The breezy side of Oskar Kokoschka. Paris exhibition of drawings offers fresh look at OK's methods
Paris — SOMEONE described painter Oskar Kokoschka's teaching methods as ``a fresh breeze, full of turbulence, and one surprise after another.'' The same observation might well be made of his drawings. The exhibition of his works on paper here at the Pompidou Center shows the Viennese artist's command of a variety of media - charcoal, pencil, chalk, ink, and watercolor. This command made possible an apparently spontaneous response to the figures and faces that were his subjects in the 1906-1926 span covered.
The year 1986 saw widespread celebrations of Kokoschka's art, marking the 100th anniversary of his birth. This Paris show comes at the tail end of those centenary displays. As often happens with exhibitions of drawings, this show brings the viewer into intimate contact with the artist's methods and thinking processes. In the case of an ``Expressionist'' - and the word really does apply to Kokoschka's intuitive, even passionate, approach to art - that means contact with his imagemaking at its most primal and compelling.
This look at one aspect of one Viennese artist is also a good footnote to ``Vienne, naissance d'un si`ecle,'' a major show on the whole Viennese art world of the turn of the century. It was presented to Parisians early last year at the Pompidou Center.
Kokoschka was one of the Viennese figures who grew disallusioned with his home city. Its society was provoked into sarcasm and scorn by this ``enfant terrible.'' At the end of World War I he moved to Berlin, and then to Dresden. A wanderer for much of the rest of his long career, he rarely visited Vienna again.
All the same, this selection of early drawings seems inextricably Viennese. The organizer, Serge Sabarsky, feels that Kokoschka's art might equally be characterized as ``German Expressionism,'' but the closeness of style to the work of the older Viennese father figure Gustav Klimt, and even more to the younger Egon Schiele, is unmistakable. Many of the drawings of 1907-10 share with Schiele an unsparing disruption of the tradition that beauty of form is the essence of the female nude. The wiry contour lines and chilly color tints of these naked bodies describe vulnerability, not nobility, and skinny awkwardness instead of rounded grace.
Even today these drawings are shocking - in the same way that images of starving children or concentration camp victims are. The ``turbulence'' and ``surprise'' of Kokoschka's draftsmanship sometimes animalizes the human figure to a degree that surely reflects something of the decadent atmosphere that is also associated with this period in the Austrian capital.
The saving grace, however, is in the draftsmanship. For all his apparent casualness, here clearly is a man for whom drawing is a wonderful instinct, a natural means. Its directness is unspoiled by fuss, carefulness, or hesitation.
The show progresses chronologically and portraits become increasingly frequent. In them, chalk and charcoal are usual, taking the character of his sitters by force. Vigor of line virtually carves the facial features and energetically digs out their inner feelings. But however primitive and direct these confrontations between portrayed and portrayer might be, they are still remarkably subtle.
One or two pen-and-ink drawings of young women from 1919 to 1921 suggest that by this time he had thrown off the sickly air of Vienna and could now treat the female form in his work with a kind of robust audacity. This, in the long run, seems truer to his individuality.
Then there are his watercolors. Only Emil Nolde used watercolor with a comparable liberty and boldness during this century, relishing its swift spread of pure, strong color. Yet the differences between these two Expressionists in their exploration of this medium is intriguing, and Kokoschka, surprisingly, turns out to be the one who most appreciates its delicacies and fluidities.
To describe a face and figure, he loves to introduce into a patch of clean water floating on the paper a rainbow of colors - violet, red, yellow - running felicitously into each other. But these contrasting colors do not fight with each other. They are unexpectedly agreeable. Kokoschka is using, in fact, the language of the French Fauves - broad patches of different colors juxtaposed - and the results are often exuberant rather than anguished, joyful rather than ferocious. In this he is not a typically German Expressionist.
There is an impressive economy of brushwork in these watercolors, a remarkable capacity for quick, sufficient notation - the shape of a girl's black boot, for instance, or the changing angle of her arm, realized in a couple of strokes. But by the same token there is a danger that the artist was a little too certain of his dexterity in these rich rushes of paint.
On the other hand, these works on paper do not pretend ambitiousness. They are just a fresh breeze.
Through March 22.