“Oskar Kokoschka: Expressionist, Migrant, European” provides a gorgeous overview of the artist’s work and positions him as an essential component of the twentieth century. The exhibition’s appearance at the Leopold Museum (much of the material came from a recent retrospective at Kunsthaus Zürich) prompts comparisons between the artist and Egon Schiele, and perhaps a rethinking of both. The Leopold mounted a major Schiele show immediately prior to Oskar Kokoschka’s in the same space. And Schiele continues to be a looming presence in the building, occupying a few rooms of the concurrent exhibition “Wien 1900.”
Kokoschka and Schiele were born in 1896 and 1890, respectively, in the Austro-Hungarian empire, and converged on a Vienna whose art world was being rocked by the Secessionist rebellion. Schiele dropped out of school and began working independently in 1909, the same year that Kokoschka started producing illustrations and designs at the Wiener Werkstätte.
The two artists knew each other, and they drew similarly, each interpreting Klimt’s wiry line through the torments particular to love-besotted young men bent on flipping over the world. Without context, you would have to be an expert to notice that the drawings of adolescent girls at the beginning of the Kokoschka exhibition were not by Schiele. But their date, 1907, indicates that the older artist influenced the younger one, which is a surprising thing to learn about Schiele’s signature effect.
The paintings of both artists circa 1910 tended toward a palette of onion soup and shoe polish, and alternately dry and greasy application. Having reservedly admired them in books for years, I can attest that their power relies on getting in front of them. In photographs they tend to look merely discomfited and dour. In real life they are purposeful. Kokoschka’s 1910 portrait of Bessie Bruce movingly captures her sardonic affect and propriety.
In isolation, Schiele tends to come off as the better artist. But his nudes from 1918, on view in “Wien 1900,” were starting to get fussy, and the colors were going sour. That same year he died of influenza, leaving a body of work that coheres largely thanks to the painfully short period during which it was produced, with no late or even a middle phase of the artist’s career to which to compare it. Kokoschka, in contrast, died in 1980 and worked nearly to the end, and his art saw more ups and downs.
The year 1918 was decidedly up for him. Kokoschka bulked his paint and began producing sculptural pictures like Self-Portrait (One Hand Touching the Face) (1918–19) and the tumultuous dinner table scene in The Friends (1917–18). The brushstrokes writhe with an energy that surpasses many of Schiele’s last works.
The year before, Kokoschka expatriated to Dresden, having given up on the supposed artistic hebetude of Vienna. In Germany, he was moved to tackle the landscape in a concerted way, and in the early 1920s, revelation struck. Taking cues from Cézanne, he corralled the snakelike movement of his paint. Organizing the colors into patches stymied a proclivity to smear black through everything, and both the palette and the drawing improved enormously. Though much admirable work comes after them, to my eye the Dresden pictures are the finest in the show. Dresden, Augustus Bridge with Figure from Behind (1923) is a masterpiece in which shapes fit together like a good stone wall.
In the late 1920s, he returned to noodling, although at a higher key. This sometimes worked for him magnificently, as it did for a three-figure composition including the artist, his lover (and later wife), and a nude seated between them with her palm turned out as a gesture of offering in front of her sex (The Source, 1922–38). It could also cause the paintings to look dissipated, as one sees in the landscapes of Prague from the mid-1930s. His Prague years were ended by the rise of National Socialism. He fled to London and famously painted Self-Portrait of a Degenerate Artist in 1937 as a kiss-off to the Third Reich.
As is clear from the title of the exhibition, the museum is trying to present Kokoschka as an open-borders, proto–European Unionist. The catalogue goes as far as to quote the Viennese writer Robert Menasse disdaining the “many people [who] believe that the nation state is a little like a house in which they are the lords and masters, and that is what they want to be,” as if Kokoschka naturally would have concurred.
If he did, I doubt it would be in favor of the regime in Brussels. Heinz Spielmann, writing for the catalogue, describes an “angry philippic” from 1919 by the artist, in which he lamented, “If I were to be publicly heard and taken seriously like one of your politicians, who are more appalling to me than all the earlier clerics, I would seriously make my proposal for eternal peace: sell the state for thirty shekels of silver to English stock companies and throw in the empty faith in it at no extra charge!” Spielmann later sums up Kokoschka’s leanings: “He reacted to ideologies with rejection and acknowledged one parameter in particular: the freedom of every individual, to which he committed himself.”
Moreover, this presentation falls flat in light of his enormous commissions, the Prometheus Triptych (1950) and the Thermopylae Triptych (1954). The former flanks a scene of the Four Horsemen with side panels depicting Hades and Persephone on the left and Prometheus on the right. The latter depicts Freedom, embodied as a nude redhead, getting chased off the edge of the painting by Persian dogs of war. Kokoschka’s Europeanism was patently Christian and Occidental, with inclinations that we would now call libertarian. It’s just about impossible to imagine him boosting European technocracy.
He was ever his own man, and he finished strong. Morning and Evening (The Power of Music II) (1966) recapitulates some of the handsome patchwork from the Dresden era, and the humorous characterizations of the figures are delightful. Theseus and Antiope (Abduction of Antiope) (1958–75), two meters high, sports a scabrous but fiery surface, riotous color, and enormous vitality for an artist finishing up a painting in his late eighties. He recounts in his 1974 autobiography, “I cannot say why I wanted to paint. The only answer is in the pictures themselves.” That answer is at once ineffable and emphatically affirmative.