the farmhouse where they lived during the war. He called them unpainted as a joke because he was German to the marrow and very bitter that the Führer would not allow him to display his work.
German to the marrow. What does this mean? A marrow is the center of the chicken bone I suck and bite. It is full of iron, my mother says. But when I ask the meaning of the expression, my father does not answer my question. Come, look at the painting, he says. It is a masterpiece, nicht?
I am taller and my father does not have to lift me up to see. If I stand back I can see well enough. The blossoms of the poppies are red and purple, enormous washes of color filling the frame. Yes, it is very magnificent, I say. Then my father puts his arm around my shoulders and we stand there for a while looking at the beautiful painting.
Now we’re in the bedroom where I never venture unless I am invited, and above the dresser where there used to be a mirror is a painting of a man lying on top of a woman. Both the man and the woman are looking at me with mask-like faces. The man’s hands are in the woman’s red hair and his hips are in the air and the woman’s knee is splayed out in a strange position. I am waiting for my father to tell a story about this painting but all he says is, “It’s an Egon Schiele. He was Gustav Klimt’s protégé, the Vienna Secession.”
When I get into bed, I am still thinking about this painting. What are the man and woman doing to each other? Is the woman with the red hair my father’s wife? Is the man my father? And why do they look so angry?
In the morning, after I fold the sheets and blankets, I try to forget the painting. I open the cabinet and turn on the television. I can turn on the television myself if I am very careful and remember the lesson about the buttons and switches. The tube lights up and there is Howdy Doody, the Peanut Gallery and Clarabell the Clown. I sit close because I want to be in the Peanut Gallery with the other children, laughing and singing. The tube is small and the picture unsteady. There is a button to fix this if only I could find it. I read the words under each one and try to decide if I should twist “horizontal hold” or “vertical hold.” As Doodyville settles inside its frame, my father emerges in his seersucker robe, white with pale blue stripes.
Now he is in the kitchen, puttering with a tray for his wife who will stay in bed until about noon or so. He returns and we sit at the table and eat breakfast together. When there are no paintings to tell stories about or intricate meals to prepare, my father reads the newspaper, or answers a telephone call from a friend. All his friends are Austrian and none of them, so far as I can tell, have children. I have heard them say they do not like children. And I have heard my father say he agrees. It is wrong to bring another Jewish child into a world that exterminates Jews, like roaches, he says. So, in a way, it is not surprising that my father does not mention to these friends that I am with him this weekend, sitting at his table, sharing his food, and listening to stories about his new paintings.
He goes into the bedroom with his newspaper and when he comes out his wife is behind him shouting in German. She cannot stand me in the house another minute, she says. I am clearing the table as I have been taught and when I hear her shouting, I drop a bowl and a box of cereal. It’s a terrible mess, my father says, and I’ll have to clear it up. My fingers begin to twitch, and I want to cry but if I cry the shouting will get worse. It’s already worse.
I wonder if my mother knows about the painting, not the one with the poppies but the one in the bedroom where the mirror used to be. When I get home on Sunday night, I’m going to ask her what it means when a man lies on top of a woman in this way.
The man and the woman in the painting are completely exposed. I do not realize this until I begin telling my mother about the painting. It is not only the man’s hips that are in the air but also his buttocks, his testicles and his pubic hair, though, of course I do not have words to explain what I have seen except maybe the words “hip” and “naked.” I have written down the artist’s name in my notebook and made my own sketch of the man lying on top of the woman. My mother has heard of Egon Schiele—he is Austrian, nicht?—but my drawing is indecipherable and she is therefore unable to answer my question.
On Wednesdays, when he picks me up from school, my father takes me to a gallery owned by Serge Sabarsky. Mr. Sabarsky greets my father with a handshake and the words “Herr Doktor,” but by the end of the visit he is calling him “Fritz,” even though they continue to talk in a formal way and stand at a peculiar distance from one another—not too close, not too far—with their hands in the pockets. During these conversations, paintings are taken down off the walls or brought out by assistants from the back rooms. My father considers each one carefully. He will not buy until he is ready. Just look at how that house sits there, he might say. The lines, they make me want to sing. If he warms to a painting in this way, he will usually write a check.
By the time I am ten, the Schieles are an obsession. My father is now a regular guest at the galleries that buy and sell Schiele’s work and has contacted private collectors in Europe. At unexpected moments and in all spare moments, he escapes from his office to the galleries, handling the paintings and drawings, rotating them under the light, buying, selling and consolidating his collection. Even on Saturdays, now, there are trips to Sabarsky’s gallery and the Galerie St. Etienne on 57th Street where Otto Kallir, also from Austria, is waiting. Drawings, watercolors, and oils. The potency of Schiele’s line is almost inexplicable, my father says.
During these expeditions, the woman with red hair stays in the apartment or goes shopping. And I am pleased, pleased that I have my father to myself. I am paying attention to his stories, to Serge Sabarsky’s stories, to Otto Kallir’s stories. The collectors are keening for lost canvases and Schiele’s too early death, age 28, in the influenza epidemic of 1918.
