“He is not a butcher, but he cuts open souls: as he paints hand and head he exposes in an eerie way the spiritual skeleton of the person he is portraying.” – Albert Ehrenstein
“Look, the route from the brain via the arm and then through the brush is much too long. If it were possible, I would paint with my nose.” – Kokoschka
“Kokoschka has painted a portrait of me. It’s quite possible that people who know me won’t recognize me. But people who don’t know me will certainly recognize me.” – Karl Kraus
Joseph de Montesquiou-Fezensac is a masterpiece from the apogee of Oskar Kokoschka’s early portraiture, a harbinger of Expressionism and a token of the seismic rift that was occurring in the visual arts at this time, which would only be shaken by the complete destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in World War I.
Kokoschka was born in 1886 in Pöchlarn, a small town near Melk Abbey. Raised primarily in and around Vienna, he showed a talent for the visual arts at an early age and began studying to become a drawing teacher in 1905. It was not until 1908 however that Kokoschka became known as one of the most avant-garde artists of Vienna. Sponsored by his teachers, Kokoschka was allotted a small room at the Kunstschau, a large exhibition organized by the Weiner Wertsätten and the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts. Egon Schiele’s works would also be publicly exhibited at the Kunstchau for the first time that year. Gustav Klimt chaired the jury which was to decide if works were successful enough to be displayed. In a—perhaps characteristic—moment of pique, Kokoschka refused to show his works to the jury leading Klimt to state “Let the lad get himself torn to bits by the press if he wants to.” The press did indeed. “The press called him ‘chief of the savages,’ ‘a Gauguin gone mad,’ and referred to his room at the exhibition as ‘the chamber of horrors'” (quoted in F. Giroud, Alma Mahler or the Art of Being Loved, New York, 1991, p. 100). Harsh words from the press aside, all of Kokoschka’s exhibited works sold within a day of the Kunstchau’s opening. Such a dramatic reception in the press and the creative world of Vienna could not have escaped attention.
It was at the Kunstchau exhibition that the architect Adolf Loos discovered Kokoschka. A modernist architect who hated artifice and fussy decoration—his essay “Ornament and Crime” was presented in Vienna in 1910 and later published in Les Cahiers d’aujourd’hui in 1913—Loos viewed decoration and ornament on utilitarian objects as a distinctly anachronistic and mistaken practice. “Lack of ornament is a sign of spiritual strength” he summarized at the end of “Ornament and Crime.” The first work Loos acquired of Kokoschka’s was a bust, Self Portrait as a Warrior, now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. “Over the next five years, between 1909 and 1914,” Beatrice von Bormann writes, “Kokoschka made some seventy portraits, most of them instigated by Loos, who mobilized his entire circle of friends and acquaintances and often bought the painting himself if the sitter did not like it. This meant that Kokoschka ran few if any risks [financially] and was able to experiment freely even though these were often commissioned works. He preferred to paint his ‘victims’ while they were engaged in an everyday occupation and he was talking to them. That way their expressions and gestures were natural and he could capture the impression that mattered to him” (Oskar Kokoschka, Portraits of People and Animals (exhibition catalogue) Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam & Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Wolfsburg, 2013-14, p. 15).
January of 1910 found the young Kokoschka perched high up in the Swiss Alps. He had accompanied his patron Adolf Loos to the Mont Blanc sanatorium in the village of Leysin where Loos' girlfriend, the English dancer Bessie Bruce, was seeking treatment for her tuberculosis. Loos spared no expense in caring for Bessie—though other sanitaria of lesser cost existed throughout Switzerland and in Leysin itself—and therefore chose the elegant Mont-Blanc where aristocrats and other well-to-do patients spent their days covered in blankets out in the sun on the balconies of the sanatorium, breathing the clear mountain air and taking in the vitamin D believed necessary in combating the insidious disease (which would remain incurable until a specific type of penicillin was developed in the 1940s).
During his time at Mont Blanc, Kokoschka painted Bessie as well as several of the other patients including Conte Verona, who, according to Kokoschka, was “a little Italian who loved ice-skating and who sometime coughed up blood” (quoted in Oskar Kokoschka, Early Portraits from Vienna and Berlin, 1909-1914, op. cit., p. 126). The other two patients he depicted during this January sojourn were Victoire de Montesquiou-Fezensac and her husband, Joseph de Montesquiou Fezensac, who would become the Duke of Fezensac in 1913. Recalling this couple years later, Kokoschka would write: “She was a wonderfully thin, tall and pale creature and wore a black velvet costume which made her look thinner still. She was a consumptive and I thought her so wonderfully beautiful that I immediately fell greatly in love with her. Her husband looked very degenerate, a large, effeminate man with a hooked nose and a reddish moustache and a ruched lace collar. His yellow face looked like that of a wax figure…. The milieu suited her well, yellowing portraits hung on the walls, the atmosphere was quiet, sad” (F. Whitford, Oskar Kokoschka, A Life, New York, 1986, p. 54).
