September 14, 2015
(originally published on my now defunct Medium page, sometime in late 2013)
Votiv Kirche, Wien
I still have no idea who Eduard Kosmack was. We met by coincidence on a lazy Viennese afternoon.
While exploring my new surroundings I came across a museum of modern art right next to where we lived. There was no elevation in any of this, no thirst for art, no sublime sharpening of the inner vision. The truth is simply that I was out of cigarettes and the museum’s coffee-shop was the only establishment open on Sundays. As it turns out it didn’t sell cigarettes either.
There were two enormous paintings downstairs: one by Roy Lichtenstein and another by Warhol (the Orange Car Crash, maybe?), which promptly made me forget why I was there to begin with. I had never seen so closely anything quite like it. I had heard about both painters, had read about them and seen their work in books. I even knew a little more about Warhol due to a slightly alarming teenage fixation with the Velvet Underground but this was different. There was texture and dimension, there was light pouring in from the majestic bay windows of the palace, there was space!
I must’ve run up and down the stairs of the three floors of the museum hundreds of times that day. So much so that when I finally came out of it, exhausted and lighthearted, I had to sit down on a bench on the Fürstengasse to try and catch my breath and catalogue everything I had just seen.
It was of no use. All that was left was an incomprehensible and chaotic blur: giant photorealistic paintings danced in my mind to the music of deconstructed pianos while fat ladies had tea and Picasso watched mockingly as Jasper Johns painted a perfect target, ever so patiently. Moderns, Nouveau Réalisme, Fluxus, Pop-Art, Actionism, I did remember the labels but that was about it. Despite my unavoidable compulsion to devise a meticulously organised mental library I couldn’t say who went where or why anymore.
Nor could I believe that I lived a few hundred meters from such an exhilarating pandemonium for that matter—it was inevitable that the Palais Liechtenstein should become my surrogate living-room for the next few years. I enjoyed every single corner and wall of it seemingly becoming an integral part of it and it of me to the point of knowing most of the staff by name and every single piece exhibited. And I was a jealous visitor too; only when truly forced to it would I share the palace with someone as I couldn’t bear the prospect of a real voice disrupting the conversation in me. Mine.
Despite my increasing familiarity with the collection there was always one single very clear image that kept creeping back, calling me. It wasn’t a painting of striking dimensions (around 1m x 1m), by comparison with some others, and it hung modestly in a smallish isolated room on the very last floor, as if put there to be discovered by the worthy alone and ignored by the others.
What caught my attention first were the eyes.
It was a portrait of Eduard Kosmack, by Egon Schiele, but I didn’t know that then. I just felt his eyes, looking at me, only at me, waiting.
Egon Schiele, Porträt Eduard Kosmack, 1910
The very first time that I paid any sustained attention to it, it made me uncomfortable and vaguely angry. After five minutes I made myself leave and promised to not give it another thought.
Which didn’t last for very long.
I couldn’t let go of Kosmack’s uneven eyes, the awkwardly and simultaneously defensive and defying position, the writhing of the hands, the face, as if cut into shape by a knife. He was waiting. He was waiting for me. He was waiting for me to ask him something or to answer a question I didn’t know how to ask: I hated it to the point of having to come back again and again just to look at the one portrait, ignoring three or four floors of joyful, pensive, mischievous, and flirtatious accomplices.
With time we became accustomed to each other. Those initial sessions of five minutes turned into more minutes and then into dialogues where time wasn’t a consideration anymore. I sat in front of him as one sits with a friend and we talked.
I asked him about his city, told him of the apparently unsolvable paradox of being, at the same time, fascinated beyond words by my new surroundings and yet absolutely terrified at having been once again uprooted and transplanted there. Of having become the battlefield of the memories I had left behind and those that were now forming, asking me for a ruling, as there seemed to be no place for both. Of new and old friends. Of both the pettiness of some days and the grandiosity of others. Of ups and downs. Of love and hate and indifference and sorrow and joy.
Through it all he was patient. “Slow down”, he seemed to say, “breathe”.
And as time passed my respiration grew even and my compulsions slowly gave room to a quieter contemplation both defying and defensive in pose, hands not writhing but impregnable, relishing at the prospect of first of all waiting.
Some days (like today) I miss Eduard.
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