A “gay apocalypse” is how the modernist Hermann Broch described his home city of Vienna in the decade before World War I. Rapid industrialization meant that by the turn of the century Vienna was a thrumming metropolis of Zeppelins, tramways, typewriters, and vaulted bridges over the Wien. From the beginning of the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph in 1848 to the outbreak of war, the population quadrupled. But it was also a city of a comparatively conspicuous spiritual malaise; a city where recondite cults, Zionists, German Nationalists, and the Freud circle all flourished in contemporaneity; a city of Baroque grandeur that Otto Wagner was attempting to remold in a tapestry of iron, glass, and marble; and a city where revolutionary artists gathered in the coffeehouses while classicists hobnobbed behind the imperious façades of the academies.
Indeed, in the annals of one such academy—the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Applied Arts)—we find Oskar Kokoschka, enrolled in 1904. Prolifically gifted but never trained in draftsmanship, he taught himself by sketching the celebrities of Vienna, undoubtedly aware of the exalted milieu in which he was developing as an artist—a milieu comprising Otto Wagner, Egon Schiele, Richard Moser, Stefan Zweig, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, and the young Ludwig Wittgenstein. It was Kokoschka’s involvement in the avant-garde Kunstschau of 1908, organised by Gustav Klimt, that served as his greatest formative experience. His provocative work drew considerable outrage from traditionalists, and the tall, large-handed, sallow-eyed artist was kicked out of the academy. But it also won him a reputation. “I have to admit that I have not witnessed such an interesting début for years,” wrote Richard Muther in his review of the Kunstschau show for the magazine Die Zeit. “This enfant terrible is . . . not an imposter at all, no, a worthy lad.”
This is a backstory only vaguely referenced in “Oskar Kokoschka: Un fauve à Vienne,” a new retrospective of the Austrian’s work on view at the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris.1 Not that the exhibition lacks for text, but such a considerable proportion of the words are dedicated to Kokoschka’s stylistic developments that it’s easy to begin thinking of him as a pure aesthete, nothing more. And yet the exhibition is, on its limited terms, successful. Displaying in chronological order a large number of his works, “Un fauve à Vienne” illuminates the essence of Kokoschka’s approach: his almost dogmatic faith in Expressionism as the twentieth century’s only viable mode of painting.
But it all comes back to the Kunstschau. Kokoschka, suddenly liberated of both academic strictures (by his expulsion) as well as immediate financial concerns (by the renowned architect Adolf Loos, who henceforth took responsibility for the young artist), had the leeway to depart from the clean, bold lines of the Germanic folk-art tradition that once interested him so. In its place, a new mode of expression was developing itself: swirling strokes, shimmering figures, muddy oceans of pale color. Yet what’s so overwhelming and powerful about Kokoschka’s early work, dating roughly from 1907 to 1914 and undoubtedly constituting his greatest period, is the combination of its explosive newness and its complete lack of tentativeness. Influences as varied as Van Gogh, El Greco, and Freud coalesce in a novel pursuit of the innards of human psychology. Three subjects among the early superb works displayed in “Un fauve à Vienne”—a stately psychiatrist (Auguste Forel, 1910), guileless children (Spielende Kinder, 1909), and a married couple (Hans und Erika Tietze, 1909)—give some indication of the spectrum of human emotion that Kokoschka could so skillfully depict.
This period of stylistic experimentation also birthed Kokoschka’s Die Windsbraut (1913), a painting famously inspired by his tumultuous relationship with Alma Mahler. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of “Un fauve à Vienne” is that Kokoschka’s crowning achievement, Die Windsbraut, is missing, unable to be loaned from its home in Basel’s Kunstmuseum.
But there is no shortage of other worthwhile pieces, and Kokoschka enthusiasts will particularly enjoy the wall space given to his output immediately following World War I. By the end of 1918—a year in which Klimt, Otto Wagner, Moser, and Schiele all died—a significant moment in Vienna’s history had, in every way, reached its terminus. So, too, had something irrevocably broken within Kokoschka. Two near-death experiences while serving in the Austrian military had left him traumatized. His work immediately became more introspective as a result; we see a preponderance of either direct self-portraits or canvases that include his figure in some way. He changed his palette to include richer, undiluted colors. He tasked himself with, as he puts it, “breach[ing] the mystery of the flatness of the canvas.”
This is one of many periods in Kokoschka’s career that “Un fauve à Vienne” attempts to cover. Moving across the Kokoschka career, the curators succeed in outlining his general developments—the green, bucolic idealism from his years in Prague between 1934 and 1938, the neon urgency of his late-in-life works—and displaying the four or five canvases that best illustrate them. But the defining aspect of the curatorial approach is a hands-off attitude. The presentation is uncluttered and unfussy: explanatory texts are not always situated directly beside an artwork, offering an unencumbered opportunity for the viewer to simply stand and look.
This is, after all, a suitable approach to this most visually arresting of styles. To understand Oskar Kokoschka, and indeed Expressionism as a whole, we must understand sight. “My role is to see,” he would say, and “to make others see.” The tension of Expressionism is the tension between the self and the world. It’s a question of bringing forth not only a subjective account of what one perceives in the exterior world, but more importantly, a figuration of what one sees within. It’s no coincidence, then, that Kokoschka’s early attempt to elucidate the aesthetic philosophy beneath Expressionism was in a lecture entitled “On the Nature of Visions” in late 1911, nor that Kokoschka referred to the summer school that he formed in 1953 as the “School of Vision.” One could even go so far as to consider “Oskar Kokoschka: Un fauve à Vienne” its own kind of school of vision. We go there expecting to witness great works from a distance, without involving ourselves; we leave having seen and grappled with the emotive, daring work of an artist who never found the end to all that he wished to express.