Schiele have loved it

If Sophie Haydock’s friend Ali Schofield hadn’t suggested a visit to an art gallery, her new novel would never have been written

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It was one of those dark and damp January days where you don’t want to leave the house. I considered making my excuses, but I wanted to see my friend Ali Schofield, who was visiting London for the weekend from her home in Yorkshire. She’d sent me a message, inviting me to an exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery. It was for a show by an Austrian artist, long dead, called Egon Schiele, about whom I was intrigued – he was controversial and charismatic, renowned for his radical depictions of the human body. I’d had a postcard of his work taped to my wall as a student at Leeds University, so I thought I knew a little about him, and was interested to see more. I’m a Northern girl, so a little rain wasn’t going to stop me, was it?

I waited for Ali, her partner and brother outside the gallery. Ali and I knew each other from our days working at Leeds Guide magazine, where I’d been arts editor, and she’d worked on the fashion and features pages. At that time, I remember, she seemed so sure of who she was, from her opinions, which she was confident expressing (a vegan, she loved animals) to her stylish outfits – she was never afraid to raise a few eyebrows. We’d stayed in touch when Leeds Guide went into administration, and I’d subsequently moved to London – each of us forging careers in journalism. Ali secured a role as a columnist at this publication, Big Issue North, writing under the guidance of the same editor who had commissioned my very first feature as a newbie journalist.

There was an urgency, a sense of poignancy, in the air that day. Ali had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer, at the age of 30. She’d told me a few months earlier, describing it as “a bit of crappy news”, but at the same time celebrating a feature she’d successfully pitched to write about her experiences, including how she discovered the lump and the chemotherapy she was undergoing. I was blown away by the straightforward way in which she delivered the news, so devoid of self-pity, and her joyful smile when I saw her, her head wrapped in a colourful scarf to hide the hair loss.

We entered the gallery, joking and sharing updates from our lives. Inside, I stopped in my tracks. The exhibition was called Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude and the women in the artworks practically stepped out of their frames – their bodies were emaciated, truncated, striking, sexually charged. Egon Schiele is described as an expressionist artist – he sought to paint the emotional heart of a scene, rather than what was directly in front of him. His work seemed so immediate and relevant, it was a surprise to remember that he’d lived more than 100 years ago. He’d been born in the provincial Austrian town of Tulln in 1890, moving to Vienna aged 16, the youngest student to ever enrol at Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts. There, he intended to make a name for himself.

In Vienna, the glittering capital of the Habsburg Empire, he’d have soaked up the atmosphere at the turn of the 20th century. I imagined Schiele in one of the famous coffee shops, where discussions would have ranged from culture, arts and architecture to Freud’s radical theories on dreams and sexuality and Mozart’s latest requiem. I recalled that Schiele was a protégé of another celebrated Austrian artist, Gustav Klimt – a master of art nouveau, whose works typically include generous lashings of gold leaf. His influence on Schiele was clear.

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Ali and I drifted off in different directions. I was drawn immediately to a sensual watercolour of a young woman – naked, a blue ribbon in her strawberry blonde hair – who I assumed to be Schiele’s lover. I looked at the title of the artwork – Seated Female Nude with Raised Arm (Gertrude Schiele), 1910. They shared a surname, so the model was his wife, perhaps?

I looked into the eyes of another woman with darker, redder hair – a painting I recognised, as it was the original of the postcard I’d taped above my desk in Leeds. I saw that familiar expression, one I felt was brimming with regret. I wondered how she ended up posing in her stockings. There were many provocative self-portraits of the thrusting young artist and other depictions of women in various states of undress. The models were seen, sometimes very explicitly, but I realised their sides of the story had never been heard.

We gathered at the end of the exhibition a little speechless – and in need of a drink – to exit through the gift shop. There was a line of biographical information about the artist, printed on the wall, that I remember vividly: Egon Schiele died in 1918, aged 28. I was gobsmacked he had made work of such exceptional intensity (and that he’d had such a significant output – more than 300 oil paintings and several thousand works on paper) in such a short amount of time. What a tragedy to die so young when all the potential of the world is poised to unravel ahead of you.

