At the Museum of Modern Art in Paris: Oskar Kokoschka, explosive painter

Arms crossed, bust proudly planted, Oskar Kokoschka looks at us defiantly. This painting, ironically baptized Self-portrait as a degenerate artist, he painted it in 1937 after the Nazis confiscated hundreds of his works from museums. Some were subsequently exhibited in Munich, among other paintings labeled “decadent”. The nervous keys of theself-portrait, the dazzling colors, juxtaposed without mixture, recall how, from his beginnings in Vienna, Kokoschka carved out a reputation as “savage in chief”. And this is precisely what bristles the Nazis, infatuated with the neoclassical and idealized nudes of the sculptor Arno Breker…

Curiously, in France too, Kokoschka’s art struggled to gain acceptance. He is much less well known than his Viennese contemporaries, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. His work is virtually absent from our public collections. The retrospective dedicated to him today by the Museum of Modern Art (MAM) of the City of Paris is thus the first in the capital, after an exhibition in Bordeaux in 1983.

Paintings scratched and stained with fingerprints

Rich in 75 paintings and around forty works on paper, the hanging allows us to measure the strength of his art, hard-hitting, disturbing. From the first rooms, the young Kokschka proved to be a formidable portrait painter, “a ripper of souls”, as one of his friends writes. See this Father Hirsch, with gnarled hands and prominent dentures, painted in 1909 in a style borrowed from Van Gogh. Soon, Kokoschka frees himself from it. He scrapes and wipes his material, affixes fingerprints, scratches, as if to better capture his models.

Kokoschka also writes plays, including Murderer, women’s hope which is scandalous. He illustrates it in the review The Sturm by terrible engravings on the violence of marital relations, which one wonders if they would still be publishable. In 1912, the meeting of the young troublemaker with Alma Mahler, who had just lost her famous husband, sealed the beginning of a tumultuous passion, punctuated by paintings and engravings. When this fell apart, Kokoschka, in despair, enlisted in 1914 in a regiment of dragoons.

A doll bearing the likeness of Alma Mahler

Seriously injured, the artist landed in a sanatorium in Dresden, a city where he would remain for a long time. His art is changing. Its interlacing of vermicular touches evolve, from 1918, into flat areas of tawny hues. In 1925, a contract signed with the gallery owner Paul Cassirer allowed him to travel through Europe and then to North Africa.

The painter devotes himself to the representation of landscapes, seized in overhang, a point of view which becomes his mark. Somewhat commercial canvases which flirt with Dufy in Marseilles, with Turner and Monet in London… More striking are the portraits of animals that Kokoschka paints at the Regent’s Park zoo, like this Tigondevouring an antelope and ready to leap out of the web, a real alter ego of our solitary “wildling”.

Official portraitist of the German and Austrian presidents

In 1935, appalled by the rise of fascism, the artist, deeply pacifist and European, multiplies public positions, posters. At the same time, love picked him up by surprise, in the guise of a young Czech, Olda Palkovska, who will become his wife. She gives her painting shimmering colors, a bucolic climate that contrasts with the dark news. In 1938, the couple left Prague in extremis, just before the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

A refugee in London, Kokoschka, a communist sympathizer, delivers a series of parodic tableaux in garish colors to castigate both theAnschluss that The Unleashing of Nuclear Energy. After the war, the provocateur became an official portrait painter: of the mayor of Vienna and future Austrian president, Theodor Körner; FRG President Theodor Heuss; of former Chancellor Konrad Adenauer (a painting that hung in Angela Merkel’s office for a long time).

With good reason, the exhibition avoided these somewhat conventional figures. To conclude rather with a last “punch” self-portrait, Time, Gentlemen Please. We see the artist naked, preparing to leave the violently lit scene of his painting, to follow a dark demon. The messy touch and the explosive colors have lost none of their youthful vigour. They already announce the art of a Jean-Michel Basquiat in the United States like that, in Germany, of Baselitz and the New Fauves…


A life through the XXe century

1886. Birth of Oskar Kokoschka in Pöchlarn, Austria.

1904. Gifted in drawing, he obtained a scholarship for the School of Applied Arts in Vienna.

1909. First portrait orders.

1916. Seriously wounded in the forehead, he was admitted to a sanatorium in Dresden.

From 1925 to 1929. Travels in Europe and North Africa.

1938. He hastily left Prague for London, where he campaigned against the rise of fascism.

1951. Hailed by major retrospectives, Kokoschka moved to Switzerland, where he died in 1980.

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