Tom Rosenthal

Compelling vision

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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.

Because of their vast size — the triptych has a total length of 817 cms, i.e., about 28 feet and a height of over ten feet — they are rarely shown so that this is a small but perfectly formed exhibition which repays study and the analysis helpfully provided by the brief but illuminating catalogue.

From left to right the three panels are entitled ‘Hades and Persephone’, ‘The Apocalypse’ and ‘Prometheus’ Since OK, like Seilern, greatly admired Rubens, they all three have, while being quintessentially ‘modern’ and of their time, a Rubensian grandeur and ambition of composition. They are neither historical nor academic, but painted with mid-20th-century fluidity and without the heavy impasto effect which OK so admired in his near-contemporary Jack Yeats and used to such great effect in his finest portraits and the best of the city and townscapes at which he excelled and which were, time and again, in reality portraits of his favourite places, be they Prague, London or even Polperro.

It is neither vanity nor solipsism that OK himself appears at the right of Hades and Persephone but a gesture of solidarity with his subject matter. The centre panel is, in every sense, apocalyptic; the four horsemen bestride the sky, Cain slaughters Abel, both sky and sea are dramatically turbulent and the colours are still, half a century later, vivid and fresh. In ‘Prometheus’, OK focuses on the chained, tormented figure of Zeus’s victim and the liver-tearing eagle and, having known OK in the Sixties and Seventies, I have a sneaky suspicion that Prometheus’ stocky physique is not entirely unlike that of the artist who, even in his eighties, radiated physical and mental energy.

This majestic work manages to be baroque in conception, Expressionist in execution and, overall, a very powerful representation of OK’s perception of troubled 20th-century life and his strong humanistic views on both politics and art. He wrote in an essay for his Venice Biennale show in 1952: ‘it is more than ever necessary to strengthen our links with the past but we reach the point at which every individual in his intellectual arrogance makes it his business to push the engine of destruction to the limit’. OK always, in life and art, saw plainly the forces of both destruction and regeneration, and this great triptych, superbly displayed, places before our eyes a unique and compelling vision.