The Mother Paintings
The final splendors of Austria’s imperial age are epitomized by Vienna’s Ringstrasse, a broad circular boulevard developed between 1857 and 1913 on land formerly occupied by the city’s medieval walls. During the resulting construction boom, this boulevard was adorned with a string of grand public edifices—a stock exchange, a university, the Burgtheater, Vienna’s City Hall, Parliament, the Naturhistorisches and Kunsthistorisches Museums, the Court Opera, the Museum and School of Applied Arts—in a medley of equally grandiose styles—Classical, Renaissance, Gothic—intended to evoke illustrious historical traditions. It was not long, however, before artists were rejecting such architectural pretensions and calling for art that honestly reflected the present time. The architect Adolf Loos famously called Vienna a “Potemkin city,” referencing the pasteboard and canvas villages created by the Ukrainian administrator, Gregory Potemkin, to fool the Russian Empress, Catherine the Great. In his acclaimed family memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal extends Loos’s metaphor to describe the illusion of assimilation that transfixed Vienna’s Jewish aristocracy in the decades before Hitler destroyed their fragile home.
Nestled among the municipal buildings on the Ring are the almost equally imposing palaces of the wealthy Jewish families who financed Austria-Hungary’s industrial ascendancy in the nineteenth century. These families—the Ephrussis (de Waal’s direct forebears), the Gomperzes, the Liebens, the Scheys, the Todescos, the Wertheimsteins—had for the most part migrated to Vienna from points east, drawn into the orbit of the Rothschild banking dynasty and encouraged by the relatively tolerant policies of the emperors Joseph II and Franz Joseph. The families earned their fortunes through a combination of investment and manufacturing, and over the course of time were rewarded with aristocratic titles. The families grew increasingly secular, and some converted to Christianity. Nevertheless they were rarely accepted into gentile society. For personal and business reasons, they tended to intermarry, eventually forming an intricately networked clan so complex it takes half-a-dozen family trees to sort them out.
Marie-Louise Motesiczky’s mother, Henriette, was the daughter of Anna (née Todesco) and Leopold von Lieben, granddaughter of Sophie (née Gomperz) and Eduard von Todesco, and cousin of Emmy (née Schey) von Ephrussi. As such, Henriette was heir not only to a vast fortune, but to a rich cultural heritage. Sophie von Todesco and her sister, Josephine (née Gomperz) von Wertheimstein, were renowned hostesses whose salons were frequented by writers like Henrik Ibsen, Ferdinand von Saar and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the composers Johannes Brahms, Franz Liszt and Johann Strauss, as well as a host of other notables in such fields as art, theater, science and medicine. For girls growing up in this heady environment, poets were like rock stars, except the objects of their crushes were more accessible. Anna von Lieben is rumored to have had an affair with Josephine’s protégé, Ferdinand von Saar, and Henriette received her first teenaged kiss from Hugo von Hofmannsthal. All three women wrote poetry.
Frustrated by creative passions that had no chance of professional fulfillment and alienated in their marriages to much older bankers, Anna and her aunt Josephine also shared a history of mental illness that may have had a genetic component. After a full-blown psychotic break, Josephine took to her bed, where, aping French royalty, she continued to receive visitors. Anna suffered from a litany of complaints, including hysteria, facial paralysis and morphine addiction, that eventually brought her to Sigmund Freud, who immortalized her in the literature under the pseudonym Cäcilie M. Prompted in part by insomnia, Anna too spent long hours in bed. When she awoke, she ate voraciously, darting from one obsession (say, lamb chops) to another (caviar and champagne) and becoming immensely obese. She died of a heart attack at the age of 53.
Henriette was eighteen, and still nursing an unrequited infatuation with Hofmannsthal, when her mother died in 1900. Henriette’s family did their best to help heal this double loss, distracting her with a horse, a puppy and foreign travel. Two years later, she was in love again, with a man deemed hardly more appropriate than the poet. Edmund von Motesiczky, the illegitimate son of a Hungarian noblewoman, was a handsome dilettante who had neither money nor the desire to earn any. And he was not Jewish. To marry him, Henriette had not only to overcome her father’s objections, but to convert to Protestantism. Nevertheless the couple did marry and by all accounts were quite happy. Of Edmund’s two passions, music and hunting, Henriette shared only the latter. The pair spent autumns shooting game in the forests surrounding the Lieben castle in Vazsony, Hungary. They summered at the family estate in the Hinterbrühl, about a dozen miles south of Vienna. And in the winter, they retreated to a capacious apartment in Vienna, on the Brahmsplatz. A son, Karl, was born in 1904, and a daughter, Marie-Louise, in 1906. Both were baptized as Protestants.
