Peripatetic Kokoschka, An Urban Expressionist

Although the Austrian-born painter Oskar Kokoschka

(1886-1980) spent much of his very long life as a tireless traveler and expatriate, his work will forever be

associated with the Viennese avant-garde in the early years of the 20th

century. It was in Vienna in the era of Sigmund Freud, Hugo von Hofmannsthal,

Arnold Schönberg, Adolph Loos and Egon Schiele that Kokoschka earned his first

scandalous reputation as a painter. It was from his own early life in Vienna

that he drew the principal subjects for the work that caused so much uproar,

especially in the highly charged portraits which are so much admired today, but

which the philistine Viennese public of his day denounced as insane long before

his fellow Austrian, Adolf Hitler, got around to dubbing them “degenerate” in

1937.

This indelible association with fin-de-siècle Vienna has been both a plus and a minus for

Kokoschka’s international reputation-a plus insofar as fin-de-siècle Vienna is now regarded as one of the glamour periods

in the history of the 20th-century avant-garde; but a minus insofar as it tends

to relegate Kokoschka’s later work to the shadows. Yet the fact is that the

bulk of Kokoschka’s copious oeuvre

was produced after he had severed his ties with the Vienna avant-garde and its

milieu, and in the later work it is often the landscape paintings rather than the

portraits-especially the panoramic cityscapes of Lyon, Prague, London, Berlin

and, yes, even New York-that command attention.

It is one of the virtues of the current exhibition of

Kokoschka’s paintings, drawings and watercolors at the Marlborough Gallery that

it gives us a more varied account of the artist’s work than we are accustomed

to seeing on this side of the Atlantic. There are portraits, to be sure: Two of

the best are of composers with whom Kokoschka felt a special affinity, Anton von Webern (1914) and Arnold Schönberg (1924). The most

flamboyantly Expressionist venture into the grotesque, however, is a later

portrait, Kathleen, Countess of Drogheda

(1944-47), a reminder that Kokoschka never entirely lost his penchant for the

macabre even after he found safe refuge from Hitler’s Europe in London during

the Second World War. (He became a British citizen in 1947.) There are still

lifes, too, including some very delicate watercolor sketches. Yet it is the

urban landscapes that tend to dominate this memorial exhibition, which was

organized to mark the 20th anniversary of the artist’s death.

Several of these

cityscapes are, not surprisingly, views of London, with the river Thames

featured as a major character, so to speak. In all of Kokoschka’s paintings,

there is a distinctly dramaturgical element even when, as in the cityscapes,

there are no figures to be observed. (Kokoschka had also earned a minor

reputation as a playwright in Vienna.) In the first work we encounter in the

Marlborough show, the painting of Lyon

(1927), the only creatures to be seen are the seagulls commanding the sky. The

city itself is made to look like a rather fragile late addition to the

pre-existing structure of earth, water and heavens. The same is true of his

landscape of Vienna from 1933, in

which the city is seen to be a mere interstice between a distant sky above and

the lush vegetation that occupies the spacious foreground.

It is only in his late painting, New York, Manhattan With the

Empire State Building (1966) that a manmade metropolis is seen to subjugate

nature itself, with a glimpse of the East River reduced to a puddle-like cipher

and even the sky made to seem a mere accessory to the painterly pandemonium of

a skyscraper fantasy. You are left with the impression that, in Kokoschka’s

vision of the modern world, even our major cities represent little more than a

thin crust of civilization that has been artificially imposed on an indifferent

universe. Kokoschka’s portrait of Manhattan is, in other words, not so very different

from the early portraits of his neurotic Viennese contemporaries-paintings in

which every touch of the brush speaks of overwrought nerves, disfiguring

anxieties and impending moral collapse.

It was on the occasion

of that visit to Manhattan in 1966 that I met Kokoschka to conduct an interview

for The New York Times . The

Marlborough Gallery, which was then located in the Fuller Building on East 57th

Street, had mounted an exhibition to celebrate the artist’s 80th birthday, and

it was arranged for me to meet with him at 10 o’clock in the morning in the

gallery’s office. When I arrived, I found him seated in a small room that

contained little more than a table and two chairs. After greeting me, he closed

the door and promptly produced a bottle of whiskey and two glasses out of his

traveling bag. With a twinkle in his eye, he poured us each a tumbler of

whiskey, indicating that the interview could now commence.

He was a great talker, and he seemed to have total recall of

everything that had crowded his eventful life. He spoke with considerable

emotion about Schönberg and the sad letters he had received during the

composer’s last years in California. His highest praise, however, was reserved

for the architect Adolf Loos, the brilliant designer, critic and polemicist who

had carried on a historic campaign against the decadence and hypocrisy of

official taste in fin-de-siècle

Vienna. “Loos taught me everything I know,” he said on that occasion, and I

wonder now if there isn’t something of Loos’ disabused candor in Kokoschka’s

paintings of 20th-century critics.

Although I’m no

teetotaler, whiskey in the morning is not my habit, and it was therefore a

mercy that I was able to take copious notes during this interview, for I wasn’t

in the best shape when we parted company two hours later. Kokoschka, on the

other hand, was in high spirits, even greeting his wife with a laugh when she

turned up at the end of the interview and emphatically expressed her

disapproval at the sight of the half-empty whiskey bottle. It was clearly a

familiar family ritual, and did nothing to dampen Kokoschka’s spirits. A few

days later, The Times published a photograph of the artist, whiskey glass in hand,

studying the portrait of Schönberg that is once again on view in the current

show at the Marlborough Gallery, 40 West 57th Street, through March 17.