“I feel myself the most unhappy and wretched man in the world,” confided Austrian composer Franz Schubert to his friend, artist Leopold Kupelwieser, in a letter dated March 31, 1824, as he was struggling with poor health, financial woes and lack of recognition. “Think of a man whose health can never be restored, and who from sheer despair makes matters worse instead of better. Think, I say, of a man whose brightest hopes have come to nothing, to whom love and friendship are but torture, and whose enthusiasm for the beautiful is fast vanishing; and ask yourself if such a man is not truly unhappy.”
Such intense unhappiness had made Schubert, then only 27 years old, to reconcile himself with the imminence of death, even inviting it. “I go to bed hoping never to wake again, and each morning only tells me of yesterday’s grief,” he writes.
Yet instead of succumbing to despair, the composer immersed himself in his work, acutely aware “of a miserable reality” which he tried “to beautify as far as possible” with his imagination. It was under these dire conditions that String Quartet no. 14 in D minor came to be.
Also known as Death and the Maiden, the quartet takes the name from the theme of the second movement, a death march in G minor. The theme itself was taken from the lied that Schubert had written seven years earlier, in 1817, a song set to the poem of Death and the Maiden by Matthias Claudius. Comprised of two stanzas, the first half gives us the voice of a frightened maiden asking death to pass her by, while in the second half death tries to console her. “I am not rough, you shall sleep gently in my arms,” death reassures the maiden.
When Arts Collide
And yet the Death and the Maiden motif hadn’t originated in music, nor in poetry, but in art — more specifically in the German Renaissance of the sixteenth century. Then, artists such as Hans Baldung used Death and the Maiden as a memento mori, reminding audiences that no one could escape death. Life, the thinking went, is as fragile and short-lived as beauty and youth are.
For centuries Death and the Maiden had all but been forgotten, and it would have continued staying so if not for Schubert’s wildly popular lied pulling it out of its obscurity.
Nineteenth-century Romantic artists were all of a sudden interested again in the dichotomies of beauty and grimness, life and death, and the heavy eroticism arising out of these contrasts.
It also helped that in German the gender noun for death is masculine (Der Tod), making for an unconventional couple.
Schubert’s lied inspired many artists, including Horace Vernet, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Henri Léopold-Lévi and, later on, Edvard Munch, Marianne Stokes and Egon Schiele.
Photographer Franz Fiedler also explored this subject with ingenuity in his 1920s series Narre Tod, Mein Spielgesell (Fool Death, My Playmate), in which the traditional roles have been reversed: it is the beautiful, naked young woman who seduces death, in a bid to buy herself more time. The stills — erotic, tender and playful — read like vignettes from the life of an actual couple.
Today we don’t remember Schubert’s lied necessarily, but his String Quartet no. 14. Considered to be his musical testament, this piece remains one of the finest gems in chamber music history, a brilliant achievement in beautifying death, the most terrifying mystery one has to face.
Four years after writing it, Schubert would die prematurely at just 31.
Egon Schiele’s Death and the Maiden
Almost a century later, Austrian artist Egon Schiele’s Death and the Maiden also turned out to be eerily prophetic. Showing Schiele with his then lover, Walburga “Wally” Neuzil, amidst a desolate, almost abstract rocky landscape, this deeply personal painting is more a heartfelt memento than an allegory.
Kneeling on a white sheet, the two lovers cling to each other tenderly and awkwardly, while their bodies seem to be floating, suspended in the space between life and death. It looks like the beginning of the end when, perhaps following a passionate embrace, their arms start to give in and their bodies retrieve. Wally’s left arm seems particularly inert, softened in its resignation. But it’s the artist’s transfixed, empty gaze that most expresses the pain of the scene we’re witnessing.
With Schiele often being self-referential, it is not difficult to find similarities between Death and the Maiden and several other works. Take, for instance, Lovers (Self-portrait with Wally) from 1914-1915, which probably served as a study for our painting. Here the embrace is more erotic and intense, Wally suggestively kneeling between her lover’s legs as she clings tightly to him. Most disturbing are their enlarged, insect-like eyes, with Schiele’s hands looking menacingly like lobster claws.