This idyll came to a premature end in 1909, when Edmund took ill on a hunting trip in remote Slovakia. Too far from a hospital to receive appropriate medical attention, he died several days later. Henriette chose not to remarry, sinking more deeply into the embrace of her extended family. Karl and Marie-Louise, who was largely home-schooled by a succession of incompetent tutors and governesses, grew up in the company of their various little cousins. The Vazsony castle was eventually sold, but the Hinterbrühl remained a constant in the family’s life, a place where they gathered with friends and where Henriette could indulge her love of riding, hunting and the outdoors. Henriette had an innate joie de vivre that was bolstered by an egocentric sense of entitlement, but like her mother and her great-aunt, she retreated to bed whenever anything went wrong, and over time her culinary indulgences caused her to gain a great deal of weight. Marie-Louise, effectively replacing her father, became Henriette’s caretaker at a young age. It was the daughter’s responsibility to protect the mother’s delicate equilibrium. “I ruled the roost,” Marie-Louise later recalled, “but she had the stronger will.” In the artist’s earliest portraits, Henriette resembles nothing so much as a chubby, overgrown child.
If Hofmannsthal had been the formative influence on Henriette in her teenage years, the counterpart for Marie-Louise was Max Beckmann, who swooped down on the Hinterbrühl like “a winged creature from Mars,” brought there by a Frankfurt cousin, Irma (née Schey) Simon. Marie-Louise had already shown an aptitude for drawing, and her interest in art was sparked by visits to Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The greater autonomy permitted women in the 1920s, as well as her family’s far-flung connections, facilitated her ability to travel and study abroad. In 1924, the Simons invited her to Frankfurt, where she attended art classes at the Städelschule. In the ensuing years, she pursued her artistic education in Paris, Vienna and Berlin, and in 1927, Beckmann invited her to join his master class at the Städel. A statuesque beauty, Marie-Louise had many dalliances, often with men who were somehow unavailable. When things turned serious, she hesitated, either because she could not leave her mother, or because her mother would not let her go. Karl believed Henriette was simultaneously preventing Marie-Louise from marrying and from fulfilling her artistic destiny. “How often have I heard that mother can’t, mustn’t, shouldn’t,” he wrote his sister. “But is it a good thing to wrap a person in cotton wool?”
Henriette’s desire to keep Marie-Louise by her side was abetted by the family’s dwindling financial resources. In 1926, the Auspitz-Lieben bank failed, prompting Henriette to slash her daughter’s allowance by half. “So you must decide to live with me after all,” she declared triumphantly. All the family’s servants save the children’s former nursemaid, Marie Hauptmann, were let go, and they abandoned the huge tumbledown mansion in Hinterbrühl for a smaller chalet on the property. A good part of the Motesiczkys’ remaining fortune vanished in 1935 due to unwise investments made by yet another of their many cousins, Henk de Waal. But the greatest threat to the family’s security was Germany’s Nazi regime, which by the mid-1930s was clearly encroaching on Austria. In later years Marie-Louise was typically vague about how it happened that she and her mother ended up in Holland two days after the 1938 Anschluss, but surviving documents suggest that, already in 1937, the two women had made arrangements to leave Austria by signing over their remaining assets to Karl. Karl, believing he was not Jewish, stayed behind to look after things. When the war broke out, he was ensconced in the Hinterbrühl, where he sheltered less fortunate Jews and launched a scheme to smuggle them across the border. Eventually, he was caught and sent to Auschwitz. He died there in 1943.
