by Alessandra Comini
“You absolutely cannot enter. Important government papers are stored inside.”
These were the words an Austrian government bureaucrat used to bar me from entering the provincial Neulengbach courthouse where, fifty-one years earlier, the Expressionist artist Egon Schiele (1890-1918) had been imprisoned. During his twenty-four days in a dank basement cell, he kept a diary and in twelve poignant drawings meticulously recorded his sparse surroundings. Guided by these drawings and the anguished diary entries, I was attempting to do what no scholar had yet done: locate the cellar and cell in which Schiele had been unjustly incarcerated.
The year was 1963, I was twenty-eight and in love. In love with Schiele’s riveting, angular portraits that probed people’s façades to reveal troubled psyches beneath—what Freud was simultaneously doing in his The Interpretation of Dreams. Luck had it that the noon hour in Neulengbach emptied the courthouse, and as workers, including the pompous official, strolled out of the building, I casually sauntered in backward and within seconds was down a staircase that opened onto a narrow cellar corridor. I recognized it. Schiele had pictured it, complete with its large crossbeam, limy whitewashed walls, standing mop and bucket, and doors to six cells. Only now, fifty-one years later, the wooden support beam was sagging precariously in the middle. Quickly I photographed the corridor, obtaining the exact same view the artist had drawn. Now to determine which cell had been Schiele’s. I knew it could be identified, because the artist had drawn the inside of his cell, including its heavy wooden door incised with a previous prisoner’s initials: “M H.” The door to the first cell had nothing on it. But the door to the second cell did: the carved initials “M H.”
My heart pounded with excitement. Somehow I held my Rolleiflex 2.8F camera steady enough to take a time exposure detail of the initials on the door in the dim light. Then I turned around to see where the “important government papers” were. There were none. Only neatly stacked logs! I photographed them as well.
These photographs, along with two essays, a life chronology, and a translation of Schiele’s diary into English, constituted my first book, Schiele in Prison, published by the New York Graphic Society exactly ten years later. I was able to dedicate the book to the artist’s still-living sisters, Melanie and Gerti. Both had been exceedingly helpful, touched that a young girl from Texas with Italian heritage would be interested in their long-dead brother. My tape recordings of interviews with them are now at the Neue Galerie Museum for German and Austrian Art in New York. This same museum commissioned me in 2014 to guest curate an exhibition of Schiele’s portraits, a show that was such a blockbuster that it had to be extended four more months. It was a gratifying way to turn eighty and a dazzling confirmation of Schiele’s enduring appeal to newer generations.
During the intervening decades I published seven more scholarly books, two more on Schiele, including Egon Schiele’s Portraits (University of California Press), nominated for a National Book Award in 1975 and recipient of the Charles Rufus Morey Book Award the following year. Others, Gustav Klimt (George Braziller, New York) and The Fantastic Art of Vienna (Alfred A. Knopf, New York), kept me in my chosen field, but I was able to combine my love of music with art in a book employing reception history, The Changing Image of Beethoven: A Study in Mythmaking (Rizzoli, 1987). In 2004 the legendary New York publisher George Braziller (as of this writing now 100 years old) commissioned me to write my memoir. At first I declined, superstitiously thinking I was supposed to die afterward, but common sense took over and that same year saw the publication of In Passionate Pursuit.
The next year, after forty-one years of teaching—ten years at Columbia University in New York, thirty-one years at Southern Methodist University in Dallas—I retired. Aside from articles and essays, I wrote no more books. Instead I traveled. Wide and far. Guest lectures in Europe, but more exciting, trips to breathtaking Antarctica and scenic Alaska—three times to the latter. I was on the go, in excellent health, and loving it. But then one day, with no explainable trigger or cause, I suddenly fell into a deep depression. “Oh, you just miss teaching,” friends and family said. But I did not miss teaching—all the preparation, the practice, the many lectures that had to be timed perfectly. The depression lasted. “Well, you just miss your students,” friends and family diagnosed. But I was in daily touch with them via the miracle of e-mail. The depression continued. I was no longer interested in work, or events around me, or food, or travel. I no longer cared for the people and pets I loved, no longer saw any reason to live. It took all my will power not to go online to learn how to commit suicide.
