Image: “Self Portrait With Raised Bare Shoulder,” Egon Schiele
Egon Schiele looked like a young Tom Waits staring out at me from the self-portrait. His demure posture belied a haughtiness that even the least perceptive observer could discern. It was in the eyes. I knew it would do me no good to affect a similar countenance in my impending meeting, but I’d be damned if I’d go in there without putting on some kind of airs. It was what they expected. They were honoring me, and these were not the type of people who honored the meek.
The painting was on loan to The Met from Vienna for a special exhibit on Schiele, and I had been invited as an expert on the controversial Austrian Expressionist to write the texts that would accompany each painting. It was tedious work, but it paid well, and it was as I have said an honor to be asked.
I was sitting in the anteroom of the curator’s office, waiting for my appointment and staring at the painting—or rather, a poster of it advertising the upcoming exhibit. The poster featured “Self-Portrait with Physalis” and showed the dates of the exhibit in yellow at the bottom. As Schiele stared back at me with that condescending visage, I knew I had no business being there.
I had published my dissertation on Schiele five years prior, and since then had taught an unimpressive course load in New Jersey. There were at least five other scholars who could have taken the position, all within driving distance of New York and all more capable than I. Indeed, the curator, Edgar Windham, could have written the blurbs for the paintings himself, but for whatever reason, he had selected me. I did not want to know how many of my esteemed peers had turned down Edgar’s offer before his thoughts lighted on me. As circumstances stood, I felt grossly under-qualified
“Val,” Edgar said coming through the doorway. “Thank you for coming,” and he ushered me into his office to sit down. He was an oldish man in his early sixties with a close-cropped white beard and glasses. The son of a wealthy, venerable New York family, he wore his privilege as he wore his camelhair blazer and six hundred dollar shoes—with authority. I did not venture to guess at the price tag of his Swiss chronometer, but Edgar was a worker. As much as he loved a fine Bordeaux, he loved art more, and he was infinitely devoted to it. I liked Edgar, and I don’t think I’m out of line to say he liked me too, but he was enamored of Schiele, and that was why I was there.
“Thank you for the opportunity,” I said, sitting back to feign confidence.
“I wouldn’t have asked another soul, Val,” he said. “Everyone knows your credentials, and we’re all bursting to read what you have to say about each piece.”
“I’m impressed to see you got so much from Vienna,” I said.
“They’ve been very gracious to us,” Edgar said.
The Met had forty-some-odd Shiele pieces in its collection, but rarely did the museum put them on view, as many were merely charcoal or graphite drawings on paper, not the brash oils on canvas for which the man was best known. Most of those were in the Leopold Museum in Vienna, and almost never did they travel.
“I was admiring the ad for the exhibit,” I said. “I haven’t seen ‘Self-Portrait with Physalis’ in years. I can’t wait to see the real thing again.”
“You don’t know the half of it, my boy,” Edgar said. “We’ve got ‘Transfiguration’ too.”
“You’re fucking kidding me,” I blurted with no regard for decorum, and Edgar laughed with delight. The painting had always been in Austria, but when I had been overseas, it was still in the private collection of the Leopold family and unavailable for viewing. I had never seen it except in photographs. I had tried to arrange a private viewing, but that proved impossible. Since its transfer from the private collection to the museum, I had been unable, on my meager professor’s salary, to make a pilgrimage to see it. Now it had come to me, and I had no justifiable mandate to write anything about it.
What Edgar did not know—what no one but I and the deceased Schiele knew—was that I had not written my own dissertation. That is not to say that I had plagiarized it. Not exactly, anyway. I had typed each word myself on my obsolete laptop, but I had not composed them. I had merely typed what came to me as Schiele dictated. I do not mean to make the claim of the modest scholar giving more credit to his subject than to himself. Rather, like some Edwardian medium at a séance, I had been in communion with the dead artist personally. He had spoken to me in tones as clear as those that might have come from a man across the room, reclined and staring at the ceiling.
