The many masks of modern art
For better or worse, the individuals in Oskar Kokoschka's paintings and prints are real people. They may appear anxious and a bit restless, and may seem to be carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders, but they are very alive and actual nevertheless.
This is particularly true of his earlier works in which he allowed absolutely nothing to interfere with his burning desire to capture and communicate the precise and unique character of his subjects. He would scratch, smear, smudge, and scumble the paint on his canvases, violate all the rules of drawing, and distort whatever details or forms he wanted so that the final effect mirrored what he felt about the man or woman before him.
Kokoschka had the rare and extraordinary ability to perceive and isolate the crucial and unique characteristics of a person - and to then transform that evidence of individualism into an image of human universality. The remarkable thing was that he did it with compassion, and not with the desire to satirize; he had no desire to wound, only to understand, express, and dignify human life.
In his creative hierarchy, intuition and empathy came first. His portraits were not so much retinal projections as empathetic ones. And the only skills he cared about were those that permitted his feelings to find pictorial form.
What makes these portraits work is the fact that his feelings and sensibilities reached out to encompass the realities and conditions of other human beings, and didn't remain locked into his own self-centered preoccupations. Kokoschka's art may be extraordinarily subjective, but never at the expense of what others were or felt.
Since these early portraits are predicated on feelings and emotions, it makes little sense to analyze them in formal or structural terms. It is the dead on-target, specific humanity of a particular portrait that convinces us, not its architectonics, or its exquisite rendering. We encounter his subjects as though they were living people, and, to a large extent, accept or reject them on the basis of our sympathy for, or our dislike of, the human qualities they embody and project.
In some of his earlier drawings and lithographs, Kokoschka's pencil or crayon responded to the finest nuances of his sitters' emotional realities, much as a seismograph responds to the slightest and most minute of earth tremors. The resulting images, while certainly taking into account the physical geography of his subjects' faces and bodies, nevertheless established themselves primarily as records of their emotional states or psychological conditions.
Kokoschka's pre-1920 portraits, as a result, exist as remarkable documents recording the mood and temper of many of the artists and intellectuals of the time. They also stand as evidence of Kokoschka's own psychological and emotional condition, for he could not altogether divorce his own feelings from those of his models.
It would, as a matter of fact, be correct to say that he sought echoes of his own feelings in whomever he drew or painted, and then used that common ground as a starting point, with the result that the ultimate success or failure of a portrait often depended on how comfortable he felt with his subjects' inner realities.
In other words, his portraits of others were also, in a way, portraits of himself - or at least served to give expression to how he saw and responded to people and to the world around him. But then, that is precisely what makes them so fascinating and valuable. It is that very quality of subjective identification of artist with sitter that makes the great portraits of Rembrandt so magnificent, and that gives the portrait studies of Holbein, Durer, El Greco, Titian, Goya, their extra dimensions.
Nothing, after all, is so much a contradiction in terms as an ''objective'' portrait or work of art. We might as well speak of ''objective'' love or ''objective'' friendship, for art, like love and friendship, is not so much a matter of standing coolly aside and weighing something or someone objectively as it is a matter of giving of oneself and sharing.
Why this is not better understood is beyond my comprehension. Just as I cannot understand our unwillingness to use the word love when discussing art. If there is one word I would like to bring into the writing on art, it is the word love, for I have not, in over forty years of looking at, discussing, reading about, or making art, found one single word that more closely approximates the nature and the meaning of this creative act.
The creation of art is an act of love, for only the kind of full identification with life's totality - that is love - can produce the grandeur of a Michelangelo, the harmony and serenity of a Vermeer, or the architectonic vision of a Cezanne. Or produce the ''perfection'' of a Mondrian or the integrated joy and vitality of a Miro or Calder. Without that vision of totality in which every single thing is part of, and crucial to, the whole, there can be no art - only mimicry, craftsmanship, cleverness, or decoration.
And yet, crucial as this quality is to the very existence of art, it is seldom discussed or even mentioned in our art schools or literature on art except in the most oblique and negligible fashion. Any art student worth his salt knows a great deal about his craft, knows what has happened in art over the years and during the past decade, and is probably most familiar with how to establish a career. He will, however, probably know next to nothing about the larger realities of art, and even less about the sort of vision or ideal upon which art is based.
There are exceptions, of course, but they, by and large, did not gain their insight through any educational processes - only through private experiences with great art, or through the guidance of an exceptional teacher or an older friend.
It is for this reason that I tend to respond most favorably to young artists whose sensibilities and ''vision'' of art transcend mere technical, formal, or professional considerations. And I do so even if their work is less sophisticated and adept than that of some others who see things in narrower or more material terms.
I see no value in ''art'' that trivializes or rationalizes, only in art that clarifies, focuses, or directs creative and spiritual energies. If I see little ultimate worth in such artists as Warhol and Lichtenstein, it is not because they aren't extremely clever, shrewd, talented - even, at times, quite brilliant - but because the what of their art is to me shallow and trite. I can marvel at how such painters get their effects, and acknowledge that their work serves a certain social purpose in pinpointing cultural values and attitudes, but the works themselves do nothing for me except on a surface level, and for this reason do not qualify as significant art in my personal artistic pantheon.
Now, I realize this is an unpopular position. And yet, when we really get down to it, and stop making excuses for what we can and cannot do, it pretty much represents what almost everyone I know in the arts wants and believes is true. We want, we ache, for art that doesn't have to be rationalized or puffed up first, that doesn't have to be excused as the best of a sorry lot, or as being ''at least'' honest and full of integrity.
But we aren't going to get it unless we insist on it, and convince everyone concerned - from museum curators to the artists themselves - that we have had enough of the current artistic puffery, gimmickry, and professional self-aggrandizement.
We need more artists like Kokoschka whose visions and passions were large and clear and who insisted upon giving them form regardless of the difficulties or the objections that might be encountered.
His entire life, and it was a very long one, was devoted to giving pictorial form to his experiences, ideas, ideals, and enthusiasms. He was in love with life and with art, and poured out this love in literally thousands of paintings, watercolors, drawings, and prints. He never pulled back, never rationalized, and never called it quits. As a matter of fact, his last paintings were the most passionately vibrant and colorful of all, and were so pulsatingly full of life that they seem less like paintings than like energy given form.
He may not have been one of the four or five most significant painters of our century, but that is beside the point. He was always on the side of the angels - and for that he has my love, my admiration, and my respect.