The pose from Death and the Maiden is also similar to another iconic Schiele painting, Cardinal and Nun (1912). Considered highly blasphemous, this allegory carrying the inherent tensions between spiritual and carnal love deserves a blog post of its own. Here the artist infused the kneeling, embracing, unlikely couple of the nun and the cardinal with the reverse identities of himself and Wally — that is, the nun’s face is Schiele’s, while the cardinal’s legs are Wally’s. Blurring the lines between genders, love, spirituality and sex, the painting seems to be Schiele’s memorable way of capturing the complete, immersive love he and his partner shared, all while staying true to his scandalous, provocative self.
In many ways, looking at Death and the Maiden, painted around the same time of Schiele’s and Wally’s abrupt separation, is like watching a movie being played backwards. It all starts with the final scene, the sad farewell. But what is an ending if not a renewed chance to reconsider the whole relationship, to remember the good and the bad, the highs and lows, and discover a new story filtered through the revisionist lens of history?
For almost four years the pair had lived and worked together, Wally being Schiele’s muse, model, lover and sidekick, taking care of the household and the business side of art, such as dealing with collectors and galleries. She continuously encouraged her partner and was there for him through thick and thin, even when Schiele was accused in 1912 of seducing and abducting a minor.
The artist spent almost a month in prison in Neulengbach that year, with the charges being ultimately dropped, and him being found guilty of exposing children to pornographic materials (i.e. to his explicit, erotic art). Through that ordeal, when few people stood by him, Wally brought him food and, most importantly, the basic nourishment without which he couldn’t live: his precious art supplies.
In total, Schiele completed twelve sketches during his brief confinement, visually documenting his suffering. Next to an agonizing self-portrait from that period, dated April 25, 1912, the artist wrote in pencil with capital letters “I shall endure for art and for the happiness of my lover!”.
It is one of the most touching proofs of his love for Wally, besides the many portraits he drew or painted of her — sometimes she appears kind and gentle, other times she’s depicted with an alluring eroticism.
Even two years later, while reminiscing in a letter to art collector Franz Hauer, Schiele revealed his gratitude to have had Wally by his side: “Among my closest acquaintances nobody did anything, except for Wally, whom I had only recently met and whose conduct was so noble that I was captivated.”
But in April 1915 the relationship came to a halt, following Schiele’s sudden marriage proposal to Edith Harms, a more socially acceptable woman compared to Wally, who had no means and who had lived a life of poverty.
What’s most confusing and painful is that this marriage must have come as a surprise even to Schiele, who, two months prior, in February 1915 was writing to his friend, art collector Arthur Roessler, “I intend to get married — advantageously, perhaps not to Wally.” That “perhaps” makes all the difference in the world, as if a coin toss decided the fate of their relationship. It is mainly due to these few scribbled words we know the breakup was rather hazardous, brought, in part, by Schiele’s financial insecurity and him being drafted during World War I.
Death was clearly on Schiele’s mind as he was preparing to go to war. But the spring of 1915 also marked the ending of his life with Wally, making the anxiety and grief of their separation inescapable in Death and the Maiden.
There is an anecdote, mainly popularized by Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden — a 2016 Austrian biopic highlighting the couple’s relationship — according to which Schiele changed the title of the painting from Man and Girl to Death and the Maiden following Wally’s death from scarlet fever on December 25, 1917. The anecdote is completely unproven, though it does romanticize in a memorable way this tragic event and everything that happened afterwards.
In a bitter twist of fate, Schiele was prophetic when he personified himself as death, for in less than four years Wally was dead, Edith was dead, their unborn child was dead, and he too was dead, at only 28, as casualties of the Spanish flu pandemic that was sweeping across Europe at the time.
Bradley, K., 2015, Wally Neuzil: the secret life of Schiele’s muse, BBC, viewed October 24, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20150227-artists-muse-a-secret-life
Dabrowski, M., 1997, ‘Egon Schiele: Master of Expressive Form’, English-language edition published on the occasion of the exhibition Egon Schiele: The Leopold Collection, Vienna, Department of Drawings, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 12, 1997 – January 4, 1998, pp. 8-29
Felton, L. A., 2015, Egon Schiele’s Double Self Portraiture, PhD thesis, Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, viewed October 17, 2020, https://repository.brynmawr.edu/dissertations/133/
Howarth, A., 2002, Annual Review of Schubert’s Life 1824, The Schubert Institute UK, viewed October 17, 2020, http://www.franzschubert.org.uk/docs/Annual%20Review%20of%20Schubert%201824.pdf