It began in the early years of my research, with my first examination of Schiele’s 1915 painting “Double Self-Portrait.” It featured two figures of the artist, one cradling the head of the other in a nurturing embrace. When Schiele greeted me, it was in a lilting German, accented with an Austrian timbre,
“Guten Tag,” he said to me. “Good day.” I knew the voice was Schiele’s, as if I had been hearing it my whole life, and even in my shock, I spoke back to him. Thus began our relationship, which continued over the subsequent years it took him to dictate every cursed syllable of my sixty thousand word thesis.
I’m not crazy.
I tested that hypothesis myself. Shiele told me things about himself I did not, couldnot know, and when I checked his facts, I found them to be correct with total accuracy. At first, even though Schiele’s claims were all verifiable, I resisted the temptation to listen and insisted upon doing my own work. I tried ignoring him, but he kept talking, and the more I resisted, the louder Schiele spoke, until my neighbors complained about the noise. “He’s always watching those late night foreign films,” they told the landlord. So I was not the only one who heard him. It was just that no one else knew who was speaking.
I knew, though. Not only did the voice claim to be Egon Schiele, but it also knew things that one could not have counterfeited. The voice had such intimate knowledge of the man that it could only have come from one source. I took in the revelations he provided and finished my thesis ahead of schedule. For fear of arousing suspicions of plagiarism, I never gave my advisor any recent pages. Everything I submitted was at least six weeks old, as I had to gather evidence to corroborate his claims. Even in that was Schiele provident, for he directed me to the relevant sources with effortless, even dismissive authority. Eventually, I stopped checking his facts altogether. It was by these means that I both established myself as a promising young scholar and earned a professorship at a respected, if not prestigious, Northeast college.
Let me reiterate that I am not crazy. Nor did Schiele continue to speak to me after that chapter in my life. He told me everything he wanted known and some things he might have kept secret under different conditions, but he revealed them anyway in the confessional of my workspace, for the sake of posterity you might say. When I closed the file on my final draft, Schiele went silent. He just stopped talking. Afterward our conversations were mere memories, like the snapshots of his double portraits that I kept in my files—two subjects to one canvas. A psychiatrist armed with knowledge of my circumstances would have prescribed medication, but Schiele was in no way my imaginary friend. To be frank, he wasn’t even friendly but prone instead to eruptions of unmitigated ire. In those fits he provided me with the unique education of an apprentice learning from a master. I grew into my thesis as I played the role of protégé. Then he abandoned me to make my way alone.
At first everything was fine. The enthusiastic reception of my thesis sustained me for some little time, but though I could comment with authority on Schiele’s life and works, I had no means by which to build upon the limitations Schiele had put on my education. I had peaked at thirty-five and accepted that I never would amount to anything groundbreaking again. I was shackled to the mind of Schiele yet shut out from access to it.
It should come as no surprise then, that as I sat Edgar Windham’s office thinking of the ghastly face on the poster, which had stared knowingly back at me, I feared I needed Schiele again if I were to execute the task before me and retain my dignity. By that point in my meeting with Edgar, I had half resolved to flee back to New Jersey, knowing I could be of little use to Edgar. But I did not leave. As I listened to him reveling in the glory of his acquisition, I affected all the false authority I could manage in order to live up to my unearned reputation.
“Do you want to see it?” Edgar asked, beaming with glee.
“What?” I asked, still lost in thoughts five years past.
“Speechless, I see,” he said laughing. “You can see ‘Transfiguration’ now if you’d like.”
For a moment I truly couldn’t speak. ‘Transfiguration,’ Schiele’s treatise on death and the mind’s apotheosis, was my white whale. It was a transformation from the terror of the material world and a solemn yielding to the inevitability of death. These were the thoughts I knew would find their way into the blurb I would write to hang beside the painting, but in that stunned and silent moment, they came as flashes of memory, and I could not make them take coherent shape for a spoken response. I needed Schiele for that.
“Yes,” was the best that I could manage in response to Edgar’s question, and he stood up and invited me to follow him into the archives where the staff prepared the pieces for the exhibit. There were eighteen works in all, mostly from the Leopold Museum and the Met’s own holdings—two or three had come from other collections—all painstakingly laid out for preparation. Edgar introduced me to the staff he had assigned to the exhibit and told them to provide me with whatever I might need.
