Kokoschka: From Precocious to Prolific

An exhibition at the Guggenheim museum tracks evolution of the Austrian-born painter's career

COMMENTING on the wild colors and raw style of Oskar Kokoschka, then an unknown Viennese painter, a critic in 1908 termed the work ``Gauguin gone crazy.'' He added, ``I'll have to remember the name Kokoschka. Because anyone who can be such a cannibal at 22 might be a very original, serious artist at 30.''

An exhibition of 90 early works on paper at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum shows that Kokoschka (1886-1980) was much more than crazy. Nicknamed ``the madman'' because of his passionate intensity, Kokoschka systematically worked his way through diverse influences. The show, titled ``Oskar Kokoschka, Works on Paper: The Early Years, 1897-1917,'' documents Kokoschka's evolution from a precocious schoolboy until age 30, when there could be no doubt that he had become an ``original, serious artist'' and an important precursor of German Expressionism.

Kokoschka's earliest work on display - a pencil sketch done when he was 11 - shows skilled draftsmanship. A somewhat later sketch of a girl's face is as sensitive as an Old Master drawing. The apprentice artist also mastered the demanding medium of watercolor, as a 1901 painting proves.

In 1905, after enrolling in the Vienna School of Applied Art, Kokoschka began to diverge from this conventional, careful style. A somewhat frenzied sketch, ``Female Nude on a Galloping Horse in a Landscape with Pond'' (1905), is the first instance of what would become his trademark style: swirling colors in a Baroque whirlwind of agitated forms. Combining expressive color, animated lines, and rapidly applied paint, Kokoschka's technique and chaotic composition suggest movement and excitement.

Before he mined this fruitful vein, Kokoschka worked through a Gauguin phase (sketches of bare-chested girls in elemental poses) and a decorative style influenced by Gustav Klimt's Vienna Secession movement.

In ``Bearded Man Sailing Up a River in a Tropical Landscape'' (1908-09), Kokoschka adopted the fanciful, elongated shapes and stylized forms of Art Nouveau. The excessively ornamental design also shows the influence of Japanese woodcuts, another seminal force in the artist's growth.

The main interest of an exhibition without masterpieces lies in discerning at what point the artist's emerging style presages his mature work.

With ``Pieta,'' a 1909 theater poster, the Kokoschka who produced masterpieces like ``The Tempest'' (1914) appears. His signature theme - the wrenching duel between the sexes - is the subject. Created to advertise Kokoschka's drama, ``Murder, Hope of Women'' (a play that anticipated Expressionist theater), the lithograph includes a grotesque female, as white as a skeleton. She clutches a deformed man's blood-red body, which looks as if it has been flayed alive. The suffering is so powerful - and gruesome - that viewers step back in dismay.

After Kokoschka became involved in a turbulent affair with Alma Mahler, the composer Gustav Mahler's widow, from 1912 to 1915, the theme of ecstasy and misery in sexual relations became a staple of his art. In ``At the Spinning Wheel'' (1913), a woman who dominates the tableau spins yarn from a supine male's flesh.

Another disheartening domestic scene, ``Man Raising His Head From the Grave, on Which His Wife Is Seated'' (1913-14), portrays a man trying to escape from a tomb. His wife perches atop the slab, presumably trapping him in a living grave.

The most impressive works are portraits - a mainstay of Kokoschka's oeuvre. As early as 1907, Kokoschka mastered the psychological portrait for which he is known. He became adept at depicting expressive body language. He often contorted his subjects' hands and painted their eyes as tortured and introspective. His foremost device to convey drama and upheaval is a non-naturalistic use of wiry lines. In ``Portrait of Georg Trakl'' (1914), jittery black lines almost crack apart the sitter's face to reveal his interior life.

GRADUALLY Kokoschka's style became more aggressive. He rapidly scratched in lines and coarsely streaked paint to imply agitation. His line became looser as he eschewed representing external appearances in favor of suggesting inner tension and convulsion.

During World War I, Kokoschka was shot by a Cossack as he fled on horseback and was stabbed in the chest with a bayonet. Embittered, he drew misanthropic antiwar parables. In ``Enslaved by the Government'' (1917), a sadistic bureaucrat in a top hat brands the back of an abject nude. ``Soldiers Fighting Each Other with Crucifixes'' (1917) shows bestial soldiers jousting with crosses, on which are nailed victims of war. For Kokoschka, art was a means of attack, a ``j'accuse'' hurled at oppression.

This attitude was similar to the anti-authoritarian stance of the German Expressionists, with whom Kokoschka had much in common, although he was never a member of either Die Brucke or the Blue Rider group.

For artists like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Wassili Kandinsky, and Paul Klee, simplifying forms to express emotion was an esthetic strategy as well as a means of rejecting bourgeois conformity. For the Expressionists, who were considered barbaric and ``degenerate'' by official arbiters of taste, painting was something that sprang from within, a form of exposure.

By tapping personal emotion, Kokoschka discovered his own voice, style, and themes. His extraordinary visual inventiveness was not a bolt from the blue. The exhibit documents how he gradually broke away from rendering objective reality as he assimilated or eliminated influences.

The purpose of art, Kokoschka said, was to express ``the life of the soul.'' In 1948 he wrote, ``The mystery of the soul is like that of a closed door. When you open it, you see something which was not there before.''

* The Kokoschka exhibition continues at the Guggenheim through Aug. 24.

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