The Art of John Kelly:
Embodying Egon Schiele
A man rolls out a record player with a green felt turntable and spins a disk that plays period music while two other men enter, carrying identical signs that note defining moments in the all-too-brief life of Austrian artist, Egon Schiele .
In the next scene, the same man dances with a blank canvas, casting purple shadows on its white expanse, striking poses that capture the angularity of Schiele’s images, and focusing on fingers and hands that move of their own volition.
Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte, a combination of theater, dance, video and art, represents a culmination of 28 years of creation and reflection by John Kelly , the writer and performer who plays the young artist. Introduced to Schiele by an art teacher while attending Parson’s School of Design in the late 70s, Kelly fell in love with and then tried to emulate, often in self-portraits , the quality inherent in Schiele’s drawings, especially his line.1 The more he learned as he researched the artist, the greater affinity he felt for the man who drew and painted in Vienna during the second decade of the 1900s.
The artist Egon Schiele had the misfortune, in 1890, to be born into a family in the grip of a syphilitic father who refused treatment, infected his wife (11 years his junior) and gradually lost his mind to his disease, releasing the family when he died in 1904. Two years later, the 16-year-old Egon took his 12-year-old sister Gerti to Trieste on a trip that replicated their parents’ honeymoon.2 In 1912, charged with immorality and seduction for having under-aged girls model for him, Schiele spent 24 days in a local prison.3
Kelly captures that jail time in a video that cycles through the nights and days of his confinement. After an initial encounter with a guard who torches a drawing of a nude girl while a woman’s voice intones in German—perhaps the complainant in the case—the scene alternates between darkness and an overhead view of Schiele on his prison cot bathed in light. The positions he assumes as he tosses and turns echo his artwork, including one with outstretched arms like a crucifixion: the artist as martyr for his work.
In the onstage action that immediately follows, Kelly—wearing an undershirt—lies on the floor and becomes Schiele on the cot while his alter Egons dressed in suits walk around and mirror his movements. The tempo increases and when the Egons disappear, Schiele awakens as if from a dream to ponder the dance with his selves. The scene ends with a wall of stone projected on the screen replaced by his painting of four red-leaved trees . Out of pain comes art.
For Kelly, revisiting Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte provided an opportunity to rework the youthful version that grew out of his early days as an artist long before the success he enjoys now. Originally naming it with the more benign sausage knachwurst, he changed it to blutwurst (bloodwurst) because he found the latter more disgusting.4
To the originally physically challenging production that irreverently focused on telling the story—the truth—he added scenes and infused the entire performance with the gravitas that comes with maturity. The pleasure he experienced in the process surprised him; he didn’t know he would find the desire. The result exceeded his expectations.5
The scenes Kelly added to the original elaborate on Schiele’s relationships with women. First came Wally, a young woman he met in art school who became his model and lover. Then, after his release from jail and an eventual move to a new place, Schiele pursued a more reputable young woman, Edith, who later became his wife and the mother of his children.
Those familiar with Schiele’s paintings and life might have recognized Death and the Maiden , expressive of the artist’s desire to hold onto Wally despite his new marital status. In one scene, Schiele and his lover disappear behind a covered, tent-shaped form and re-emerge with the lifting of the drapery to reveal their faces in place of those in the painting. Life animates art.
Schiele’s wife Edith, the woman who had brought love and stability into his life, at six months pregnant succumbed to the 1918 flu, days before the artist did. In one of the most poignant scenes, the grieving Schiele confronts her body lying where she fell, draws a white chalk line around it, then retraces it, and tenderly, desperately, hugs various parts of her body.
Kelly’s additions and changes, including the ending scene of Schiele’s death, reflect a shift from youth’s blissful ignorance about relationships and their accompanying risks and losses to a more mature awareness of life’s vicissitudes. Browsing John Kelly’s website suggests a restless soul of many talents whose need to express himself requires a multiplicity of art forms.
Despite program notes that proclaim this as the definitive version of Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte, Kelly might surprise himself again in another 25 years with an urge to revise the piece, adding to and tweaking it from the vantage point of another quarter century of experience, growth and acquired self-knowledge.
1 Interview with John Kelly, December 22, 2010.
2 Alessandra Comini, Egon Schiele, 1976, 10-11.
3 Galerie St. Etienne exhibit essay, “Egon Schiele as Printmaker,” 2009, 1.
4 Op cit.
5 Op cit.