I was equally struck by the following line: Schiele died three days after his wife, Edith Harms, who was six months pregnant with their first child. It knocked the breath out of me. I don’t know where the sentiment came from but I knew, in that moment, that I wanted to write about this woman, the artist’s wife. I wanted to know all about her, to share her story, to understand what moved and motivated her, how she lived and what led to her untimely death.

We went off to find a bar and ordered elaborate cocktails. We discussed the exhibition, which seemed to have inspired more questions than answers. We debated the line between eroticism and pornography, whether Schiele’s models had been exploited or if they had willingly taken off their clothes, what a muse is exactly, and whether the radical artist would still be censored today as he had been then. An artwork of his had been burned in court by the judge during his scandalous trial.

I couldn’t shake those faces from my mind or lose the growing feeling that I might be able to write about the people I’d seen, tell their stories in a fictionalised way based on the facts of their lives. That was allowed, right? I thought of other books that I’d enjoyed – ones imaginatively based on real people, such as Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier (inspired by the model in Vermeer’s iconic painting) and I Was Amelia Earhart by Jane Mendelsohn (which imagined the fate of the doomed aviator). Later, I said goodbye to Ali, promising to keep in touch.

I went home and googled Edith Harms. Very quickly the idea and shape of the novel was born. I discovered that, as well as his wife, there had been three other significant models in Schiele’s life and art. Each of them had strong identities and exceptional stories – their lives collided with Schiele’s in the most unexpected ways.

I itched with the knowledge that I had a compelling and dynamic story on my hands – full of sex, scandal, betrayal and heartbreak.

I discovered that Gertrude Schiele, the sensuous nude, was in fact the artist’s little sister. How had she ended up taking off her clothes in that way for her older brother? I read that they’d formed an intense childhood bond, and I wondered how that might have manifested into jealousies as they became adults. I soon found a name for the woman in my postcard too: Adele Harms. She was the artist’s sister-in-law. What? I wanted to know why she’d been posing for her sister’s husband in this way, and if she had, in fact, harboured any feelings of her own for the handsome, troubled young artist. I also unearthed details of Walburga Neuzil, a headstrong young woman of a lower class, who Schiele was rumoured to have met in Klimt’s studio. She showed her intense loyalty during Schiele’s darkest days, when he was imprisoned on charges of immorality in his art. The experience had scarred him deeply. I wanted to shine a light on their untold stories, their secret selves.

I often wonder what these past years would have looked like if Ali hadn’t extended that invitation to me. I’ve travelled far – physically, emotionally, and intellectually – in pursuit of these stories. I made research visits to Vienna and other locations associated with Egon Schiele (including the fairy-tale town of Český Krumlov in what is now the Czech Republic – a magical place to sip a cold lager on a hot day). I had the privilege of speaking to experts, all of whom shared their passion for the artist and his muses. And I built a community with my Instagram account @egonschieleswomen, which has 115,000 followers.

Ali died of breast cancer in April 2018, aged 34. She was dignified to her final breath, never asking “Why me?” but “Why not me?” It was humbling. A year before her death, I’d confessed to Ali that her invitation had sparked the idea for a novel, one that I’d been working on, writing in the early hours before work. I told her that I harboured a glimmer of hope to see it published. But I had no idea if that would ever be a reality. In the end, I never got the chance to give her a finished copy of The Flames – a fictionalised account of Schiele’s four muses – which will be published this month. The book is dedicated to Ali Schofield. Hers is a name I would like to see remembered.

Because of Ali, I got to know the stories of these forgotten women. She was the spark that led to a burst of creativity. At her funeral, on a beautiful spring day, when foxgloves lined the country lanes in Yorkshire, her boyfriend gave me a collage she’d made for me, showing one of Schiele’s models, looking fierce and strong, holding a dove under her arm, standing in a forest, a river made of stars running past. It is among my most treasured possessions.

There’s something entwined in my mind around Ali’s death and the heartbreak of Schiele’s short life, as well as the sad fates of the women who posed for him. While I was writing The Flames, I thought often of possibilities and hope, delusion and regret. Of the great losses we have to endure. And what is left at the end of it all, our legacies, if you will. I’d have loved Ali to read my novel, just as I’d love to read more of her words. I was very lucky to see the manuscript she was working on, shared with me after she died, forever unfinished, packed with potential. I’m very grateful to my friend. And I miss her.

The Flames by Sophie Haydock (Doubleday, £16.99) is out on 17 March

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