Only then did I consult a psychiatrist. It took two years of changing medications, but slowly—like a great ocean liner, my persevering Dr. Michael Rosenthal explained—my ship was turned round and I came out of the depression.
A dear friend who had just been widowed invited me to stay with her in New Mexico, where she and her husband had built a summer home in the high desert. Gladly I accepted. And on the flight to Santa Fe it happened. I had brought along a British murder mystery and was doggedly trying to read it, but it was so full of gardens and hedges and butlers and flower shows that I impatiently put the book down, declaring to my friend: “Well, I guess I’ll just have to write my own murder mystery.”
And so I did, in her home that very summer. The first scene began with a corpse at her front door, of course. The words just came. And at a rush. As though an inner voice dictated to me. I had not read mysteries since my early twenties—Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. And then, five decades later, Dan Brown’s marvelous series of intricate mysteries. I began with The Da Vinci Code and was hooked.
The first of five art history murder mystery novels I completed was about an artist I knew well: Gustav Klimt. What fun to describe major canvases he had never painted, concoct hiding places and hotels in Vienna, invent characters—some appealing, others rebarbative. And to create a second self—Megan Crespi, age seventy-seven when the series began. My Scotch-Irish mother was named Megan, and I wanted to acknowledge my Italian paternity, so I chose the word Crespi, which sounded nice and crisp to me. Now Megan Crespi has a website of her own and the books in which she stars are listed in my Wikipedia entry.
But how to get the manuscript published? None of my previous publishers were in the murder mystery novel business. Fortunately there was a savvy publishing firm right there in Santa Fe—Sunstone Press—with whom I had already been in contact, as they had brought out new paperback editions of my Egon Schiele’s Portraits and The Changing Image of Beethoven. Timidly I sent them the manuscript of Killing for Klimt in 2014. They accepted the book and published it that same year. The Neue Galerie allowed me to use an enticing detail from its Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (about whom the 2015 film Woman in Gold was made).
The next three books take readers around Europe and are on Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka (and Alma Mahler), Edvard Munch of the iconic The Scream, and, finally for this old feminist, a woman artist, Käthe Kollwitz—two of her life-size sculptures are found to be missing in the book’s first sentence. My next “Krimi” will be on Wassily Kandinsky—The Kandinsky Conundrum (alliteration enlivens all my titles).
What have I learned from writing these mysteries? First the famous motto “don’t get it right; get it written”—editing, tweaking, and proofreading come later. Second, maintain a list of chapters with brief descriptions of each (saves a lot of searching). Third, do likewise with the various characters, establishing especially their looks, the make of their cars, cellphones, the cantilena of their manner of speaking, their habits and eccentricities.
Fourth, and most important, listen to the inner muse. In my case, although I usually know what the final resolution will be, I have no idea what’s going to happen in the novel until I begin writing it. I have just a very general idea of what I would like to include—artworks (real and invented), locales, personalities (lots of greedy people out there), languages, page-turner chapters, and societal phenomena (one of my books is laced with neo-Nazis; another deals with the surge of Muslim refugees into Germany).
This joyful new profession allows me to mix the artists and history I taught in the past into a new concoction of fact and fiction. The Internet that allows us to travel the world while in an armchair has made research compelling and engrossing. What better writing companion could one wish for?
Distinguished Professor of Art History Emerita at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, Alessandra Comini was awarded Austria’s Grand Medal of Honor for her books on Viennese artists Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. A compelling and witty lecturer, she in demand as a speaker in the United States and abroad. Her interests extend to music (she is a flutist) and her The Changing Image of Beethoven is a pioneering study of reception history. Comini’s travels extend from Europe to Antarctica and are reflected in eight scholarly books and, more recently, five art history murder mystery novels in the Megan Crespi Mystery Series.