Arnold Schönberg

It is always interesting to observe an artist who is recognized in one arena while struggling in another with an almost more brilliant insouciance. In Arnold Schönberg’s case, the struggle produced a considerable number of interesting paintings: fascinating/failed paintings of bizarre curiosity. Do we need yet another painter who produced scurrilous portraits and pensive landscapes in the first days of Modernism? Take for example the often-reproduced Der rote Blick (The red eye, 1910), half August Strindberg, half Goya-remake, simultaneously self-portrait and an example of symbolism. Here Schönberg, whose dodecaphony was simply too much for everyone, turns downright popular. Even Blaues Selbstporträt (Blue self-portrait, 1910) is to be reckoned with as a painting. Here is rough-hewn superrealism (not unlike the European version of Pop art à la Otto Mühl) and a dilettantism that wants “to get straight to the core of things,” as Schönberg’s friend Wassily Kandinsky once put it. “His self-portrait was painted with the dregs of the palette. And what else could he have possibly used to achieve this strong, sober, precise, concise impression?” A friend’s commentary, one could say, but in this case the description fits, and perhaps it can only now begin to be understood. Schönberg’s collected paintings, first brought together in Vienna and then exhibited in Cologne, were never valued by anyone but Kandinsky as anything other than “paintings of a composer.” August Macke, for instance, who respected Schönberg as a composer, wrote to Franz Marc complaining: “And now Schönberg, too! He really infuriated me with his green-eyed, starry-eyed pasty-faced portraits. I don’t want to criticize his self-portrait, but do these crumbs really merit such a fuss over the painter Schönberg?” In the end, nothing more came of his oeuvre, and there was no lasting critical response to the 250-odd works he left behind.

Some ignored Schönberg’s artwork, and those who valued it did so mostly from the vantage point of finding analogies between his musical and artistic efforts. He himself had a more pragmatic attitude. In his first flight of painting euphoria he proclaimed that he would certainly become a sought-after artist and was calculating the price people would have to pay for his works, since he was already an acknowledged master of music.

Without a trace of self-doubt, he proposed a simple transfer of fame: he stirred up a little storm, provoked a bit, and irritated his colleagues with his ambitions—all good and useful traits for a developing artist, and this is what his paintings reflect and what makes them intriguing. But the work, of course, does not stand up to his ambitions. Nevertheless, there is an effort underway by Thomas Zaunschirn to place Schönberg in the art-historical canon. He has called for an analysis of a certain recognizable will to form in this work. For Schönberg trespassed even the boundaries of picture making when, for instance, he began designing playing cards, developed an expanded chess game for “two super-powers and two minipowers,” and created a notational system for tennis with which to score a match like a partita. There is nothing so much as a love of infringement.

––Jutta Koether

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.