New York

Oskar Kokoschka

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum | New York

From 1909 to 1911 Oskar Kokoschka produced perhaps the most extraordinary portraits made in this century. In what can only be understood as a tour de force of what the psychiatrist Daniel Stem calls affect attunement, Kokoschka was able to create subtle visual equivalents to the complex moods of his subjects. The portraits have usually been understood as uniformly “decadent” likenesses—few are their equal in articulating ambivalence so deftly—but it is not so simple. Kokoschka was able to differentiate clearly between and translate the particularities of his sitters, and he subtly adjusted his method—his strategies of “expression”—to each. For instance, the whorls of paint in the forehead of his portrait of Felix Albrecht Harta, 1909, begin as descriptive devices and become exclamations of tension, like uncoiling yet still concentrated springs, reflecting the tension in Hana’s ambiguously clasped hands. In contrast, the unctuousness of Der Hofschneider E. Ebenstein (The court tailor E. Ebenstein, 1909) is rendered with a delicate smoothness of touch, full of ingratiating propriety, that becomes royal in its own right. In both cases surface is revelatory—in one, of the power of internal conflict to shape external appearance, and, in the other, of the power of a person’s lot in life to shape his attitude to it. In almost all of Kokoschka’s portraits certain methods recur: the rhythm of closed and open fingers; the self-absenting glance; the thinning of the figure to the point whereall but its head is dematerialized; the incising of lines through the surface of the paint, as if to further the figure’s “cutting” isolation.

After 1913 it is, in my opinion, almost all downhill for Kokoschka. His work becomes slack, until it disintegrates into bemused platitude and naive exuberance. The question is why. What were the possibilities of art open to him after such self-realization? The point is made by comparing the wonderful drawings of the female figure from ca. 1911–12, mostly nudes—in which line doubles back on line, and the figure is fraught with high tension and a self-awareness that transcends her pose, her nakedness, her condition as a model—with the facilely adequate drawings of 1916. In between, signaling what will happen later (and with more disastrous results), Kokoschka paints Die Verhfindigung (The annunciation, 1911) and Zwei Akte (Two nudes, 1912). In each of these works, mythology is used to amplify an intimate scene in order to give it grandeur and to make it meaningful to the masses—which only makes it seem predetermined and obvious. It is a fault that other Modernist artists also suffered from, some never to recover. These two works already show serious signs of that overblown handling that was to be Kokoschka’s downfall: an inflation of touch that at once hides and confirms the blunting of its earlier incisiveness.

In such portraits as Franz Hauer and Emil Löwenbach, both 1914, we witness with mournful embarrassment the dissolution of Kokoschka’s power and subtlety. Whereas in the earlier portraitsthe grain of the gestures physiognomically constituted the figure and revealed the self behind the features, here Kokoschka’s spent strokes merely accent the figure—that is, add “expressive” touches to it. Expression has become illustrative and ornamental, a function of additive detail rather than constitutive substance. His wartime experiences and a disastrous relationship with Alma Mahler further eroded Kokoschka’s former mastery of the figure. In Liebespaar mit Katze (Lovers with cat, 1917) and Die Macht der Musik (The power of music, 1918–19) mythological amplification of the mediocre dominates, and, seemingly correlated with it, a new “happy” texture is achieved: Kokoschka has worked his way through the misery of the Mahler relationship. Unfortunately, in the process, he has lost his psychological perceptiveness and the power to translate it visually, instead pumping his figures up into voluptuous dolls, full of fake charm.

Kokoschka was in part a victim of a more widespread general problem: the difficulty of articulating happiness in the 20th century. We distrust its artistic appearance especially; Modernist art is supposed to be about disequilibrium, unhappiness. Certainly Kokoschka’s joyously luminous, celebratory baroque landscapes—beginning more or less with Lyons, 1927, and continuing into the ’30s and beyond—seem anticlimactic after his early portraits, however much they are another flowering of his art. Nevertheless, they are a marvelous recuperative effort after his increasingly badly executed and psychologically inadequate portraits, such as Arnold Schoenberg and Nancy Cunard, both 1924, and Karl Kraus II, 1925. (Just how weak they are can be seen by comparing the latter with the brilliant physiognomic drawings of Kraus from 1910 and 1912.) After World War I, he seems to have preferred animals to people; Der Mandrill (Mandrill, 1926) is his greatest postwar portrait.

Vitality—rejuvenation—is what Kokoschka pursued in his old age. But apart from the watercolors of the English fishing village of Polperro, 1939, which for all their slightness have more vitality than the portraits, and the picture of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice, 1948, there is little to suggest that he found it. It is certainly not in the mythologized lovers he painted until his death. The pathos of his career is that it shows how hard it is to remain authentically intimate—the only source of vitality—in an art world that misguides artists by expecting them to make grand statements and that, by prematurely making them “historical,” nips their potential—for Kokoschka, his early portraits—in the bud.

Donald Kuspit