Marie-Louise always rued the fact that in the end she could not help Karl, but she did save Henriette and herself. For the remainder of 1938, the two women based themselves in Holland. Here they ran into Beckmann and his wife, who had fled Germany the previous year. Although the Motesiczkys had relatives in Holland (as they did in just about every European country), they evidently did not consider settling there permanently. Marie-Louise and her mother made experimental forays to Belgium, France and England before choosing the last of these. Accompanied by the devoted nursemaid Marie Hauptmann (who had joined them in exile), they reached London a few days before Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, in March 1939. Karl forwarded their furniture, art and other sundries from Vienna, and after occupying a series of rented lodgings, Henriette and Marie-Louise bought a three-bedroom house in Amersham, a village about 27 miles northwest of London.
Not long after arriving in England, Marie-Louise painted her first allegory, The Travelers. The painting is often compared to Beckmann’s monumental allegory of exile, Departure. However Beckmann’s triptych more directly references the violent politics of Nazi Germany, while Motesiczky’s work is not only more lyrical—indeed, even comical—but at least on the surface, less opaque. The subjects, seated in a rudderless boat on choppy seas, resemble members of the artist’s immediate circle: from left to right, Marie Hauptmann, Henriette, Marie-Louise and Karl. Nevertheless Motesiczky insisted that the symbolism was not personal. The travelers are generic types, cast adrift together with their preexisting illusions and obsessions. The narcissist has brought along her huge mirror, while the obese nude clutches a mysterious phallic object that Motesiczky identified as a sausage. When one interpreter suggested it was a Torah scroll, the artist retorted, “Sausage is this woman’s Torah scroll.”
To a remarkable degree, Marie-Louise and Henriette were able to reconstruct a semblance of their former Austrian life in England, in part because they were wealthier than most refugees. Not only did they have their own furniture and Marie Hauptmann’s familiar cooking, but many old friends had washed ashore with them. The Motesiczkys reconnected with the sculptor Anna Mahler (daughter of Gustav and Alma Mahler), the painter Oskar Kokoschka and the art historian Ernst Gombrich, and they also made new contacts within the community of exiled intellectuals. Foremost among these was the Bulgarian-born writer (and future Nobel laureate) Elias Canetti, whom Marie-Louise met in 1939 or ’40. Although Canetti was married, he became the artist’s lover, friend and staunchest professional supporter for the next fifty years.
Unfortunately Canetti was a notorious philanderer. After the war, he and Motesiczky shared a London apartment, but the writer periodically returned home to his wife, Veza, and sometimes took other women to a separate third residence. In 1958 Henriette, who had remained in Amersham, began to show increasing signs of frailty, so Marie-Louise bought a house in Hampstead large enough to accommodate the two of them, along with Canetti and his extensive library. When Veza died in 1963, Motesiczky assumed she and her lover would finally marry. Instead Canetti secretly wed another, much younger woman. Motesiczky only found out about the marriage by accident some years after the fact, and she never fully recovered from the betrayal.
Whereas Karl had worried that Henriette would prevent Marie-Louise from finding fulfillment as a wife and artist, it is unlikely that a husband, at the time, would have granted her the creative autonomy that Canetti actively encouraged. But Motesiczky, too, was a woman of her time, trained to please others and not to assert herself forcefully. She achieved her ends through indirection and feigned helplessness. “I don’t believe that one follows one’s own path,” she said. “I paint because I cause people the least trouble that way. All my life my mother wanted to have me at home, and what else could I do there but paint?” Far from being an impediment, Henriette gave Marie-Louise license to develop her talent. Motesiczky once commented that her “chief gods” were Beckmann, Canetti and her mother. And indeed these were the three pillars that sustained her artistic career.
In England, Motesiczky perfected a style of representational Expressionism that owed a certain debt to Beckmann and Kokoschka. However as a second-generation Expressionist, she was less concerned with formulating a new pictorial language than with capturing the emotional content of her subjects. She and Canetti cherished those moments when one’s surroundings seem to “shine.” “You see something,” the painter explained, “and it is so animated because not just one but many memories are resonating.” Although Motesiczky almost always worked from nature, her goal was to transcend reality, to evoke the sensory residue that colors memory and surfaces in dreams. “In the course of painting I must be able to invent freely,” she said. “There a story might develop….Stories inspire the eyes.” This narrative bent—much at odds with contemporary artistic trends—may have derived from her family’s multigenerational literary proclivities. Motesiczky, whose cursory schooling had left her with a faulty command of written language, painted poems.
