John D. Delmar
"Human beings are not still lifes," lectured Oskar Kokoschka
in Vienna in 1912. He claimed the artist must look behind the
face, and paint the soul.
Kokoschka must have associated with a rather depressed, woeful
crowd in Vienna and Berlin, judging from the 70 works currently
on display at the Neue Galerie. What a motley, mottled mortuary!
Standing in the middle of a room full of these horrific portraits,
it feels as if one has stumbled into an abattoir of flayed beasts.
To find his subjects' souls, Kokoschka has stripped away their
flesh, leaving sadness, suffering, and pain.
Kokoschka hadn't even intended
on being an artist. He originally wanted to be a research chemist,
but he won a scholarship to the Kunstgewerbeschule in Vienna,
a vocational school set up to train designers in ornamental art.
The young artist was forbidden to paint figures or portraits,
according to Wolf-Dieter Dube, the German art historian and scholar
of the Expressionist movement.
The vocational training
prepared Kokoschka for work at the Weiner Werkstatte, starting
in 1907, where he designed bookbindings and other utilitarian
items. Josef Hoffmann's Werkstatte was one of the finest design
studios on earth, reinventing the shape of things, from cups to
books. But young Oskar, the accidental artist, had loftier ambitions.
He wanted to paint.
He had been impressed by
a show of Van Gogh paintings in 1906, and was also influenced
by the work of Gustav Klimt. Like many young men in fin-de-siecle
Vienna, he was excited by the new, emotionally expressive art.
His contemporaries, Heckel, Nolde, Pechstein and Jawlensky, were
being influenced by French artists like Cezanne, Gaughin and Manet,
and early works by Matisse. Every few years in Germany and Austria,
another new, rebellious group would form to protest the official
art of the Kaiser and of the Austrian Emperor: Vereinigung der
Elf (Group of Eleven); Berlin Secession; Dresden Secesson; Munich
Secession; Vienna Secession; Die Brucke; and Der Blaue Reiter.
It sometimes seemed there were as many groups as there were artists.
Kokoschka exhibited with
artists identified as "Expressionist," which was a term
originally applied to French Post-Impressionists. The German and
Austrian artists soon created a distinctive style: emotionally
raw, rich in color and expression. Kokoschka's portraits in this
period, 1909-1914, show strong influences from the Fauves and
Post-Impressionists, but display more human feeling. He saw his
subjects not as objects, but, like a certain physician practicing
in Vienna at the time, as a bundle of emotions and hidden tensions.
The portrait of "Peter
Altenberg (1909)," shown above, for instance, depicts a face
in harsh red tones, blood rushing through flesh, bright red skin.
The eyes are sad and weary, with heavy lids and bags below. His
hands are gesticulating out of the portrait plane, jabbing out
into pictorial space, each finger gnarled and arthritic. The background
places the subject in some Hellish nowhere, with abstract expressionistic
slashes of black and red. Kokoschka's fingerprints are everywhere,
literally. He wants you to be aware this is paint, pigment on
canvas, put on the canvas by an artist.
The "Portrait of Rudolf
Blumner" (1910), similarly focuses on the distinctive emotional
power of hands, and on the power beneath the surface of facial
features. The paint again is a thick impasto, layers of pigment
spread with visible brush strokes or palate knife. The hands have
bluish veins, and appear to be moving as the subject talks. The
backgound is a mass of grey and black, and the strokes of paint
lift off portions of the foreground figure. The subject is in
flux, not static, not sitting still for his portrait.
One of Kokoschka's masterpieces
is in this show, "Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat (1909),"
shown above, which is in the permanent collection of the Museum
of Modern Art. This portrait, of a well-known art historian and
his wife, is not as rough and textured as the portrait of "Peter
Altenberg" painted the same year. Perhaps the young portraitist
felt it necessary to work a little harder painting an influential
figure in the Viennese art world. Although Hans is placed next
to his wife, each is in a different mental sphere, each is independent
of the other. Their hands, while close, do not touch. The fingers
are but an inch apart and a spark must jump across a chasm of
emotional distance. Yet the arms and hands create an arc, a bridge
between the two.
The backgound of this double portrait is again fairly vague, but
with rays of light emanating from Hans Tietze, scratched into
the pigment. Neither husband nor wife look at each other, nor
do they confront the viewer. Hans appears to be lecturing his
wife on some esoteric aspect of art history. She listens politely,
but has more quotidian concerns occupying her.
"Two Nudes-Lovers (Self-Portrait
with Alma Mahler), (1913)" is different than many of these
potraits. It is a self-portrait of Oskar and his love, Alma Mahler.
Kokoschka met Alma in 1912, a year after Gustav Mahler's death.
She must have been some incredible muse, having been wed to Mahler,
then Kokoschka's lover, then married to architect Walter Gropius.
Here, there is little expressionistic slashing of paint, little
impasto, and the colors are cool blue. His romance with Alma led
to his most famous painting, not in this show, "The Bride
of the Wind," also known as "The Tempest" (1914).
This exhibit does include some of the painted fans he created
for Alma as "love letters." These show a more gentle,
romantic aspect of the artist.
But for most of these works,
we don't see Oskar the Lover, we see Oskar the Beast, whose vision
of the world seems rather grim. Perhaps his portraits depict the
suffering beasts inside the souls of his subjects - but perhaps
they depict Kokoschka's suffering soul projected onto those he
was trying to capture.
(The Neue Galerie New York is located at 1048 Fifth Avenue, New
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