Kokoschka's `civilized magic'. The Austrian who signed himself `OK' painted from the heart, not from the head

GERMAN-BORN novelist Thomas Mann had the better part of the argument. He said that his Austrian friend Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980) saw ``in the people of the stone age an extinct race who have left only a few offspring like himself, still in possession of a magic world picture.'' Mann later modified this view slightly by describing Kokoschka's art as ``civilized magic.''

``OK'' -- as Kokoschka initialed his works -- was indeed a mixture of an intensely civilized and instinctively primitive artist. As such, he seems to have been tailor-made for the century in which most of his long, ebullient career developed.

The centenary of his birth, which he almost lived to celebrate himself, is being commemorated this year by a major European exhibition. The retrospective opened at London's Tate Gallery (where it ran until Aug. 10), and moves in September to the Kunsthaus in Zurich. The show honors Kokoschka with a dazzling display of over 200 of his oils, watercolors, and drawings. At the Tate, it respresented the first retrospective of his work in 24 years in Britain -- the country to which he fled from the Nazis in 1938, and of which he became a permanent citizen in 1947.

He had already moved a lot; all his life, in fact, he was an inveterate traveler. He escaped the rather claustrophobic art-world of Vienna for Berlin and Dresden. Later, in 1934, he returned to Vienna, only to move to Prague later in the same year. When he arrived in England, it was as a Czechoslovak citizen.

He had by then earned a considerable reputation on the continent. Artistic circles called him one of the most original of the modern ``German'' artists. The Nazis removed his work from museums and collections and branded it ``degenerate art.'' But in Britain his work was unknown except to a few very informed people. His relative obscurity was a measure of the lack of communication in that era's art world -- and of the insularity of the British. After 1947, he lived in Switzerland. An internationalist with Austrian roots

The fact is that he abhorred nationalism. He was an internationalist. And what comes across in this exhibition, above all, is that his work expresses the boisterous movement -- or restlessness -- and the energy of the man.

Yet the groundwork of this turbulent, but controlled, vision and style was laid in Austria. This is illustrated in an array of those ominous portraits of the Viennese intelligentsia that first made him a name as a painter. These pictures belong to the last years of the Habsburg empire, and have strong affinities with Austrian fin-de-si`ecle artists such as Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. Something of that ``Secessionist'' air never completely left his art in the following decades.

In short, OK's internationalism was informed by a native tradition; his modernity was underpinned by a respect for old masters. Paintings in this show indicate that he is as much the child of El Greco and Il Tintoretto as he is of Edvard Munch or that acknowledged father of ``expressionism'' (with which Kokoschka tends to be identified), Vincent van Gogh.

He believed, according to a friend, that mankind had somehow lost directness of expression. His own art seems to come straight from the heart, rather than the head. It is fiercely subjective. An excitement of brushwork and a melee of prismatic colors act over and over again as vehicles for emotion -- whatever the subject depicted.

There is a paradox in this.

Kokoschka maintained all his life that ``realism and abstract art are equally senseless.'' Alan Bowness, in his introduction to the exhibition catalog, writes that Kokoschka viewed the spread of abstract art with ``profound disquiet.'' He never abandoned the traditional designations that abstraction brought into question: portraiture, still-life, landscape, allegory. Yet much of the basic force and originality of his work could be analysed as ``abstract'' to a great degree.

What he wanted to escape from, it seems, was a pedestrian accuracy on the one hand, and an obscure or merely decorative stylization on the other. Neither would have suited the earthy directness of his vision. The ``art of visions'' was what he said he wanted to teach his students, and all his best paintings show that he kept that end firmly in sight.

His landscapes are a cross between Altdorfer and Emil Nolde -- and you can't get much more visionary than that. Whole cities are contained on a canvas, surging toward the horizon, apocalyptically overwhelmed by skies fraught with clouds and bursting sun. Here we have ``Berlin'' in 1966 and ``New York'' the same year. We have ``Prague'' in 1938, and ``London'' in 1926 with the Thames curving through it vastly. Portraits with `ferocious, subjective insight'

If his landscapes express his desire for a Kokoschka world view, his portraits are self-revealing in another way. His unsparing self-portraits expose his own feelings and character. Likewise, many of his sitters appear to take on hints of Kokoschka's features while still being recognizable likenesses. Clearly, Kokoschka saw himself in others.

He could only portray fellow beings with whom he felt sympathy. (On one occasion a mandrill in London Zoo was so honored.) And he portrayed them with ferocious, subjective insight. It says much about ``Kathleen, Countess of Drogheda'' or ``Michael Croft'' that they were able to stomach portraits of themselves about as far from conventional flattery as identifiable portraits could be.

When the 23-year-old Mr. Croft voiced his surprise about his ``bizarre'' image, OK answered: ``When you are over fifty you will find it more like you than now.''

Agatha Christie couldn't tell if her portrait was like her but found it ``exciting . . . with lovely color effects . . . which alter from year to year.''

The Duke and Duchess of Hamilton, having studied OK's art, actually sought him out to paint them. ``You don't want to be painted by me,'' the artist told them, ``my art is cruel!'' They were not put off. They must have recognized that raw honesty carried to an aesthetic extreme is better than any amount of bland commercial skill.

In Kokoschka's art such a philosophy resulted in a number of portraits that are surely among the toughest and most stirring and most alive yet produced in this century.

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