Thursday, January 17, 2008

A Greed for Life

Marie-Louise von Motesiczky, Self-Portrait with Red Hat, 1938, oil and charcoal on canvas, 50.7 x 35.5 cm. Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust, London

In Self-Portrait with Red Hat (above), the artist Marie-Louise von Motesiczky looks penetratingly at the viewer with her large, dark eyes and touches the brim of her hat, “as if in a gesture of farewell to the country she had been forced to leave behind,” writes Jill Lloyd in The Undiscovered Expressionist: A Life of Marie-Louise von Motesiczky, the first biography and in-depth study of the woman Max Beckmann, mentor and friend, once believed could be Germany’s greatest female artist since Paula Modersohn-Becker. Motesiczky, forced to flee her native land to escape Nazi persecution, constantly finds herself in a state of semi-exile—from the aristocratic world of her lineage in her choice of the bohemian life of an artist yet also from the wilder excesses of modern art in the fundamental conservatism of her artistic practice. Caught between so many different worlds, Motesiczky provides a unique tale of the conflicts the modern woman artist faced in the early twentieth century.

Motesiczky descends from a long line of powerful, intelligent women. “These gifted women were undoubtedlyan inspiration to Marie-Louise,” Lloyd writes, “but their frustrations and resulting histories of depression and psychosomatic illnesses cast a shadow over her life.” Sigmund Freud treats one of her grandmothers among his earliest patients. Her father, a talented musician, allegedly plays with Brahms himself. Several of the women in her family history take illustrious writers as lovers, something Motesiczky herself does in a 40-year relationship with Nobel Prize winner Elias Canetti. Although her family always surrounds itself with the great artists of Austria, Motesiczky maintains the essentially conservative values of her family, which lead to a life-long suspicion of “intellectual” abstract art. When Max Beckmann visits the family in 1920, however, Marie-Louise begins to see possibilities in a career in art.

After meeting Beckmann, Motesiczky travels to Holland and encounters the world of Van Gogh first hand. “It was Van Gogh’s sun which in the cold Hague spring was a revelation to me,” she writes in letters home. Like many German artists of the time, Van Gogh’s life story and strikingly powerful letters, newly translated into German, spark the imagination of Motesiczky. Lloyd does a great job in capturing the spirit of Van Gogh-mania in its early years, something she wrote on at length in the catalogue to the exhibition Van Gogh and Expressionism at the Neue Galerie last year (which I reviewed here). The expressive power of Motesiczky’s Self-Portrait with Red Hat owes much to Van Gogh’s own revealing self-portraits with hats and other accessories.

Marie-Louise von Motesiczky, The Travellers, 1940, oil on canvas, 66.7 x 75.3 cm. Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust, London

In the late 1920s through the 1930s, Motesiczky lives in wild Berlin, thriving in the bohemian atmosphere that shocks her conservative family. A photo of Motesiczky frolicking topless shows just how far she had come from the staid halls of her family’s wealthy home. In The Balcony (painted in 1929) Motesiczky paints herself nude, peeling away the final layers of “respectability” and embracing the life of an artist free of all constraint. Around 1934, Motesiczky herself undergoes psychoanalysis, following which her paintings take on a more introspective feel. The increasing power of the Nazis may have also contributed to her increased thoughtfulness. After his inclusion in the “Degenerate Art” exhibition in 1937, Beckmann flees Germany and Motesiczky follows a year later with her mother and childhood nurse in tow. The Travellers (above) captures some of the absurdity of this exodus from the life and traditions Motesiczky and her family knew. The nude figure in the center holds a sausage, as if it were a treasured possession. Landing finally in England, Motesiczky finds solace in the German artistic community already there, including the artist Oskar Kokoschka and the writer Canetti, whom she meets in 1939. Lloyd mines Canetti’s memoir Party in the Blitz for much of the feeling of what it was to be a German in England at that time. In the midst of all the uncertainty of homelessness, Canetti provides an anchor for Marie-Louise. “In the inauspicious circumstances of exile, her belief in Canetti’s powers as a writer seems to have filled the gap she perceived in her life,” Lloyd writes. Both Motesiczky and Canetti unwaveringly believe in art’s power to give meaning to the world and fervently hold on to that faith over the next 40 years of their life together—a relationship based largely on self-deception, as Canetti remained married to his wife Vera and then married another woman after Vera’s death rather than Marie-Louise.

