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Early Portraits from Vienna and Berlin 1909-1914"
Neue Galerie New York, March 15- June 10 2002
Portrait of the Artist As A Young Portraitist

"Alma Mahler, 1912" by Kokoshka

"Alma Mahler, 1912," by Oskar Kokoschka, oil on canvas, 24 3/8 by 22 inches, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. Kokoschka fell in love with the widow of Gustav Mahler, the composer, who was 11 years older than Kokoschka. They had a three-year relationship. Before she married Mahler, she had been involved with Gustav Klimt and after her relationship with Kokoschka, she married Walter Gropius, the architect, and then Franz Werfel, the writer. In this portrait, Kokoschka was obviously influenced by Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa."

By 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.

"Franz Hauer, 1913" by Kokoschka

"Franz Hauer, 1913," by Oskar Kokoschka, oil on canvas, 47 1/4 by 41 1/4 inches, Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, R.I. Hauer was an important art collector in Vienna and owned the Griechenbeisi restaurant there. He owned seven Kokoschka paintings. This strong work shows the influence of Van Gogh on Kokoschka but also has a very strong sense of spatial dynamics.

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.

"Baron Viktor von Dirsztay, 1911" by Kokoschka

"Baron Viktor von Dirsztay, 1911," by Oskar Kokoschka, oil on canvas, 38 3/4 by 28 3/4 inches, Sprengel Museum Hannover. The exhibition catalogue notes that "The effusive 'sign language' of his hands, particularly in combination with the lively pattern of his clothing and the restless brushstrokes, heightens the posed effect" of this very exciting and strong painting.

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.

"Adolph Loos, 1909" by Kokoschka

"Adolph Loos, 1909," by Oskar Kokoschka, oil on canvas, 29 1/8 by 35 7/8 inches, Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kultlurbesitz, Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Loos, the famous architect, encouraged Kokoschka to leave the Wiener Werkstätte and he became a great mentor for the artist.

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.

"Self-Portrait (Poster Design for Der Sturm), 1910" by Kokoschka

"Self-Portrait (Poster Design for Der Sturm), 1910," by Oskar Kokoschka, oil on canvas, 40 1/8 by 27 1/2 inches, Szépmüvészeti Museum, Budapest. After negative reception to his initial exhibitions, Kokoschka shaved off his hair to denote himself as an "outcast" and in this angry self-portrait his hand points to a wound, a reference to Christian suffering and vulnerability.

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.

"Peter Altenberg, 1909" by Kokoschka

"Peter Altenberg, 1909," by Oskar Kokoschka, oil on canvas, 29 7/8 by 28 1/8 inches, private collection, New York. Altenberg was a writer who was prominent in Viennese literary and cafe circles and he was known for his "telegram-style" texts. He once wrote that "I would like to describe a person in one sentence - the experience of a person's soul on one page, a landscape with one word."

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.

"Joseph de Montesquiou-Fezensac, 1910" by Kokoschka

"Joseph de Montesquiou-Fezensac, 1910," by Oskar Kokoschka, oil on canvas, 31 1/2 by 24 3/4 inches, Moderna Musset, Stockholm. Kokoschka here gouges lines into the canvas and provides a startling and very bright dimensionality to this portrait.

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.

"Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat, 1909" by Oskar Kokoschka, oil on canvas, 30 1/8 by 53 3/8 inches, the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Erica later was quoted as saying that "When Kokoschka began painting, he first used a brush but quickly abandoned that to continue painting with his fingertips. He scratched wonderful lines into the paint with his fingernails."

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" by Kokoschka

"Two Nudes-Lovers (Self-Portrait with Alma Mahler), 1913" by Oskar Kokoschka, oil on canvas, 64 1/8 by 38 3/8 inches, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

"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 York, New York and has a website at Museum is open Saturday, Sunday and Monday, 11 AM to 6 PM, Friday 11 AM to 9 PM, closed Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Phone: 212-628-6200.)


Click here to order the superb catalogue edited by Tobias Natter and including fine essays by Monika Pessler, Markus Neuwirth, Uew M. Schneede, Gregor Streim, Patrick Werkner, Thomas Trummer, Claude Cernuschi, Elana Shapira, Werner J. Schweiger, and Peter A. Knize, at 30 percent off its $50 list price.

An excellent book with 142 illustrations, "Kokoschka and Alma Mater," by Alfred Weidlinger, Prestel-Verlag, Munich -New York, 1996, is available for $12 from the delightful book store at the Neue Galerie at 1048 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10021

Copyright 2002 by John D. Delmar


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