Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Kokoschka: From Precocious to Prolific an Exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum Tracks Evolution of the Austrian-Born Painter's Career

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Kokoschka: From Precocious to Prolific an Exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum Tracks Evolution of the Austrian-Born Painter's Career

Article excerpt

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. …

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