Kokoschka, a healthy young man in his early twenties, would have seemed at odds in his surroundings in all but one aspect—that of being a foreigner. Patients traveled from all over Europe, as well as even further afield, to the various sanatoria in Switzerland. This trip marked the first time the artist had been outside his native Austria, save for a few weeks spent in Munich in 1909. To travel quite a distance and end up surrounded by those who were ill, either physically or mentally, in a distant village in the Alps must have further enhanced the strangeness of this trip. According to Tobias G. Natter, “Kokoschka… became a kind of modern-day ‘court painter’—an artist who entertained the ladies and gentleman with his art, much as Goya did in his day. It must have been an unusual place—an elegant sanitarium located above Lake Geneva, full of sick people from all over the world, people who were either really ill or hypochondriacs, people who were physically and mentally weak and were suddenly being kept company by a young painter from Vienna” (T. Netter in Oskar Kokoschka, Early Portraits from Vienna and Berlin, 1909-1914, op. cit., p. 126). Kokoschka himself was not certain about his capacity to entertain. Years later he recalled the patients at Mont Blanc as “shriveled plants, for whom even the Alpine sunshine could not do much. They set little store by my painting; to them it was a minor distraction in a succession of identical days spent awaiting a cure—or the end” (quoted in ibid., p. 26).
Kokoschka’s portraiture at this time broke convention in almost every aspect. The artist’s primary aim was to bring the invisible inside of a person—what he would come to call his “soul paintings”—to the surface. Kokoschka’s practice when painting a portrait was to have the subject go about their business in the space that they were in, whether it was writing letters, conversing with the artist or others in the room, taking books off a shelf or the like. He would attempt to maintain conversation almost the entire time he painted his subjects in order to catch their natural expressions and gestures of the face, body and hands. He did not paint his sitters with the attributes of traditional portraiture. Their dress did not depict any particular information about their profession or social station, and their surroundings and the background of the images were abstracted areas of color, occasionally the suggestion of a support such as a chair or couch might be hinted at, but never represented.
Perhaps even more notable for the portrait campaign he embarked on in the latter portion of 1909 and the first half of 1910 is the complete lack of graphic work he produced during this period. According to Alice Strobl and Alfred Weidinger, “Kokoschka virtually ceased his graphic production from this time [summer of 1909] until 1910. In his autobiography, Kokoschka wrote that at the Internationale Kunstchau he discovered Modern painting…. The most recent research shows that Kokoschka executed at least thirty-three paintings (thirty-one portraits, one still life, and one landscape) before February 1910…. The lack of study directly related to the portrait paintings indicates that Kokoschka made his preliminary drawings straight on the canvas" (Oskar Kokoschka, Works on Paper The Early Years 1897-1917 (exhibition catalogue), The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1994, pp. 28-29).
In this intensive study of personality, expression and manner “there lay a larger goal: revealing appearance itself, or uncovering its foundation, by letting what was not visible show through. It had to be possible to bring to light that inner energy that still, in spite of everything, remained human and unscathed. Kokoschka’s radical innovation consisted in freeing the presence of his sitters from the shell of decadent narcissism, removing from it throbs of various representative functions, and devoting himself to description alone.... On the surface, this resulted in an odd style, disturbing to contemporaries, which seemed to follow its own laws more closely than those of physiognomy, character, or social position. People’s 'masks of representation' were 'torn from them,' as Werner Hofmann dramatically put it. In fact, no one in Kokoschka’s early portraits is depicted, as the conventions of the time demanded, in a manner befitting social status—not gloriously, charitably, or even realistically” (T. Trummer in Oskar Kokoschka, Early Portraits from Vienna and Berlin, 1909-1914, op. cit., p. 38).
Indeed, Kokoschka’s treatment of medium in Joseph de Montesquiou-Fezensac is one of the most refined and unusual of his oeuvre. We know from contemporaneous accounts of the artist’s practice that he used the end of his brush, his hands, his fingernails, the tips of his fingers, small bits of cloth to wipe away paint—really anything that would allow him the most immediate contact with the oil and the canvas. In his own words: “Look, the route from the brain via the arm and then through the brush is much too long. If it were possible, I would paint with my nose” (quoted in ibid., p. 17). These techniques are especially evident in the present work where the sitter’s blazer seems to be entirely outlined by the removal of paint from the surfaces with the back of the brush and intricate, fine lines of incising dominate the background in spiral shaped patterns, especially in the upper right where the color modulation is the most varied.
