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EGON SCHIELE AND THE FLU THAT KILLED 25% OF THE US POPULATION AND DECREASED LIFE EXPECTANCY BY 12 YEARS

Towards the end of WWI (Armistice November 11, 1918) the world experienced the worst flu epidemic to date. The first spurt of flu came in spring but the worst of it followed in autumn. More than 50 million people from all the continents died of the Spanish flu, which means it took three times more lives than WW I (16 million). In Europe, people still reeling from the devastating effects of the war, were particularly susceptible due to shortages of food and heating materials. Unlike the warring powers, the flu did not discriminate the victorious from the defeated, the friends from the foes. Everyone was at risk with people aged 15 – 40 at the greatest.

In 1918 Austrian artist, Egon Schiele, was turning 28 and finally achieving national and international recognition in the art world. Indeed, with the passing of his dear friend and mentor, Gustav Klimt, in February 1918, Egon Schiele became the Danube Monarchy’s leading artist. An exhibit in the Vienna Secession just one month later proved lucrative and the artist’s appointment calendar was filling both at home and abroad. Finally, Schiele was able to afford a more spacious atelier to work and perhaps begin the art school he had always dreamed about.

But a bigger room needs more wood and coal and those were in short supply due to the war. A weakened population was more vulnerable to the flu with a toxic mix of human- and bird virus strains. The stones were laid for the perfect storm.

Der Tod and das Maedchen - Schiele

Portrait entitled “Death and the Girl” which Egon Schiele painted around the year he married his wife featuring a man that looks like the artist

By September 1918, so many tram drivers were struck by the flu, that public transportation services were restricted. In desperate need of doctors, the emperor provided the city’s physicians with military vehicles to ensure speedier and more extensive care of the ill. By October the pandemic had become so severe that Vienna’s schools were shut down.

Sometime in mid-October, Egon Schiele’s wife, Edith falls ill with the flu. She is 6 months pregnant and despite the desperate care from her

Egon Schiele with Spanish flu

Egon Schiele with Spanish flu

husband Egon, she succumbs to the flu on October 28. Three days later, on October 31, Egon Schiele followed his wife and unborn child into the after world in the early hours of the day.

LETTER OF EGON SCHIELE IN OCTOBER 1918 TO HIS MOTHER

Dear Mother Schiele,

Edith fell ill with the Spanish flu eight days ago yesterday and is now also suffering from pneumonia. She is 6 months pregnant. The illness is exceptionally severe and critical; I am preparing myself for the worst.

Read more about the Spanish flu:

Newspaper article from Austrian newspaper, der Standard, on Austrian research on why the Spanish flu was so deadly: http://derstandard.at/1347492417305/Was-die-Spanische-Grippe-Virus-1918-so-toedlich-gemacht-hat

US National Archives on the Spanish Flu Epidemic: http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/influenza-epidemic/

 

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Edith Harms and Egon Schiele

“Bodies have their own light which they consume to live: they burn, they are not lit from the outside.” – Egon Schiele

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A young girl of a proper family. Herr Papa, a Meister Locksmith, Frau Mama a Meister Hawkeye.

But the curious artist across the street with his parade of models who bare themselves for his brush, will not be deterred.

The perfect wife. Standing. Financial Means. A young artist of 25 deserves no less.

A rendezvous is out of the question. But perhaps with Wally…

His model. His muse. His soulmate. His matchmaker.

While Adele and Edith cloak themselves in layers of social acceptability and tradition, he scours the lanes of Park Schönbrunn for Wallys willing to bare all for his brush.

Pornography? Art?

The lines blur.

War.

“I’m planning to marry – most advantageously – perhaps not Wally.”

Perhaps Adele. Or Edith.

Edith.

Wife. Not model. Wife. Not Muse.

A proper lady. A proper life. A proper wife.

Edith Harms by Egon Schiele

Edith Harms by Egon Schiele

The muse must go.

The artist must fight.

The muse must die.

The artist must paint.

Soldiers. Scenes.

Three years of marriage and a third is on the way.

Spanish flu.

The wife, the unborn child must die. Three days later, he too. Print This Post

***

Exhibition: “Wally Neuzil and Her Life with Egon Schiele” – February 2 – June 1, 2015, Leopold Museum: http://www.leopoldmuseum.org/en – with info on Edith Harms.

If you speak German, I highly recommend the Sunday tours at 3 pm. My guide this past Sunday was an expert on Turn of the Century Vienna, gave lots of fascinating details and background info. The tours are free if you have an entrance ticket. Just tell the information desk next to the ticket counter you’d like to go along.

Also, there is an Audio Guide available (in English and German) and a book about Wally and Schiele (in German).

More on Egon Schiele on artsy.net site

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