Motesiczky produced many compelling still lifes, landscapes, portraits and allegories, but knowledgeable observers—including Gombrich and Canetti—have repeatedly singled out the artist’s depictions of her mother for special praise. Created over a period of fifty years, the mother paintings may be divided into two groups: portraits and “stories.” The story paintings are often staged in the family’s Amersham or Hampstead gardens, which inevitably conjure the lost paradise of the Hinterbrühl. The events depicted here—a mysterious sunrise game of “catch” between mother and daughter, or a Short Trip in a ludicrous miniature car—seem to take place in an enchanted parallel universe. Shielded by Marie-Louise and by her own wide-eyed innocence, Henriette found in the natural environment a refuge from the demands of the outside world. And yet, as poignantly captured in Motesiczky’s painting The Way, there is no escaping mortality. The garden path leads eventually into darkness: the sun sets, flowers wilt and winter follows fall.
Motesiczky’s paintings chronicle her mother’s decline with an uncanny combination of honesty and love. The old brass bedstead from Hinterbrühl functions like a magic chariot, transporting Henriette from the realm of aristocratic privilege to the isolation of exile and infirmity. In her late seventies, as shown in a life-sized portrait from 1959, Henriette was still a force to be reckoned with. Her bulk dominates the pictorial space, her pipe raised in a masculine gesture of command. Some eighteen years later, in Mother with Baton, Henriette wields her conductor’s baton with far less authority. Her body has become ghostly, and even the brass bed appears to be vaporizing. Motesiczky makes no concessions to her mother’s vanity in these paintings. Her balding head is covered with a turban, then with an ill-fitting wig, and finally not at all. The artist accentuates her mother’s bulbous nose, a feature Henriette especially hated. Yet it is the eyes—pleading, generous, kind—that pull one into the mother paintings. “Despite her advanced age, for me she looked charming,” Motesiczky later recalled. “She was almost radiant each time I came into the room. I thought that if I could paint what I saw when she was in this decrepit state, without embellishment and concentrating on the genuine charm in her expression, then I would have done a great thing….I was hoping that the overall impression would convey something of the immediate joy and hope she would show when someone came near her.” The mother paintings are a tribute not just to Henriette, but to the triumph of the human spirit.
After Henriette died in 1978, Marie-Louise created one last mother painting, The Greenhouse. Like many of the other story paintings in this series, it is staged in the Hampstead garden. The greenhouse mirrors the setting sun, while Henriette peacefully rakes leaves, accompanied by the ghosts of her beloved Italian greyhounds. Motesiczky also eulogized her mother in a poem:
I have found you down below!
where the dogs often go
You gather up the leaves.
Evening now is nearing
refreshing and cheering,
and still the spider weaves her spindly net
The sun sets
soon I’ll bring you to your bed
Just one bird sings in the tree
But your life is my dream
We would like to express our deepest gratitude to all the lenders whose generous cooperation made this exhibition possible, among them the Arts Council Collection, South Bank Centre, London; the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; the Manchester City Galleries, Manchester; Tate; and an anonymous private collector. Above all, we would like to thank the Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust for underwriting the British loans and Jill Lloyd’s lecture, and the Trustees, especially Frances Carey, for their unstinting counsel and assistance. Jill Lloyd’s biography The Undiscovered Expressionist (288 pages; 35 illustrations; hardcover) and Ines Schlenker’s catalogue raisonné Marie-Louise von Motesiczky (560 pages; over 350 color illustrations; hardcover) provided essential information in preparing this exhibition and its accompanying documentation. Copies of these books may be purchased from the gallery for $30 and $150 respectively. Also available, for $35, is the catalogue for the 2006-07 Marie-Louise Motesiczky traveling exhibition (264 pages; over 150 color illustrations; hardcover). Domestic shipping and handling charges are $30 each for the catalogue raisonné and $15 each for the other books; New York residents, please also add sales tax. Checklist entries include catalogue raisonné numbers, where applicable.