Monday, March 3, 2008

Hand to Hand Combat

Oskar Kokoschka extended the expressive power of German Expressionism to the very limits of his reach, his very fingertips. Born March 1, 1886, Kokoschka painted some of the most expressive hands in all of modern art. In Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat (above, from 1909), the art historian and his wife reach out to one another in the center of the picture but just fail to touch, as if fearing that a spark could jump from one person to another. The rough overall style of Kokoschka’s painting gets even rougher in the representation of the hands. When Kokoschka painted this work, Erica Tietze watched him put down his brushes and actually scratch into the surface of the paint with his fingernails. Such intensity comes through in much of Kokoschka’s work and makes him one of the most fascinating figures of late German Expressionism.

Kokoschka painted The Bride of the Wind (aka, The Tempest, above, from 1913) to commemorate the end of this tempestuous affair with Alma Mahler, the widow of the composer Gustav Mahler. A film of Alma’s life borrows its title from this painting. Kokoschka never stopped loving Alma, even going so far as to build a stuffed life-size doll to resemble Alma and help soothe his loneliness. Again, the hands tell a story by themselves. Kokoschka knits his fingers together nervously, anxious about the impending separation. Alma’s hands rest peacefully, confident that she has made the right choice. Kokoschka’s passion for Alma seems almost understandable in light of the power she held over artists throughout her life, from her flirtation with Gustav Klimt as a young girl to her marriages to Mahler, the architect Walter Gropius, and the novelist Franz Werfel.

Kokoschka didn’t take rejection well, either from Alma or the art community. When his paintings failed to succeed, he shaved his head and assumed the pose of a martyr. When the Nazis staged their “Degenerate Art” exhibition, eight of Kokoschka’s works made the list. After fleeing first to Prague in 1934 and then to England, Kokoschka painted his Self-Portrait as a Degenerate Artist (above, from 1937). Kokoschka paints himself with arms crossed, defying the Nazis and anyone else to deny his right to create. Behind him in the distance are a deer and a man, both running away, just as he ran away to safety. Kokoschka spent the rest of his life in exile from Germany, always an alien in every sense of the word.

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