Compelling Vision

By Rosenthal, Tom | The Spectator, August 5, 2006 | Go to article overview

Compelling Vision


Rosenthal, Tom, The Spectator


Oskar Kokoschka: The Prometheus Triptych Courtauld Institute, Somerset House, until 17 September

Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980) was born in Pochlarn, Bohemia, studied in Vienna, enlisted in a smart cavalry regiment at the outbreak of the first world war, got shot in the head and bayoneted, went back into action after a spell in hospital in 1916 and suffered shellshock. He had a stormy affair with Mahler's widow Alma, a very trying woman whose other husbands or lovers included Schoenberg, Franz Werfel and the conductor Willem Mengelberg. The Mahler affair ended badly, so Kokoschka had a life-size doll with her features built for him which was part model and, for some years, constant companion. But there also emerged from their relationship one of the greatest of Expressionist portraits and a masterpiece which still mesmerises visitors to the Basel Kunstmuseum. 'Die Windsbraut' (The Tempest) shows Kokoschka and Alma half-naked, she leaning her head on his chest and shoulder, he staring into the space surrounding their cloudy bed, and, no matter how often one sees it, it's both unforgettable and a pointer to the Prometheus work.

Kokoschka survived, amazingly as if unscathed, both war wounds and Alma, and moved to Prague, where in 1935-6 he painted a marvellous allegorical portrait of President Tomas Masaryk, linking the Czech patriot to Kokoschka's hero, the 17th-century Moravian theologian and pacifist Comenius. This led to Masaryk procuring Czech citizenship for OK (Oh Ka in German), as he was universally known, a life-saving move. OK's fiancée, as soon as the 1938 Munich agreement was signed, insisted on going to London. His Czech passport prevented him suffering the fate of other German-speaking refugees -- internment -- and he spent his war in Cornwall, London and Scotland.

Count Antoine Seilern (1901-78) was an Austrian aristocrat born in Frensham, Surrey (to an American mother), who lived in Vienna but renounced his joint Austrian nationality after the first world war and was thus able to remove himself and his collection (including Rubens and Tiepolo) to London in 1939 and serve in the Royal Artillery. During the war he acquired a vast, cavernous house at 56 Princes Gate, South Kensington. In 1950 he commissioned OK to paint three canvas panels for the ceiling of his entrance hall. He died a bachelor and left his superb collection to the Courtauld but, with rare modesty, declined the use of his name so that it is known as the Princes Gate Collection. …

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