Monday’s Muse: Valerie “Wally” Neuzil
Upon his death in 1918 at the age of 28, Egon Schiele left behind a body of work which was to have a profound effect on successive generations of painters and artists. He offered a new vision of the human body and its sexuality. His is a body of angles and knots – devoid of the soft curves of Rubens, and free from the smirking sexuality of Boucher. This visual language left such a profound impression that its traces are still visible in the yellowed limbs of Lucian Freud, or the hyper-sexuality of John Currin. Yet in the midst of all his work sits the Portrait of Wally, (1912), whose tone is so strikingly different from the rest of his work.
Paul Rubens, The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus, (1618); Francois Boucher, L’Odalisque Brune, (1745); Egon Schiele, Two Naked Girls Black Stockings, (1910)
In 1905, following his father’s death, Schiele became the ward of his uncle, and a year later he moved to Vienna to enroll at Kunstgewerbeschule in Vienna, where he remained for only a few months before switching to the Akademie der Bildenden Künste. Schiele did not adapt well to either school’s curriculum, and in 1907 he left to seek Gustav Klimt as a mentor.
Klimt proved to be an important influence in Schiele’s life. He connected him with patrons, bought sketches, sent him models and helped him show his work. Klimt’s influence even extended, albeit briefly, to Schiele’s aesthetics and draftsmanship. Schiele’s Danae, (1909), painted only a year after Klimt’s work of the same name, bears the unmistakeable mark of Klimt’s style. Yet, by 1910, Schiele had begun to develop the style for which he is remembered, and it was around this time that he met Valerie “Wally” Neuzil.
Gustav Klimt, Danae, (1907); Egon Schiele, Danae, (1909)
Egon Schiele, Portrait of Wally, (1912); Girl with Black Hair, (1910)
As with all of these artist/muse relationships there are a range of myths and legends as to how Schiele and Neuzil met, and to make matters worse, there is no definitive answer – there are so few traces of Neuzil’s personal history. It is clear that she was born in a small town, that her father was a schoolmaster and died when she was very young, and that she moved frequently as a child. She would have been around 16 when she met Schiele in 1911. In official records, she registered herself at her various addresses as a “sales assistant” or a “cashier”, but never as an artist’s model. There are some stories which posit that she was the mistress of Klimt, and that he sent her to Schiele, or that she was a prostitute and that Schiele found her walking one of Vienna’s thoroughfares. Regardless of how they met, the Portrait of Wally remains one of the most fascinating works Schiele left behind. There is a humanity to it, which is lacking in a work like Girl With Black Hair, (1910). The latter is almost crudely erotic: the stark figure is dashed with splashes of red to emphasise only her lips, nipples, and genitals. Girl With Black Hair offers a flat and objective intimacy: here is only a girl laid bare. Portrait of Wally offers an individual. Neuzil is painted in a style immediately recognizable as Schiele’s, but both her pose and gaze are different from those in his other work. She is smiling vaguely, as she sits, half-turned away, and her deep blue eyes stare directly out at the viewer. Some scholars have gone so far as to suggest that the intimacy of her gaze might actually suggest that her eyes were never directed at the viewer, but at Schiele while he painted her.
Shortly after meeting, Schiele and Neuzil moved to Krumau, the birthplace of Schiele’s mother, in a bid to take a break from Vienna. Their stay in Krumau was short lived after the conservative townspeople became furious at not only what they viewed as Schiele’s unorthodox (and possibly sinful) relationship with Neuzil, but also his habit of attempting to woo the teenage girls to undress and model for him.
Egon Schiele, Sleeping Woman (Wally Neuzil), (1912)
The couple finally settled in Neulengbach. Schiele found a cheap studio, and set to work. Schiele did little to keep a low profile: once again his studio became a gathering point for miscreants and otherwise forgotten children – much to the distaste of the local populous. Soon after their arrival in the city, Schiele was arrested for soliciting a young girl, and his studio was raided. Police confiscated over a hundred works, which they classed as pornographic. During his trial the presiding judge burned one of Schiele’s works in the courtroom. In the midst of this maelstrom, Neuzil disappeared. There is little information, which remains of her, after this time. Her story simply evaporates, leaving behind only an enigmatic set of blue eyes.
FEATURE IMAGE: Schiele unt Neuzil. Image source: Leopold Museum