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ESSAYS

Richard Gerstl

OSKAR KOKOSCHKA AND HIS TIME

The year 1986 seems to have been dedicated to the triumph of Austrian modernism. In the wake of highly successful exhibitions in Venice, Vienna and Paris, the Museum of Modern Art's spectacular Vienna 1900 was the hit of the summer season in New York. Now, the year concludes with the Guggenheim Museum's massive Kokoschka retrospective (celebrating the 100th anniversary of the artist's birth), an exhibition that has also enjoyed great popularity during its earlier European showings in London and Zurich. The Galerie St. Etienne, which mounted Kokoschka's first American one-man show in 1940 and followed up with the first solo presentations of the work of Egon Schiele (1941), Alfred Kubin (1941) and Gustav Klimt (1959), is naturally delighted by the warmth of the reception now accorded Austrian art. It is in celebration of this long-overdue recognition, and specifically as a complement to the Guggenheim showing, that we have organized Oskar Kokoschka and His Time.

 

As the gallery which introduced the modern Austrian masters to this country, we are often asked to comment upon the current Vienna "boom." Having observed interest in these artists gradually build over the last forty-seven years, we are less likely than some newcomers to see the present situation as a sudden fad. The question, "What makes Viennese art so popular today?" is, to us, less relevant than the question, "What took so long?" The fact is that Austria has been the victim of a sustained cultural blockade, engendered by the two world wars and exacerbated by that nation's subordinate position within German-speaking Europe. As a result, the French tradition has tended to dominate American perceptions of modernism and has provided the theoretical underpinnings for the movement's later manifestations in this country. The Austrian tradition, on the other hand, was far less influential, because two of its leading exponents, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, both died in 1918, and most of their major oils--cumbersome and costly to transport-- remained in Austria. In contrast to art, achievements in the world of ideas or even music were far easier to tuck into one's luggage, more readily accessible through books and lectures, and the major Austrian innovators, such as Freud and Schoenberg, lived well beyond the first world war. That Austrian art has struggled to the fore despite these formidable obstacles is an indication of its abiding strength and importance.

 

Of the artists who have benefited from the Austrian arts revival, Oskar Kokoschka has, surprisingly, often seemed to be the odd-man-out. The trendy fin-de-siecle aura lingers less palpably around his oeuvre than it does around the legacies of Klimt, Schiele and others of their generation. Kokoschka, alone among his famous peers, survived into the late 20th century, and with the passage of time he inevitably grew away from the formative style of his youth. As a survivor, he did not suffer from the period of eclipse that befell his compatriots. Instead, the artist grew old with the century--at once venerable-- but, especially toward the end of his lengthy life (he died just a few days shy of his ninety-fourth birthday), a little out of it. In the case of Kokoschka, what is required is not so much a revival as a reevaluation.

 

As might be expected of an artist whose life spans nearly the full length of our century, Kokoschka's career may be broken into fairly distinct phases. During his years as a student at Vienna's Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Applied Arts), he came under the influence of Carl Otto Czeschka and Berthold Löffler, two teachers who had introduced a new figurative verve to the decorative arts. Bright, poster-like colors, bold stylization, and childlike whimsy characterized the work of many of his classmates, but Kokoschka channeled these impulses in a totally original direction when he published his adult fairy tale, Die träumenden Knaben (The Dreaming Boys), in 1908. By wedding the new boldness with the subliminal sexuality that lurked in Klimt's paintings, Kokoschka anticipated the Expressionist revolution that would soon shake Vienna. By 1909, aided and abetted by the architect Adolf Loos, he had embarked on a series of highly charged portraits that were the direct antithesis of Klimt's gilded beauties. His characterisitic idiom of raw, scraped surfaces and muted colors soon became the rage among young artists (Kokoschka was particularly bitter about what he considered the plagiarism of his colleague Max Oppenheimer) and had a profound imapct upon Egon Schiele. However, it would be an overstatement to credit Kokoschka with singlehandedly introducing Expressionism to Austria, for the tendency was clearly present well before he came on the scene. The work of Munch and van Gogh, exhibited sporadically in Vienna during the first decade of the century, helped shape the vision of the iconoclastic Richard Gerstl, whose wild, almost abstract paintings predated Kokoschka's somewhat tamer efforts by several years. (Gerstl's suicide in 1908 at the age of twenty-five prevented his ground-breaking achievement from being generally ackowledged.) Clearly there was an Expressionist virus in the air; Kokoschka was merely one of the first to catch it.

 

The elements that contributed to the Expressionist breakthrough in Austria were at work simultaneously in Germany, but no direct cause-and-effect relationship can be said to link the movements in the two countries. While the advent of the style can be traced back to the founding of Die Brücke in Dresden in 1905, Vienna enjoyed a far closer artistic relationship with Munich, where Expressionism did not coalesce until the formation of Der Blaue Reiter group (including the Austrian Alfred Kubin) in 1911. Ultimately, it was not Dresden, Munich or Vienna that took the lead in cementing the Expressionist movement, but rather Berlin, with its active network of galleries and its avant-garde periodicals such as Der Sturm and Die Aktion. In 1910, on Loos's advice, Kokoschka left his conservative hometown for the more receptive climate of Berlin, and from then until the outbreak of World War I, he divided his time between the German city and Vienna. During this period, he developed his technique as a painter, experimenting with the thicker impastos that were favored by some of his German contemporaries, but retaining the muted palette of the early Vienna years. Only after the war, when he moved to Dresden, did Kokoschka realize his full potential as a colorist. The bright, chunky forms of the so-called Dresden period replaced, once and for all, any distinctly Viennese qualities in Kokoschka's work. From this moment, he became absorbed in a supranational movement, and in fact, he never again lived in Vienna for any extended period of time.

 

In his mature years, Kokoschka developed a loose, gestural brushstroke and an equally freewheeling approach to drawing that marked his style for the rest of his life. He also expanded his range of subject matter, adding ambitious allegories and landscapes to a repertoire that had previously centered on portraiture. After leaving Dresden in 1924, he executed a major series of canvases depicting European scenes and cities that reflected his new role as a wanderer and citizen of the world. This self-imposed refugee status was made permanent by Hitler's annexation of Austria in 1938. Shortly before the Anschluss, Kokoschka fled to England, where he remained for the duration of World War II. He did not find a stable base until 1953, when he established himself in Villeneuve, Switzerland. It was here that he made his final home (with extended excursions to Salzburg, where he conducted his famous "School for Seeing") and here, in 1980, that he died.

 

Pushing Expressionism to an extreme that was representational rather than abstract, Kokoschka ran counter to the trend of the postwar years, and his abiding concern with myth invoked an age-old tradition that was, for the moment, out of fashion. It may be that, even today, we cannot altogether "see" the full implications of Kokoschka's oeuvre, for certain lingering biases obstruct our view of his later creations. Nonetheless, it must be said that Kokoschka's is one of the truly monumental artistic achievements of this century, rivalling that of Picasso in length, if not in breadth. As such, Kokoschka's oeuvre must be taken as an organic whole, for there is an integrity and consistency of purpose even in the most unprepossessing of the artist's works. If, as may well be the case, the once dominant formalist tradition is now on the wane, one would do well to look to Kokoschka as an example of the true potential of expressive figuration.