Artist of Angst

Oskar Kokoschka, 1886–1980 the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, December 1986 to March 1987.Catalogs of the exhibitions.

exhibitions at the Tate Gallery, London, June to August 1986, and
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 246 pp., $26.00 (paper)

Oskar Kokoschka
Oskar Kokoschka; drawing by David Levine

Vienna, Paris, and New York have mounted large shows to satisfy and clarify the current interest in Austrian culture of the turn of the century; London has proceeded more modestly but with great effect. Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony Orchestra offered a two-season series, “Mahler, Vienna and the Twentieth Century.” Austrian plays of the era have been performed, including a Tom Stoppard adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s Liebelei (under the title Dalliance).1 London University’s School of Slavonic Studies conducted a symposium to widen—with the help of East Europeans—the narrow concentration of current scholarship on Vienna to the multicultural empire. Finally, the Tate Gallery presented “Oskar Kokoschka, 1886–1980,” the most comprehensive exhibition of that artist’s work ever mounted. A version of this show, truncated but still of substantial scale, can now be seen at the Guggenheim.

The Tate show was a model of its kind, serving both connoisseur and general public. The curator, Richard Calvocoressi, divided Kokoschka’s works into seven periods which, though they could not be firmly classified, helped to order one’s perceptions of an oeuvre often bewilderingly variegated in style and idea. The catalog too is exemplary, with short essays by Calvocoressi describing each period and with illuminating commentary for the greater part of the 241 works displayed. For an artist as preoccupied as Kokoschka at crucial stages of his career with general ideas, with music, myth, and drama, and with the teaching of art, special essays by such knowledgeable critics as Werner Hofmann, Peter Vergo, and the Austrian painter Georg Eisler offer needed understanding.

Particularly ingenious was the Tate exhibition’s provision of biographical background, so desirable for a painter and poet preoccupied now with his own emotional problems, now with problems of politics such as the counterrevolution in Austria and the rise of Hitler. This was dealt with in a selection of documents, photographs, and explanatory material, entitled “Archive of a Life,” that greeted the visitor in the show’s vestibule. There he could, if interested, fortify his historical understanding before or after seeing the paintings, without the danger of distraction from the art itself that can arise when much explanatory material is placed close to it.

The Guggenheim has cut out all of these devices to enrich the viewer’s comprehension of the art. The essays on special aspects of Kokoschka’s life and work are excised from its version of the catalog, as are all but a few of Calvocoressi’s invaluable critical analyses of the separate works. The “Archive of a Life” is completely eliminated from the show itself. One remembers fondly the Guggenheim’s exhibition of 1982, “Kandinsky in Munich,” where the artist’s original qualities stood out the more clearly for being presented in his cultural connections. This time at the Guggenheim, as at MOMA in its recent Vienna show, l’art pour l’art governs New York curatorial practice as opposed to recent European efforts to find satisfactory forms of…

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