“Whether it be solitude, access to the archives, or a latte,” he told them, “you’ll do your best to deliver.” They agreed, welcoming me each in turn into their inner sanctum. Then Edgar turned to me. “Come here,” he said and led me to a corner where a framed canvas wrapped in bubble wrap lay in a wooden crate. Edgar took a pen knife from a worktable and delicately cut back the first layer of wrapping.
“Hold this, please,” he said handing me the blade. He eased back the wrapping to reveal “Transfiguration.”
I looked upon a painting of two figures, both obviously of the artist himself, spread out on a background of agrarian landscape. The topmost figure hovered over the lower one and levitated into the afterlife, his hands folded in prayer, eyelids drooping in acquiescence to the coming journey. The lower figure stared out of the painting in a horrifying gasp of terror—eyes bulging, hands held rigid, in protest of the coming on of death. Both faces were gaunt and horrible, but the lower one still retained the flush of life, while the levitating figure’s complexion was sallow and tinged with gray.
“May I examine it in private?” I asked Edgar.
“Of course.” He motioned for two staffers to remove the painting to another room, where they placed it for my viewing.
“I’ll leave you to it,” Edgar said. “I’ll be upstairs when you’re done.”
He closed the door as he left, and I was alone with the celebrated painting. I stood a long way from it for a moment, fearful of approaching it. I took a step forward and then another. In this way I made my way across the room to stand before the painting. When I leaned closer to the face of the lower figure and stared into its terrified eyes, a shiver went through me, and I looked away. Then, stretching to gaze into the drooping eyes of the upper figure, I heard it.
“Guten Tag, Val.” As always, Schiele pronounced it “Wal.”
I stepped back, and took a breath, unsure for a moment whether the voice was real.
“Val?” he asked again.
“Wo— Wo warst du, Egon?” I stammered.
“Learning English,” he said and laughed. “I can speak much better to you now, yes?”
I tried to compliment him on his English, but I was nervous and a bit resentful. He had abandoned me those years ago, and I’d had to manage my career without him, an inconvenience that, had I completed my research independently, I might have been able to handle, but since he had rendered me dependent on his influence, I was unfit to hold the honors and distinctions Schiele’s work had earned me.
“Why did you leave?” I asked.
“Because I was done with you,” he said.
“But I wasn’t done with you,” I said, still looking into the complacent eyes of the hovering figure in the painting.
“I couldn’t concern myself with that, Val,” he said. “The afterlife is very busy. The dead have work to do. You didn’t think I would waste my hard-earned eternity being at your beck and call, did you?”
“I only would have needed you a little while longer,” I said.
“I am sorry, Val, but that is a load of horseshit,” he said. “I thought that if I left, then you would finally come into your own. It’s a pity I was wrong. You were too weak. I thought my absence would compel you to independence, but as it happens, you’re just as weak now as you were then.”
“I wasn’t weak,” I protested. “Just inexperienced.”
“You were a child,” he said. “Admit it. You were never right about anything. So inadequate. A floundering mess.”
“You left me floundering.”
“Listen, Val” Schiele said, “When I left Klimt’s tutelage in my youth, I became my own man—a free creator in my own right. I tried to pass that independence to you, but you still haven’t grown up. I left you poised on the threshold of prestige, and you just stood there like a… like a boy. No, worse than that—like a coward. Any floundering was due entirely to your own shortcomings.”
I wanted to respond. More than that I wanted to curse him, to humiliate and degrade him as punishment for leaving me, but I said nothing. Instead of cursing him, I took his abuse and held it in the room before me—between the painting and myself—and allowed it to cut my already wounded self-esteem.
“Why have you returned?” I asked after a moment. Schiele laughed.
“Isn’t it obvious?” he said. “For the Gleichmäßigkeit.”
“I don’t know that word,” I said.
“Balance,” he said. “Symmetry.”
“I don’t know what you mean. What symmetry?”