Marie-Louise von Motesiczky, The Old Song, 1959, oil on canvas, 101.7 x 152.6 cm. Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust, London

Motesiczky decides to remain in England after the war. Her mother, bedridden for much of her life, becomes one of her greatest subjects. In a sequence beginning in 1929, Motesiczky paints her mother over the course of the next 50 years in works such as The Old Song (above). Motesiczky paints The Old Song after an inspirational visit to the Louvre, deciding to make “allegories just as a pretext—and leaving the symbolic to look after itself.” In an honest, tender examination of the dynamics of aging similar to that of the self-portraits of Rembrandt, whom Motesiczky loved, Motesiczky paints her mother becoming more and more child-like and simple in spirit as well as appearance as the end nears. Throughout, Motesiczky strives, as she put it, “to capture mother’s yearning expression, that almost greed for life.” The joy of life behind so much of Motesiczky’s paintings, even in the face of displacement and failed affairs, proves that she too shared in her mother’s greed for living.

When Motesiczky’s mother finally dies in 1978, she finds herself completely “free” for the first time in her life at the age of 72. Marie-Louise gives “full rein in later years to the unconventionality that was part of her family tradition, taking advantage at last of the freedom that was her émigré status and advancing years afforded her.” Travels to India, Turkey, Egypt, and Israel add adventure to her later years. Although unable to identify with the feminist revolution of the 1960s, Motesiczky appreciates the modern woman’s sense of independence, perhaps wondering what she would have accomplished if she had been born in a different time and place.

Although some recognition comes to Motesiczky and other members of the so-called “lost generation” of German artists whose lives were interrupted by the Nazi era through exhibitions of the 1980s and the neo-Expressionism of the 1980s leads to renewed interest in the German Expressionists, Motesiczky’s art has remains undiscovered for the most part. Motesiczky founds the Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust in 1992 to protect her legacy. The Trust owns most of her works and continues to promote her artistic vision today since her death in 1996.

Within German art, Motesiczky’s painting stands up against the finest of the male German Expressionists and certainly can challenge Modersohn-Becker or even Kathe Kollwitz for the title of greatest modern woman German artist. Lloyd analyzes Motesiczky’s works perceptively and places her within the larger context very well—quite a task due to the unconventionality of the subject herself and the male-dominated nature of German Expressionism. I found myself frequently comparing Motesiczky’s art to that of another unconventional woman—Frida Kahlo, born just one year after Motesiczky. Both artists celebrate their dual natures (bohemian and aristocratic for Motesiczky, Mexican and European for Kahlo) while also coming to terms with their own sexuality. Motesiczky never achieves the startling frankness of Kahlo, especially sexually, but few artists ever have. Motesiczky does, however, approach Kahlo’s more surreal moments in works such as The Travelers and The Old Song, but always avoids going all the way in her innate conservatism. Just as Kahlo’s finest art represents the nexus of so many conflicting tensions, Motesiczky’s finest works strike a balance of all the different components of her life. Motesiczky straddles so many worlds—old-world aristocracy and modern bohemia, conservative values and nascent modern feminism, just to name two—that her art provides a wealth of study that has Lloyd’s effort only begins to explore.

The Undiscovered Expressionist: A Life of Marie-Louise von Motesiczky adds another chapter to the ever-evolving story of German Expressionism and makes a significant contribution to the neglected female artists of that period. Female artists today can find a strong role model in Marie-Louise von Motesiczky’s life-long greed for life.

[Many thanks to Yale University Press for providing me with a review copy of The Undiscovered Expressionist: A Life of Marie-Louise von Motesiczky and to the Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust, London for permission to use the images shown above.]

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