Favourite artists

April 5, 2006

Oskar Kokoschka
Austrian, expressionist

Where Delvaux takes you back into dreams, Kokoschka calls you out of them. In his paintings the waking, everyday world recalls the resonances of the dreams we would rather forget. Behind every brushstroke lie torment, nightmares, horrors. Perhaps his WWI experience of being gassed contributed to his macabre vision. Perhaps it was his succession of traumatic love affairs, not least with Alma Mahler, widow of Gustav, later the wife of Franz Werfel, and the female subject in Windsbraut (Bride of the Wind, also called The Tempest), below. The tortured male is Kokoschka himself, his agony the counterpoint to her serenity.


Montana, 1947


Bride of the Wind
Windsbraut, 1913

One evening the poet Georg Trakl arrived at my bleak studio, the walls of which I had painted black so that my colours should stand out better. Apart from the big easel on which stood the picture The Bride of the Wind (The Tempest), the only furniture in the room was an empty barrel which served as a chair. I gave Trakl some wine, and went on working on my picture; he watched in silence. He had come all the way from Salzburg, and was completely soaked with rain; he loved to walk long distances deep in thought, oblivious of day or night. From the large window of the studio, I could see the pale summer night descending, the moon rising and riding over the long roof and the sea of houses. A wind sprang up, and the air turned suddenly cool. I felt cold: the day was over. In the union of melancholy and silence, I now grew first aware of the passage of time and of the way love had crept out of the azure reflection of the sun and into the realm of shadows. My painting, which shows me, with the woman I once loved so intensely, in a shipwreck in mid-ocean, was completed.

Suddenly the silence was broken by Trakl's voice, a voice like a second self, like the brotherly Thou. My colours had not lied. My hand had plucked an embrace out of the stormy shipwreck of my world. The heart needs no more, in order to maintain in days to come an illusory pledge of survival, a memory as if of an ancient tapestry.

Georg Takl wore mourning for the death of his twin sister, to whom he was bound by more than a brother’s love. His grief was like the moon as it moves in front of the sun and darkens it. And then, slowly, he began to say a poem to himself: word by word, rhyme by rhyme. He composed his strange poem ‘Die Nacht’ in front of my picture.

“…Above blackish outcrops
Drunk with death
Plunges the glowing wind bride….”

With his pallid hand he motioned toward the picture; he gave it the name Die Windsbraut. Not long afterwards, at an army hospital in Cracow where he had gone as a medical orderly, he fell into despair over the slaughter at Grodek, and killed himself with an overdose of pills.

Oskar Kokoschka, My Life, 1971

[Modified since first entry]


  1. But these are rubbish, Rob! They don’t even look real, for God’s sake. A five year old could do better. Pretentious nonsense!

  2. Responses to art are subjective, personal. I can’t defend my own responses objectively.

    A couple of years ago, in DC, I dragged a couple of disbelieving friends around Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Smithsonian’s museum of international modern and contemporary art. You wait, I told them, as we traversed the galleries of foolishness and vapidity, there’s a Kokoschka in here somewhere.

    And there was — his portrait of Egon Wellesz (1911). Suddenly, for all of us, the long walk was worth it.

    Only a few, sublime artists can paint the inner while depicting the outer (Turner, Rembrandt come to mind). That’s why K’s portraits always look distorted, malformed. But in his own time he was known as a consummate portraitist: one who captured the inner life of his subject, often to the subject’s own discomfiture.

    You might like to make that long walk some day, earl. But thanks for your comment.

  3. “…one who captured the inner life of his subject, often to the subject’s own discomfiture…”

    are you familiar with the portraitist Alice Neal, who often had the same disturbing effect on her subjects? sort of a continuation of K. in her way…

    btw, while you’re posting on Art, been meaning to ask you. What is the stature of Fred Williams in Australia these days? Is he considered Great, OK, or a National Treasure? I saw a retrospective of his in L.A. a while back and was blown away, surprised I’d never heard more about him before….

  4. Yes, I know Neel’s stuff. I think the early work in portraiture in particular is very fine, but it doesn’t leave me with same sense of unease as Kokoschka’s. To my eyes there’s a certain self-consciousness about her work that gets in the way of the observer communicating directly with the subject.

    Ashamed to admit I’m not familiar with Williams’ work. My artistic odyssey really only began a few years ago, and I have a long way to go yet before I get to the point where I can kid myself that I really do know what I’m talking about 🙂

    Won’t stop me, though.

  5. earl’s comment sparked a train of thought — and I do recognise where you’re coming from, earl. Art isn’t photography. I know this, because I’ve been an amateur photographer for years. If I look at a market, I register movement, bustle, confusion, noise. If I take a photograph, I don’t get that. Sure, really, really great photographers — whose work is art in and of itself, like Henri Cartier-Bresson — can do it. Most can’t. But artists can.

    I take photographs of the Central Australian desert landscapes, and they don’t reflect the reality of what it’s like to actually stand out in the bush. Albert Namatjira’s watercolours do. Why, I don’t know. Somehow he gets under the skin of the landscape and paints it from within. And I can tell you, if you haven’t been out in the West MacDonnell ranges, his paintings will look false to you. But if you have, you can see they are actually truer representations of the landscapes than any photographer would ever be able to create.

    The same with Kokoschka’s paintings of Neustadt, Polperro, Istanbul or London. One part of yourself, if you’ve been there, says it’s not like that; but another part says yes it is. It’s that other part that art plays to. The impressions, memories, coagulations of image and colour, movement and stasis, that only a great artist can create — even if it doesn’t look ‘real’ the first time you look at it.

  6. Brilliantly put, Rob. I agree.

  7. Thanks, Currency. And thanks for coming by.

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