If revolutions fail and rebels are damned, what happens to friends like my two favorite comrades conspiring in Caspar Friedrich’s painting in 1819 Dresden? If they do not plan the next revolt, what do they talk about when they contemplate the moon in their walks?
I found an answer when, in October, I encountered a painting of two other friends at the Leopold Museum in Vienna at the exhibition Egon Schiele: The Jubilee Show, marking the 100th anniversary of the Viennese painter’s death at twenty eight. The contrast between Schiele’s painting, The Hermits (1912), and Friedrich’s Two Men, separated by almost two centuries, could not be greater.
Like the Romantic painting, the Expressionist one shows two close friends who are painters (probably Schiele and Gustav Klimt, nearly thirty years his senior), a younger (star pupil) and an older one (his mentor). They stand on a slightly inclined ground, against a fractured background and close to two wilting roses. They lean on each other for support: While Friedrich’s student rests his arm on his shoulder, here Klimt rests his head on Schiele’s shoulder. While the Friedrich figures are physically close but attuned to the place and the moment, the two life-size, black-robed Schiele figures are intertwined, attuned only to each other, almost entangled in an atmosphere of tension and anxiety, with only one hand of each person and a single foot appearing. The Romantic music of the spheres and the song of the comrades have fallen silent in the Expressionist waste land. “Think of these two as being like a cloud of dust similar to this Earth, a cloud which wants to grow into something more but must necessarily collapse, its strength spent” (Schiele).
The fates of the two painters were “twisted” in a most creative way as they influenced and inspired one another. “With a relationship based on mutual respect, Klimt and Schiele continued to support and guide each other through the art world.” In the painting, their friendship appears stronger because it lacks outside support from nature and society. The more distant they are from any kind of living environment, the closer they cling to each other, two figures melted into a double-figure. They are Die Eremiten who have become almost physically each other’s self as they have retreated in their private world, a “mourning world” (Schiele) bereft of all revolutionary hope. In Schiele’s fin de siècle world, where desire is guilt-free and unbound, where the carnal and the spiritual have become indissoluble, there is no faith or morality like Rodin’s against which people may rebel.
After my encounter with this haunted painting, I left the exhibition with a heavy heart, wondering whether Schiele and Klimt ever sat together by the Danube. I looked for my own “other self,” Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis, at the cafe where we usually go after our visits to the Leopold Museum.
He was not there.
November 30, 2018