PRINT January 1967

Oskar Kokoschka at Eighty

DESPITE AN IMMENSE AND HARD-WON celebrity, Oskar Kokoschka occupies one of the least-enviable positions of a living master. Born of Czech and Austrian parentage in 1886, to the generation of Picasso and Braque, this octogenarian basks in the praise and lies open to the indifference accruing to a production which ranges from an Expressionism which he invented to an Impressionism which he debased. Still, hardly a reputation dating from Kokoschka’s period can compete with his, and his very startling and actual youthfulness seems a rebuttal to his own chequered destiny.

According to popular art theory today, very few artists of the 20th century––as distinct from the careers of painters of earlier epochs––are creatively electrifying for more than a few years, during which time they purportedly define the critical issues of their day. Everything else, apart from this period, appears marginal, and ultimately is only given value by the heights to which the critical works had carried the so-called central issues. This is not the place to argue the validity of this theory but there seems to be little question that it is a functional device for dealing with Kokoschka’s oeuvre.

The present installation at the Marlborough-Gerson Gallery is a remarkable achievement. It is unlikely that a major museum employing its fullest resources could have surpassed the impressive selection gathered from Kokoschka’s entire career. That it was worth the effort is a moot question. In sheer numbers and in clear breakdown into periods the current Kokoschka retrospective, one of several to celebrate his eightieth year, is a resounding success, especially in its assembling of the works from about 1907 to 1914, when Kokoschka gave proof of his greatest powers––easily the most puzzling and radical expression of Franz Josef’s swansong alt Wien. So good, indeed, have these works become that the utter formal vacuity of Kokoschka’s subsequent manners is even more powerfully underscored than usual.

The first major style associated with Kokoschka is, of course, connected with the so-called Psychological Portraits. Painted between 1907 and the outbreak of the First World War, these canvases are notable for the curiously anxious and ambiguous emotional projection of the sitters. Their needle-sharp linear descriptions are suffused in diffident contours and tentative, blurred shapes. That Kokoschka exaggerated the psychological and expressive elements uncovered by Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele is more than evident. One might say that to this disclosure Kokoschka added the neurotic focus defined by his compatriot and friend, Sigmund Freud, then grudgingly elected to the faculty of the Vienna Medical School. Possibly there is also a hangover traceable to the toothy, grinning neurotics laconically painted by Anton Romaku, a neglected 19th-century Austrian visionary of the generation of Makart.

The decadent glamour that these early portraits still give off is overwhelming. There is the smudged and old-maidish Emma Veronika Sanders of 1909 and Count Verona, painted in Switzerland in 1910, a tubercular from whose sickly features Peter Lorre might have fashioned his conception of “M.” Easily, the most amiable features were those Kokoschka gave to Frau Karpeles, painted in 1912. Shortly thereafter, Kokoschka visually punned the features of his mistress, Alma Mahler (with whom he had been conducting a tempestuous love affair, allegorized on a set of seven fans given to her as birthday gifts and love mementoes during 1912–1914) by casting her as the Mona Lisa, an evanescent and friably surfaced portrait among a corpus of works in which the psychological essence of the sitter had been transformed by the artist into delicate granules and dry brushstrokes.

Included in the first period’s work are also the famous double portrait of Professor Hans Tietze and Mrs. Erika Tietze-Conrat, the art historians of the day who espoused Kokoschka’s initially unpopular cause, the cartilaginous, Van Gogh-like portrait of Ludwig Ritter von Janikowsky in which the turbulent paint handling and quixotic contours suggest something of this civil servant’s incipient madness, and the ecstatically benign Egon Wellesz, a well-known music historian, now Professor Emeritus at Oxford University.

Shortly before the outbreak of the First World War the caking of Kokoschka’s surface grew more viscous, the colorless tenebrous (although more uniformly grey), with a tendency to be handled in a writhing worm-like stroke (e.g., Still Life with Putto and Rabbit, 1914, an allegory still connected with Alma Mahler). After his enlistment, Kokoschka was sent to the Russian Front where, wounded in the head and lungs, he was at length captured. Eventually escaping, and being classified as unfit for continued military service owing to the lingering effects of his injuries, Kokoschka settled in Dresden, which, in heroic pre-war days, had know the Expressionist campaigns of Kirchner and Schmidt-Rotluff. It is during the Dresden period, 1917–1924, that Kokoschka almost succeeded in creating a second major style, renouncing some of the worminess and crepuscular appearance of his wartime canvases. This was the period of Kokoschka’s celebrated life-scale doll, a mannikin that, supposedly, accompanied that artist driving, and, on occasion, to the opera––a means, possibly, of facilitating Kokoschka’s reentry into social contacts (although he had been appointed Professor at the Dresden Academy) curtailed by a nervous breakdown at the end of the First World War. The Painter with Doll of 1922 commemorates this Caligaresque alliance. This painting, and the views of Dresden of this time, demonstrate a new flat style which culminates in the fine Painter and His Model, II, of 1924. In this work a curious steamrolling out of forms is operative, especially discernible in the flattened arm and yellow garment of the model. On the easel Kokoschka has included a rephrased version of one of his 1912 posters in which a hand has undergone the same cubic alembication as the model’s shoulder.

Following the Dresden Period, with its occasional formal invention, Kokoschka embarked on a succession of wanderings which carried him to Italy, Paris, the south of France, the Iberian peninsula, North Africa, Vienna, and for a fairly lengthy stay (1934–1938), to Prague. The landscapes which record this Odyssey, with its many retraced paths, reject the simplifications of the Dresden style, and adopt an easy Impressionism. With this essential difference; Impressionism is an empirical style based primarily on the effects of color. Kokoschka, never a distinguished colorist, allies his Impressionism to the niggardly effects aimed for by a draftsman long-practiced in the watercolor medium, a technique which corresponds exactly to the needs of a painting based both on a factual recording of the scene as such, and a rather short-lived attention span. The surface and the space of these landscapes simply fall apart despite all of the feathery brushstrokes, which, in other painters, often help to hold things together.

Kokoschka’s allegorical predispositions (retraceable to his earliest Art Nouveau style when, like Barlach, he too was interested in drafting vast symbolic dramas, as well as to the whole allegorizing tendency of Northern Sezession taste) reassert themselves once more, possibly because of the changed political climate in Europe. They are particularly objectionable in the heavy-handed portrait of Masaryk (1935–36) attended by the ghost of Comenius, a Renaissance Moravian Humanist. The comparatively sprightly and thin painting of Kokoschka’s wander-jahren is once more replaced by a thick, over-ripe color (somehow a parody of Bannard’s), one that will serve him throughout the remainder of his career. See, for example, this year’s Saul and David, a lush work with a great deal of surface interest, frenzied brushstroke and empty sweep.

With the Anschluss and the triumph of National Socialism, Kokoschka once more fled. Counted among Hitler’s “Degenerate Artists” Kokoschka sought asylum in England where he has since definitively settled, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1947.

Now, at the highest moment of his fame if not his powers, Kokoschka has become Portrait Painter Ordinary to the Court of the World. It is uncharitable to dwell on the sourpuss Pablo Casals of 1955 or the insipid Konrad Adenauer of 1966. The breezy portrait of Joshua Logan (1960) still speaks with some of the racy inflections of the early portraits, especially in the “throw-away” hands. The discouraging weal of the late oils is lightened by a large graphic production. Kokoschka’s watercolors especially, by their ease and transparency, contrast significantly with the noxious, moldering flavors of an oversweet confectionery.

––Robert Pincus-Witten