Viennese Culture on the Skids

“Focus: Oksar Kokoschka” at the Neue Galerie comes right on time.

The Viennese Expressionist, who died in 1980 at the age of 94, was one of the shattered visionaries of early-20th-century Modernism—a man on the edge. Underappreciated since his death, despite some big-bucks acquisitions of Expressionist masters and periodic museum treatment (a 2002 show of Kokoschka’s early portraits sank like a stone).

But Kokoschka’s portraits, shot through with anxiety and spiritual yearning, register strongly in our cultural moment.

For the show, the museum has gathered a small selection of the artist’s early portraits (six in all) from the permanent collection, as well as a side gallery of 40 or so drawings, posters and prints.

To know Kokoschka, one has to go back to Vienna in the years leading up to the First World War, when the city was the imperial center of a soon-to-be extinguished Hapsburg dynasty, as well as Paris’s chief competitor for leadership in the prewar avant-garde. Vienna was a hot zone for culture. The Vienna Secession and the Expressionist movement erupted against the background of the city’s hypercivilized, overarticulated cosmopolitanism.

Whatever may have ailed the city, Vienna was home to Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, Adolf Loos, Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and, in some rank garret off of the Ringstrasse, Adolf Hitler, whose own career would turn out to be the toxic death cloud that followed the scene’s meltdown. After the war, in which Kokoschka was seriously wounded, the artist would ebb in power. But in the years between 1909 and 1915, Kokoschka painted some of the finest portraits of his era.

The so-called “black portraits” are named for their gloominess as much as for their predominant color. The artist may have lacked subtlety and range, and his brush stroke is scratchy van Gogh, but he carries a scary conviction.

Kokoschka’s portrait of a bohemian, Ludwig Ritter Von Janikowski (1909), stares back with vacant eyes and a sickly pallor. The work recalls the Dutchman’s own self-portraits in their declarative intensity.

The show has been brilliantly installed in a second-floor room of furniture, another of the great hallmarks of Viennese artistic and intellectual accomplishment, including objects designed by Joseph Hoffman and gleaming display cases of period decorative arts. The works reinforce Kokoschka’s pervasive gloom. A nearby sofa beckons like the couch at a shrink’s or—here’s a thought—the gurney at a chic sanitarium. The decanters, liquor glasses, sugar bowls, candy boxes and Champagne tumblers seem to offer the viewer the poisoned pleasures of Kokoschka’s Vienna.

The artist had a theatrical steak and staged several well-publicized raids on middle-class Viennese and Berlin taste. But several Kokoschka stories, passed around by fans of his paintings, still amaze as proof of craziness of a higher order. In 1912, the artist began an affair with Anna Mahler, widow of the composer and future life of Walter Gropius. Three years later, after Kokoschka had enlisted, Maher left him. After the war, Kokoschka had a life-size doll made in her image, and conducted a highly visible affair with his “Anna” before murdering her—he was drunk—at a party. The show includes Christian Love (Alma Mahler and the Artist) (1913), a watercolor with charcoal that depicts the artist as a smock-wearing youngster and Mahler as his mother.

Young artists afire with yearning. An imperial city on the skids. Does any of this sound familiar? Kokoschka’s art looks young again at a time when artists have stopped playing it cool. Young artists today are betting down on emotion, instinct and crazy self-conviction—at least until the market thaws. Think of the young art star Ryan Trecartin, whose hysterical videos, last seen in the “The Generational: Younger than Jesus” youth survey at the New Museum, scorch at the temperature of a brain fever. A century after they were painted, Kokoschka’s art still blazes.


Viennese Culture on the Skids