The early portraits of the Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980), which are currently the subject of a mesmerizing exhibition at the Neue Galerie New York, have long been recognized as one of the stellar achievements of the Viennese avant-garde that flourished in the years immediately preceding the First World War. Yet the young Kokoschka, who was 23 when he painted the earliest portraits in this exhibition, was anything but a representative figure in the Vienna of his day. For one thing, his working-class origins made him a natural outsider among its social and cultural elite. For another, the disabused candor he brought to his stunningly original portraits of his older, more established contemporaries-mostly writers, actors, artists, scholars and intellectuals-quickly earned the young Kokoschka a reputation as a dangerous character.
So did the two Expressionist plays -Murderer, Hope of Women and Sphinx and Strawman- he also authored at the age of 23. Their premieres in Vienna in 1909 caused such an uproar that Kokoschka found it expedient to seek refuge in Switzerland. This proved to be a prologue to his lifelong exile from the city in which he achieved his initial fame. Although he subsequently paid visits to Vienna and even volunteered for military duty in the First World War-thus serving a regime that regarded him as a public enemy-he never again settled in the city that will be forever associated with his finest achievement.
Not surprisingly, Berlin, where Kokoschka moved in 1909, proved to be more receptive to the audacities of his early portrait style. He was particularly fortunate in winning the support of Herwarth Walden, whose magazine, Der Sturm , and his gallery of the same name were already established as two of the principal venues of the European avant-garde.
Yet in Germany, too, Kokoschka’s early portraits stood apart from the prevailing practices of the Expressionist movement. Just as he had rejected the decorative appeal of Klimtian aestheticism in Vienna, so too in Berlin did Kokoschka eschew both the programmatic primitivism of the Brücke group and the mystical abstraction of the Blaue Reiter school. In these early portraits, Kokoschka was, in effect, a one-man movement of his own invention-an Expressionist, to be sure, but an Expressionist who was exceptional in turning his back on the chromatic excitements and the painterly facture of the Post-Impressionist and Fauvist painters whose work, elsewhere in Europe, was central to the Expressionist aesthetic.
What made this all the more remarkable was the fact that it had been Kokoschka’s 1906 encounter with some portraits by Van Gogh that prompted his own pursuit of a radical portrait style. What clearly aroused his keenest interest in Van Gogh wasn’t the latter’s brilliant color or dashing technique, however, but the painter’s genius for limning a compelling psychological profile of his subjects. In retrospect, this intense response to Van Gogh may be seen to have been as much a response of the aspiring dramatist in Kokoschka as it was a response of the aspiring painter. For the immediate results were portraits that are at once brilliant pictorial inventions and highly theatrical accounts of extreme experience. And it is worth noting, in this connection, that as Kokoschka’s interest in pursuing his vocation as a playwright waned, so did his attachment to this early portrait style. His later portraits are in quite a different vein of feeling.
The style that Kokoschka perfected in the early portraits has sometimes been called “nerve painting” or “soul painting,” terms which provide a salutary warning that the conventions of realistic depiction-never mind pictorial flattery-are not to be expected in these pictures. Yet there is little recourse in them to the kind of adversarial caricature we find in the portraits produced some years later by George Grosz and Otto Dix. There is, instead, a depth of empathy and a determination to remain undeceived by the masks of public demeanor that together have the effect of seeming to penetrate to the inner core of the psyche itself.
To achieve this effect, Kokoschka places each of his subjects in a pictorial space that is neither the space of nature nor that of some recognizable domestic interior. It is an infernal space, at once eerie and unearthly, haunted by demons and threatened by dementia. The light in this space, with its bizarre chiaroscuro and frightening tints, is fugitive and unabashedly intimate. The ill-formed eyes, the strange mouths and the grotesque hands of Kokoschka’s subjects all attest to extreme states of feeling. And when the artist came to paint his own Self-Portrait (Hand on Chest) in 1913, he did not exempt himself from this radical candor. The look of naked fear in the eyes and the mouth of this self-portrait is made all the more haunting by the fact that Kokoschka was so much younger than most of his adult subjects. What he saw in the mirror clearly startled him quite as much as what he saw when he studied his older contemporaries.
In the closing chapter of Carl E. Schorske’s Fin-De-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (1980), there is a comparison made between Kokoschka’s early portraits and the early musical compositions of Arnold Schoenberg that is worth pondering by anyone who gets to see the current exhibition. “Kokoschka and Schoenberg,” Mr. Schorske writes, “asserted in direct visual and musical language disturbing instinctual and psychological truths which their precursors had discovered, but had learned to express only in the indirect form of allegory. The shock the newcomers caused produced social rejection; that rejection reinforced their alienation. Alienation in turn became the basis for their adventure into new realms, spiritual and artistic. The two anti-bourgeois bourgeois, Kokoschka and Schoenberg, found the forms to express the soul of men whose culture had prevented their irrational private experience from finding public expression. As critics, prophets, and creators of a new art, the Expressionists gave it voice.”
Oskar Kokoschka: Early Portraits from Vienna and Berlin, 1909-1914 remains on view at the Neue Galerie New York, 1048 Fifth Avenue at 86th Street, through June 10.