“Kokoschka differed from the German Expressionists in his use of paint,” wrote Tobias Natter, “In some places he applied it in such thin layers that it barely covered the surface, often adhering only to the ridges of the coarse canvas. In other areas he wiped off thickly applied color with a piece of cloth or his finger, leaving the paint in the depressions. This interplay of thin layers and impasto (frequently containing a large quantity of opaque white) contributes to the subtle orchestration of texture characteristic of these paintings. The subjects of these portraits are illuminated from within rather than from an exterior light source. In this way, Kokoschka breathes life into his sitters. They frequently appear surrounded by a fluorescent aura, their fragile frames anchored against it by means of contours. Calligraphic incisions in the painted surface are a notable feature of the portraits. For this purpose, Kokoschka, an immensely gifted draftsman, used the end of the brush, as in Joseph de Montesquiou-Fezensac [the present work], or the tops of his fingers, as Erica Tietz-Conrat reported in connection with the portrait of herself and her husband. What she called the ‘wonderful lines’ arrived at in this way may have been the product of Kokoschka’s impetuousness, but for him and other members of the avant-garde (especially those influenced by Edvard Munch) such dynamic webs of lines spun over a painting constituted a novel compositional and expressive tool. They seemed capable of eliminating the gap in time between perception and representation. In this sense, Kokoschka’s early painting technique might well have formed a point of reference for the exponents of Abstract Expressionism and Art Informel in the 1950s” (ibid., pp. 90-91).
Kokoschka returned to Vienna in February of 1910 and the following month would be introduced to Herwarth Walden, who was in the midst of launching his periodical Der Sturm. Kokoschka was quickly hired as a contributing editor. His art work, including Murderer Hope of Women became a lightning rod of discussion among the various artists associated with Expressionism in Germany. Not only did Kokoschka contribute to Walden’s periodical, he also opened his first solo exhibition at Paul Cassirer’s gallery in Berlin. Here too Walden played a critical role, organizing the exhibition at Cassirer and loaning a portrait, which Kokoschka had just painted of him, to the exhibition. “The Berlin show, which opened on June 21, 1910, was remarkable in two respects,” writes Tobias Natter: “twenty-four of the twenty-seven oil paintings exhibited were portraits, and these all dated from a single year. Visitors could scarcely have mustered the composure to note such matters, however. They had been warned by the critic Kurt Hiller of what they would find: ‘exhibitionistic masks of Europeans, visages of care-worn citizens of the metropolis, and the hyper-sophisticated grotesque faces of the famous swarm around, gape at, and scream at [the visitor]. They float in sensation-ridden backgrounds… and are bursting with psychology’” (ibid., p. 90).
Included in this exhibition were the portraits of Joseph de Montesquiou-Fezensac and his wife Victoire. Victoire’s portrait was acquired by Karl Ernst Osthaus who would go on to create a museum including Kokoschka’s oil. There it would reside until the Nazi party issued their decree on “Degenerate Art.” Over four hundred works by Kokoschka would be confiscated, though only nine paintings and some works on paper would be exhibited at the Munich Entartete Kunste exhibition in 1937, including the portrait of Victoire. Within two years her portrait would enter an American collection and now forms a part of the permanent collection of the Cincinnati Museum of Art. Kokoschka’s Joseph de Montesquiou-Fezensac, on the other hand, would be sold by Alex Vömel, who aryanized Galerie Flechtheim, to the National Museum of Fine Arts in Stockholm where it would later be transferred to the Moderna Museet. Joseph de Montesquiou-Fezensac remained in the Moderna Museet’s collection until earlier this year, when it was restituted to Alfred Flechtheim’s heirs.
Kokoschka’s reaction to his classification as a degenerate artist was in keeping with his character. After his first work was confiscated he painted a self-portrait which he titled Bildnis eines entarteten Künstlers (Portrait of a Degenerate Artist). While Kokoschka’s portrait style had shifted in execution in the ensuing years, the focus on the figure’s hands and face as well as in the immediacy of application and manipulation of pigment all still strongly speak to his aesthetic in 1910 in the Swiss Alps where he captured the likeness of Joseph de Montesquiou-Fezensac.
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