Friday, March 24, 2023

Q&A with Sophie Haydock




Sophie Haydock is the author of the new novel The Flames, which is based on the life of artist Egon Schiele and the women in his life. Haydock is also a journalist, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Sunday Times Magazine. She lives in London.


Q: What inspired you to write a novel based on the life of artist Egon Schiele and the women in his life?


A: A few years ago, I went to an exhibition of Egon Schiele’s work, The Radical Nude, at the Courtauld Gallery in London. At the time, I worked as an arts journalist, so I thought I already knew quite a lot about the Austrian artist, who was a contemporary of Gustav Klimt.


But what I discovered in the gallery that day shocked me. It wasn’t just Schiele’s provocative artworks, mostly of women posing nude or seductively in their stockings, that left a mark, but details about his controversial private life, the scandal that surrounded him, his rather intense and inappropriate relationship with his younger sister, Gertrude, who posed for her brother without her clothes – as well as details of his tragic death during the pandemic of 1918.


In the gallery that day, I was immediately enticed by the women Schiele painted – not only his sister Gertrude, but also Walburga, the woman who stood by him when he was imprisoned, only to be discarded when he met and the two wealthy sisters, Adele and Edith, who lived across the street – one of whom became his wife, while the other posed for her sister’s husband in her underwear.


All these dynamics sparked my imagination. I wanted to know what had led these women into the path of this enfant terrible, and how their lives were impacted by being his orbit. The result is The Flames, which offers each woman a chance to tell their side of the story. Sadly, none of them emerge unscathed from their encounters.


Q: In a review of the book in The Guardian, Alice Jolly writes, “Haydock has created an expansive novel of the gaze and the image that also explains how these four muses inspired and challenged Schiele, while negotiating roles for themselves in a society where they were celebrated but powerless.” What do you think of that description, and how would you characterize the depiction of women in Schiele’s art?


A: I believe that each of the women who were painted by Egon Schiele were forging their own paths in a society – Vienna at the turn of the 20th century – where women had few opportunities, no rights, and where powerful men debated whether women even had souls.


Each of Schiele’s muses defied the expectations of the era, and impressed me with their resolve, self-determination and capacity for change.


I wanted to give each of them chance to paint a portrait of themselves for the first time – to put the brush firmly in their hands – and collectively, for them to paint a portrait of the charismatic, troubled artist. He shifts under each of their gazes, whether you see him through the eyes of his sister, or sister-in-law, his wife or his lover.

Each of the women I write about has been seen very explicitly for more than a century, and I felt it was time that their voices, and their sides of the story, were heard.


It’s also fair to say that Schiele had an obsession with the human body, and rendered his women models in very raw but powerful ways – elongated limbs, protruding ribs, angular, jutting hips. Schiele was an Expressionist, and it’s worth noting that he was a teenager when he made his most memorable work.


He certainly sought to reveal more than what was on the surface and was obsessed with sex and death. He decried the hypocrisy in being imprisoned for indecency in his art (the judge famously burned one of his nude drawings during the trial), when it was in fact that “erotic” work that sold the most successfully to the Viennese elite.


Q: How did you research the novel, and what did you learn that surprised you most?


A: I spent some time in Vienna, which was a huge pleasure, and interviewed the leading Schiele scholars, including Alessandra Comini, the woman who, in the 1960s, found the cell in which Schiele had been imprisoned in Neulengbach as a young man and, spectacularly, interviewed the remaining women who had once posed for him, who at that point were in their 70s.


I also discovered a detail in my research that had never been made public before – that one of the women who posed seductively for Egon Schiele, and who was not his wife, is actually buried in the same grave as the artist, even though she lived for another 50 years after his death.


I wanted to know what circumstances had led to this happening, and I couldn’t help but imagine a love triangle between the characters, and an act of betrayal that changed all their fates. This was a leap of imagination, but not one that I felt was too improbable given the way the hints and undercurrents showed up in the works made by Schiele himself.


Q: What did you see as the right balance between fiction and history as you wrote the book?


A: As a debut author, writing historical fiction about real people, it was a difficult balance to negotiate. I felt a huge responsibility to the characters, who had really lived and who each harboured hopes and dreams, failures and fraught relationships. I tried diligently to do them justice and tell a story that I felt held true to the circumstances they could have encountered.


But I also had a responsibility to the reader, to try to tell an engaging story and write a page-turning novel – one that I hoped would appeal whether you knew nothing about the artist or had no particular interest in art.


The aim was to find that balance (and it took a long time to gather the confidence to do it successfully and let go of the swathes of research and biography that can hamper the telling of a vibrant and consuming tale) and to breathe new life into the women in Schiele’s unforgettable artworks in the process.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m currently working on edits for my second novel, which is about another artist and the complicated dynamics between the women who inspired him. This time, it’s a French artist, and he lived to be much older than Schiele, so there were new challenges in how to tell the story.


It was a pleasure to venture further into the 20th century and be submerged in a different artistic world, one that fizzed with developments and new opportunities. But still, the women who were instrumental to the artwork continue to navigate complicated paths. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’m in the process of trying to secure a grave marker or memorial for the woman buried in Egon Schiele’s grave. Her name is not mentioned at the cemetery, and I feel that it’s an oversight that someone who posed for some of the greatest artworks of the 20th century should be forgotten or rendered anonymous. With the support of the Schiele community, I want to see that her name be remembered for centuries to come, just like his other muses.


Visit or follow @egonschieleswomen on Instagram.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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