One day, when the red-haired woman is not yet back from her spree, my father pulls out a sketchbook. Not even my wife knows that I draw, he says. For a moment I think he is talking about my mother but she is no longer his wife; the red-haired woman is his wife.
He allows me to hold the book and flip the pages. The drawings are mostly landscapes, hills, a stand of trees, rivers, the sawmill in the small village on the Hungarian border where my father spent his boyhood years.
The sketches are very beautiful, I say.
I wanted to draw like Schiele, my father says, brusquely, shutting the book.
Week after week, month after month, paintings and drawings accumulate in my father’s apartment. Schieles in every room, on every wall, in every comer. The artist’s wife, Edith, in a striped dress. Women embracing. Men embracing. Kneeling nudes and seminudes. The portrait of Edith is clothed and demure. Her expression is wistful, childlike, and expectant. An expression of longing. Schiele gave up his mistress and his dissipate life to marry her. How old am I when I learn this word—mistress? Maybe eleven. Maybe twelve.
There are other images, less benign, cadaverous images the artist made of himself in which he is devouring himself from the inside out, a mutilated torso of bone and skin, without a hand, without an arm. When I ask about these paintings, what they mean, what they are for, my father says Schiele is an anatomist; like a doctor, he knows how the body works. But what I notice is the crazed eyes, the green, yellow and orange skin, and the erections, at eye level.
I do not know the word erection and, if I did, what would I say to my father? How would I tell him I do not want his arm around me anymore or I do not want him to greet me with his hand between my neck and angel wing when I arrive at his apartment on Friday nights.
Now comes a parade: Images of young girls, two or three years older than I, with rumpled clothing pulled down to their knees. A girl with raised skirt, her labia, vulva and vagina, the compositional center of the painting, like a snuff movie, her head thrown back in a death throe in an eerie foreshadowing of corpses in the death camps. Is this what my cousin Lili looked like when she was killed?
Later, as an adult, I study Schiele’s children. Street urchins, children of prostitutes who agreed to pose for a fee, or a tangerine, or a roasted chestnut, or a glacé. There were many who came to Schiele’s studio. In the work, they become specimens or corpses surrounded by air, hands across their chests in mock shame, always the full frontal genitalia assaulting the viewer’s eye. When he did not have a model, Schiele sketched women in a gynecologist’s office or “hysterics” at the insane asylum, or himself grimacing or masturbating in front of the mirror.
In 1912, Egon Schiele’s artistic career was interrupted. He was accused of abducting a thirteen-year-old girl, a runaway, and forcing her to have sex. The girl’s father found her in Schiele’s studio and called the police. The charge of seducing a minor was dropped, but because the child had been exposed to the nude studies in the studio, Schiele was sentenced to prison for negligent custody of erotic nude material. In all, he spent twenty-four days in jail. At the trial, the judge averred the material was incendiary, an offense to bourgeois sensibility, and proceeded to burn one of the sketches for the benefit of the attendant press.
How is it possible to admire Schiele’s work? Why has my father chosen this work? Why did he subject me to this work? These are questions I ask when I am older, contemplating the lacuna of my lost childhood. My father, long dead, would not, I am sure, have been able to answer these questions, or would have ignored them. Now, as I wander through the Leopold Collection on loan to the Museum of Modem Art in New York in the fall of 1997, I am overcome by the images of abject children, even newborns, all parentless, without toys or playgrounds or flowered fields, utterly alone in Schiele’s universe. This is exactly how I felt in my father’s home every weekend I was there.
I am in a gallery with strangers on audio tours. Midway through the exhibition is a room with catalogues tied to the tables with wire ropes. I sit and pour through the thick paper, admire the quality of the reproductions, search for my father’s name under the heading “provenance.” But it is invisible, hidden beneath the scrim of “private collection,” or the name of a gallery or museum. Strange, like my father, Dr. Leopold, who amassed this collection, is an ophthalmologist. What does the eye see? What does the eye behold? There is an implication in the family name—schielen—to squint.
At the Galerie St. Etienne, still owned by the Kallir family, there is a companion exhibit. One of my father’s paintings is here, the provenance clear in the catalogue raisonné, “Woman with Blond Hair & Blue Garment” (1912). This woman is fully clothed. Of the more than 3,000 drawings and 300 paintings Egon Schiele produced in his lifetime, the tormented, pornographic images are in the minority. Still, they exist; they cannot be ignored. Certainly, I cannot ignore them or conclude, blithely, that my father’s obsession with Egon Schiele was normal. Nor can I appreciate fully the genius of this critically acclaimed artist. To do that, I must abandon memory. And this, of course, is impossible.
Carol Bergman’s articles, essays and profiles have appeared in numerous publications in Britain and the US. She is the author of two film biographies (Mae West, Sidney Poitier,) and the ghost of Captain Kangaroo’s autobiography, Growing Up Happy. A memoir, Searching for Fritzi, and a trilogy of novellas, Sitting for Klimt, are pending publication. She teaches writing at New York University and Gotham Writers’ Workshop.