“Oh, Val,” he said. “You haven’t changed at all.”
“I wish you’d speak in complete thoughts,” I said.
“Always so eager to ask a question; always so reluctant to make a discovery. Some things never change.”
I tried to conjure a denial, a rebuttal to his accusation. If a scholar is anything, he is curious. Is there nothing noble in questioning? But he was wrong about my reluctance toward discovery. I had wanted desperately to discover, but he had robbed me of the ability. I had relied on his influence as an addict relies on a drug, and Schiele was the pusher—at once my salvation and my disease. I had been eager and ambitious before he came to me, but afterward, I was an empty husk.
“I was perfectly willing to do my own work,” I said. “I didn’t invite you into my life. I tried to resist you when you came, but you kept talking.”
“And you listened.”
“You wouldn’t shut up! I had no choice.”
Schiele said nothing for a moment. I wondered whether he was leaving, but I still felt his presence emanating from the painting.
“Egon?” I said, but he gave no answer. “God damn it, Egon!”
“Steady, Val,” he said. “Speak calmly to me, or you’re on your own again.”
With that declaration—that threat—I was dependent once again on Schiele. I knew I needed him. I could not write what I did not know, and I could not merely copy from what I had already written. Only Schiele could provide the insight and originality required of my task, and for that I would have to subjugate myself to him again.
“Should we get started?” he asked. “Or aren’t you finished with your tantrum?”
“I’m finished,” I said, but I was not. I was burning with humiliation.
“Good,” he said. “Now take some notes.”
I stood motionless, biting my lip like a child reprimanded for transgressing the family rules. Shamed into silence, I stood with my fists clenched in ineffectual fury. Cursing him would not suffice, and humiliating him was futile. He was immune to it. I wanted instead to hurt him, to cut the spirit out of him with deliberate brutality, but how does one kill what’s already dead?
“Can we get started, now?” he said. “I might have all eternity to wait, but you do not. You have a job to do.”I stared at the hovering figure in the painting, all my hatred for him seething. I began to tremble. “Let’s go,” he said. “I know you. You have a notebook and a pen in your jacket pocket as always. Take them out and let’s begin.”
I reached into my pocket and let my hand close on the cold surface of its contents. I stepped forward within arm’s reach of the painting, still staring into the eyes of the floating phantom on the canvas.
“Come on,” he said. “Out with the pen.”
I took the instrument from my pocket and thumbed the cap off.
“That’s better,” he said.
I raised my hand to eye level with the figure in the painting.
“What is that, Val?” Schiele said.
“Symmetry,” I said. I felt a wave of stillness and peace. It cleansed my shame and imbued me with courage and indignation. Seizing that precarious moment, I plunged the blade of Edgar’s pen knife into the painting, gouging out the eyes to rival Oedipus. I slashed it, tearing the canvas, cutting through a hundred years of age and infamy, spilling the profane entrails of the hovering figure and arresting its ascent into the firmament.
I collapsed. The painting lay in ruin, and I gazed at the horror of it—macabre beauty disfigured. The mutilated upper figure was unrecognizable; the lower one untouched and gaping in shock as witness to my crime, hands raised in ineffectual surrender.
“Good bye, Egon,” I said.
“You’ve ruined yourself,” he murmured.
“I don’t care.”
“Yes,” said Schiele. His voice was distant, waning, but unperturbed. He withdrew from me. I closed my eyes to see him go, not levitating into the hereafter but drawn away, receding into colorless oblivion. “I’m the beginning and the ending of you.”
“And now we’re through.” I said.
“Yes,” he said again, still fading but with a hint of cruel satisfaction.
“And now I’m free.”
“Yes… perfect symmetry.”
Rick Hoffman is the author of the novel The Devils That Haunt You. He was a 2017 Best of the Net nominee for his short story, “Biyanî,” and his fiction has appeared in Driftwood Press, The Tishman Review, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Edify Fiction, Medusa’s Laugh Press, Wraparound South, and Flash Fiction Magazine. He lives on Long Island with his wife and sons.